Libertarians excel at making the academic case for freedom. Why, then, are libertarian ideas perpetually dismissed?
Most people––libertarians being the exception––tend to ‘buy’ products, services, and especially ideologies with their heart, and use logic to justify their decision post-hoc. As Jim Camp, author of two bestselling books on negotiation argues, “[solely logical arguments are] doomed to fail…because decision-making isn’t logical, it’s emotional, according to the latest findings in neuroscience.”
As libertarians, we need to make the emotional case for liberty, as well as the intellectual case, if we’re going to take liberty mainstream.
Consumers are more likely to buy from a brand they trust than from one they do not, regardless of the quality of the product. Similarly, we need to build brand equity for liberty. One powerful way to do this is to develop strong moral character.
Some libertarians consider liberals and conservatives immoral for not believing in freedom as strongly as we do, but that moral disdain cuts both ways: many liberals openly wonder how someone can care for the poor while proposing reductions in the social safety net. If people believe that we are callous regarding the needs of the least well-off, they will not be receptive to our ideas no matter how good those ideas are.
It is important to both cultivate and showcase strong moral character. We must show that we care for others, not merely with our policy prescriptions but with our day-to-day actions.
Additionally, strong moral character brings down opponents’ walls. In his landmark book How to Win Friends and Influence People, Dale Carnegie argues that one effective way to persuade people is to show respect for their ideas. This works because we are hardwired to reciprocate, and when our audiences feels respect for our ideas they become more open-minded.
It is critical to present arguments that resonate with and persuade our opponents. Unfortunately, many libertarians default to statistics and white papers as their persuasion mode of choice. While marshaling facts is important, facts alone are not enough to win our opponents to our side.
As humans, we are hardwired to listen to and remember stories. Renowned social psychologist Jonathan Haidt argues in The Righteous Mind that, “The human mind is a story processor, not a logic processor.”
Stories stay with us and show us the human side of any argument. The benefits of liberty, in terms of lives transformed, can be immense––we need to showcase this in the form of stories in order to persuade the most people. Stories like those of Aicheria Bell and Achan Agit, who filed a lawsuit so they could be allowed to braid hair without becoming criminals, are powerful reminders of the human benefits of liberty.
Conversely, stories about those the state punishes can highlight the violent side of government more effectively than can statistics. The stories of Tamir Rice and Eric Garner are viral reminders of the dangers of monopolized violence enforced by twitchy-fingered police.
Stories can also serve to rebut the stereotypes that progressives and conservatives hold regarding libertarians. Progressives often regard libertarians as selfish plutocrats, so stories about how liberty helps the poor can combat this––the dangers of the drug war and the concurrent benefits of legalization are also helpful examples.
Reading the Room
In 2014, open-carry advocates marched into stores and restaurants in Texas with their semi-automatic weapons on full display. The videos from the event were probably endearing to libertarians, but scary to most Americans: hardened men and women with long rifles and bandolier belts. Rather than move people towards gun rights, such demonstrations actively deter people.
A majority of Americans are in the middle of the road on gun rights. In 2016, according to Gallup, 38% of Americans wanted stricter gun laws and only 15% wanted less strict gun laws. Most Americans worry about kids getting access to parents’ weapons, about suicides, and most especially about mass shootings. In this atmosphere, dressing like a mass shooter is more likely to turn our audience away than it is to persuade them.
However, when we recognize where most Americans are coming from, we can address their concerns authentically rather than with tone-deaf demonstrations. When we understand where most people stand on gun rights, we can tell stories of how guns save lives. We can move our audience incrementally, both on gun rights and on other issues.
Big brands realize the power of repeat buyers: if someone buys from Apple once, they are much more likely to do so again. As such, we don’t need to transform our audience into libertarians overnight. If we can convince them to take the first small step towards liberty, they are much more likely to take another step.
If we continue to ignore the fact that most people make decisions emotionally, then we are doomed to perpetual marginalization as a movement. If, however, we can make authentic emotional connections with our audience while maintaining strong intellectual arguments, we can rapidly take liberty mainstream.