Bryan Caplan  

The Case for Libertarian Friendliness

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My week at the IHS seminar in Chicago returned a long-lived libertarian meme to my field of vision. The meme: Humility. If libertarians want to communicate with a broader audience, we've got to stop being so full of ourselves.

So the story goes. But is it true? As I've said before, all radical critiques of the status quo are fundamentally not humble. After all, most people oppose major changes in the status quo. So you can't really advocate big changes unless you think "I'm right, and almost everyone else is wrong." If you've got a humble way to say that, I'd like to hear it.

Now I agree that libertarians could use a public relations makeover. But what we need isn't more humility, but greater friendliness. Smile. Laugh at yourself. Look for and enjoy the good in people who don't agree with you. Appreciate your good fortune to be alive during the best years humanity has ever had. Live by the wisdom of The Godfather: "I believe in friendship and I am willing to show my friendship first."

If you've got these traits, you don't really need to be humble to reach a broader audience. And frankly, given the personality of the typical libertarian, friendliness will probably come more readily than humility.

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COMMENTS (11 to date)
mjh writes:

How about this instead? "This policy makes sense, and everything else has failed." That makes the message about the policy, instead of the person delivering it. Which, to more humble than the original statement. It's not about me. It's about the policy.

Garrett Schmitt writes:

"I'm right, and almost everyone else is wrong"

Here's my humble attempt at a humble way to say that:

"I know I'm right, and I know you are, too! Wouldn't it be nice if we had a social environment where our ideas could co-exist peacefully, where we didn't have anyone insisting one of us had to be wrong, where we could act upon our own ideas simultaneously without troubling one another? Let's think about a world where we are both right."

Pardon my utopian sentiments, that I think such might work with a healthy dose of smiles and good-natured laughter.

Sol writes:

The question is all wrong, because part of humility is realizing that "I'm right, and almost everyone else is wrong," is exactly the wrong position to start from. For the purposes both of clear thinking and persuasive communication, surely it is much better to start with "I think I have some good ideas." You don't emphasize your differences, you emphasize your commonalities. You don't go on about how you alone are right, you find sensible people who agree with you (even if only in part), and you allow that you might not have all the answers.

So you don't say, "The free market is perfect," you say, "The free market is flawed, but government solutions are at least as flawed." You don't say "Free trade is awesome," you say "A majority of economists think there is good reason to believe free trade is a net plus." You don't say "Eliminate welfare now," you try to promote non-governmental ways to provide a safety net. You don't say, "We should never ever send our military out of our own borders," you say, "I think this latest conflict was a mistake, and we should be more careful next time." Etc.

Let's face it: "I'm right, and almost everyone else is wrong," is the mating cry of the crackpot and the (would be) cult leader.

John Markley writes:

Garrett Schmitt has a good point- libertarianism provides far greater scope for people with very different values to get along. As David Friedman has pointed out, markets (and we can add non-profit community institutions as well) can fulfill many different demands simultaneously; elections and government polices can't. It is very frequently state controls that encourage discord- if everyone must pay for the government schools where science is taught, for instance, the Darwinian and the Creationist cannot amicably agree to disagree. One must pay to support the other.

I would suggest that the best way to show humility is to point out that libertarianism is in accord with the basic moral values almost everyone adheres to in private life. What you need to do is attack the notion that the state is somehow above normal morality- remove that, and most people would become libertarians or near-libertarians by applying their existing moral beliefs about things like violence and taking other people's things. You don't have to say, "You're horribly wrong about a fundamental issue." Instead, say, "You've made a mistake on this issue, and that's led you astray even though you're right about so many other important things." That way, you're not the guy who thinks he knows it all, you're the guy who says he knows one thing that most people don't, albeit a thing with wide-reaching implications, but for the most part affirms traditional moral wisdom on basic questions.

How about "Everybody thinks this for X reason, but actually this is better explained by Y (or not X!)"

No need to drag yourself (and everybody else) into the argument. According to modern cog sci, we're all in it together anyway. But we might as well not start off emphasizing the us-them distinctions, no?

Anittah Patrick writes:

We could all use this reminder; thanks for posting. It reminded me that I've been meaning to post my loving observations regarding the social interactions of a libertarian group in NYC.

Dr. T writes:

I believe that libertarianism is the best form of government for libertarians. Libertarianism cannot work for large groups of unselected people. Therefore, it matters little what we say, whether we are humble or arrogant, or whether we smile or frown: we will not see any significant swing to libertarianism. Even worse, we are unable rein-in continually worsening nanny-statism. My plan is to move to Costa Rica: it's a left-leaning democracy at the national level, but the government seems laissez-faire at the local level.

If libertarianism is only the best form of government for libertarians, then why be libertarian in the first place?

Mr. Econotarian writes:

One of the challenges is that "Libertarians" fetishize liberty without fully understanding the economic science. Research shows that government institutional stability does matter, the question is only what they should do and how far they should go. Similarly, look at anti-immigration Ron Paul supporters.

I try to be as civil and understanding as possible in my econo-political conversations, but recently I saw this on a web site "If you are a true economist, then f*ck off and play with your stock markets and leave actual science to actual scientists."

This was on a web site that deals with science and technology....

Unit writes:

How did Milton Friedman do it? He never got mad, he could have debated with Naomi Klein and still would have kept a smile on his face, all the while looking genial and making a lot of sense....

Troy Camplin writes:

Along these thoughts, I posted the following on my blog a few days ago:

There is something faintly ridiculous in defending a naturally occurring system against artificial constructs. Free market economies are bottom-up, productive, complex, creative systems; all man-made (developed first in the mind of man rather than occurring through human interactions -- such as socialism, welfare statism, fascism, and communism) are top-down, entropic, simplifying, dehumanizing systems. So supporting free market economics -- the form of economy which emerged naturally through voluntary exchange first in northern Italy, and then in the Netherlands and in England -- is not ideological any more than supporting the heliocentric view of the solar system is ideological. Saying "I support free markets" is a lot like saying, "I support the ecosystem," or "I support the planets orbiting the sun," or "I support atomic theory," or "I support evolutionary theory." In other words, expressing support for free market economics is expressing support for a naturally-occurring system. What we really don't like is that free market economies are outside of our control, and we hate to have anything not in our control. The opposition to free markets is all about control and power. We have learned that we can't take that attitude toward the ecosystem -- when will we learn that we can't take that attitude toward the economy, either?

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