Friday, 21 November 2008

Brian Micklethwait: Don't dilute your arguments, and don't bundle them together

Last Friday evening, blogger and former Libertarian Alliance pamphleteer Brian Micklethwait addressed the Oxford Libertarian Society on the subject of "Propagandising for Liberty". The video of the talk, including the Q&A session at the end, is embedded below. It can also be viewed on Google Video.



Brian's talk was full of interesting anecdotes and digressions, and if you've got the time it's well worth watching in full. What follows is a summary of what I thought were the most important "take-home" points about how to spread libertarian ideas, as well as some other highlights.

What makes libertarians different?

Early on in his talk, Brian argued against using words with ambiguous meanings (a theme he returned to later—see the very end of this post):
[02:03] My only complaint about this evening's event is that you called it "Propagandising for Liberty"…I personally don't like using liberty as a synonym for libertarianism because almost everybody in the western political tradition believes in "liberty".
So what is it that distinguishes libertarians from other believers in "liberty"?
[04:24] We attach enormous importance to the idea of consent—more, by the way, than we do to the idea of harm…[Libertarians] often talk about the principle of harm (you can do what you like so long as you don't harm others). That's not right. Consent trumps harm, as is the case with, say, a violent boxing match. When you take part in a boxing match you are consenting to the possibility of serious harm being done to you…[L]ibertarians in practice don't believe in the harm principle, but I sometimes hear them using it without thinking it through…In fact, if you take the principle of harm seriously, you open the door to a world of government intervention…so it's a word to avoid.

Don't dilute your arguments

He then went on to set out his "first rule of propaganda":
[06:38] [I]f you want to persuade somebody to believe in something, the first step is to say it—all of it—to say what you want him to believe. And that may sound a crushingly obvious proposition, but it is very surprising how many people, although they might dismiss that as obvious and true, actually don't do that and conduct themselves in actual arguments in a quite different way from that.
According to Brian, many libertarians believe that in order to be effective propagandists, they must "dilute" their ideas, that is, to argue for watered-down versions of their preferred policies:
[08:43] It's rather like a drug dealer is supposed to behave—you give them a "gateway drug". The same sort of principle—a sort of "gateway argument" principle—is being followed…I think that is a very foolish way to behave—but why do people do this? I can think of several possible reasons why they might believe in diluted arguments as opposed to straightforward, honest, in-your-face statements of the entire principle. And I think probably the biggest reason…is electoral politics.
Brian concedes that standing for election on a radical libertarian manifesto would get you nowhere, but he argues that the rules of electoral politics do not apply when you are propagandising for abstract ideas. When listening to a politician, people are constantly screening for things they don't agree with, because they have in mind the scenario in which the politician gets elected and enacts their proposals. People are more open to hearing radical ideas from non-politicians, Brian argues, because there is no immediate prospect of those ideas being put into practice. Politicians must constantly be concerned with whether their audience agrees with what they're saying; as propagandists for abstract ideas, we can afford the luxury of adopting controversial positions and engaging people in debate. Outside the electoral context, there is no need for libertarians to moderate their positions. It may actually be more effective to present the most "extreme" version of a given idea. Firstly, setting out the most radical proposal expands the scope of the policy debate, and so makes smaller steps in a libertarian direction look moderate by comparison. Secondly, such arguments have a "shock value" which makes them memorable.

My personal experience is particularly supportive of this last point. When I first came to Oxford, I was a paid-up member of the Labour Party. I turned up to my first Oxford Hayek Society event expecting to disagree with most of what was said. The talk, given by Professor Pascal Salin, was entitled "The Ethical Roots of Liberalism". It was, as I remember it, a very "extreme" (i.e. thoroughgoing) presentation of "natural rights" libertarianism and Austrian school methodology. To the Blairite social democrat I was at that time, Salin's talk had tremendous "shock value". I still have a log of an IM conversation which makes this point abundantly clear. In it, I describe Salin as "this militantly liberal French guy", and mention that "a lot of what he said was utter ****". I was, however, impressed with his logical consistency—that he simultaneously advocated both economic and personal freedom. Salin's talk by no means persuaded me to become a libertarian, but it certainly piqued my curiosity in a way that a talk in favour of a 2% tax cut never could have. By the start of my second term, that spark of curiosity had led me to devour huge quantities of libertarian propaganda, and indeed to adopt libertarianism as a political philosophy. Two years later, I'm still not sure I'd agree with everything Salin said (I'm ambivalent about the concept of natural rights, and I think Bryan Caplan has it pretty much right on the Austrian school), but the point is that it was the radicalism of the talk that made me sit up and pay attention, and got me started on the road to becoming a libertarian.

Infiltration is possible

Back to Brian's talk. His next big point was that, although it is important to control your own media, it is sometimes appropriate to try to introduce your ideas into places where somebody else controls the agenda. He cited the late development economist Peter Bauer as a good example of someone achieving success in this manner.

Radicals don't have to be angry

The next big theme of Brian's talk was the prevalent but unthinking assumption that people with "extreme" views are necessarily obnoxious, and that only moderates are capable of engaging in well-mannered, reasoned discussion. He held up Professor James Tooley as the living embodiment of the idea that it is perfectly possible to hold extreme views (in Tooley's case, that private schools are more effective than state schools in developing countries) and at the same time to be a model of politeness and academic integrity.

Brian then went on to advocate the "conversation" model of propaganda over the "bombardment" model:
[26:22] I think the word "propaganda" suggests some kind of blaring forth—shouting, often electronically assisted—of an agreed truth to which the masses will be subjected. I think that's what a lot of people actually mean by the word propaganda, and why they don't like the word. I use the word in its literal Latin sense: "that which should be propagated", which I do not think necessitates bad manners or excessive decibels.

Separation vs bundling

Next came my favourite section of the talk, which was about the advantages of separating out different arguments (and indeed, different parts of arguments):
[35:38] There is nothing more annoying than having a discussion with somebody who attributes to you some opinions you hold, but some opinions that you do not hold…and says, "You believe all of that, don't you?"…Don't do it to yourself—don't bundle your ideas all together and say, "You have to accept all of these otherwise you're the spawn of Satan," and don't bundle together all of [your opponent's] ideas, and say, "Because of that one thing you've told me I know everything else you think, and that's rubbish." That's foolishness.
[36:47] One of the reasons that I liked doing pamphlets was simply that each pamphlet could contain a separate idea…[38:22] I can remember times when I would arrive at a conference with a bag…full of Libertarian Alliance pamphlets—about half a dozen copies of each one—and I would cover three tables with [them]. And people, including people who didn't like all of libertarianism by any means, would see things they liked.
[40:56] Don't make everyone listen to everything you have to say. If you do that, they won't listen to anything you have to say. Separate out the notions, let them pick and choose…

Libertarians at universities

The final section of Brian's talk focused on patience and optimism. Propaganda can take a long time to have an effect, and so patience is generally a virtue. However, he argued that universities are a special case where impatience pays off, and where the only real crime is to do nothing. In relatively closed communities like universities, messages "bounce around", and people often receive the same message from several different directions:
[49:40] [Universities are] great amplifiers of ideas if you can only get your ideas into them in the first place.
Brian argues that even a very small group of libertarians at a university can make an important contribution because of this amplification effect. This is why the efforts of Students for Freedom to set up societies around the UK are so important.

Libertarianism by the back door

I think the most interesting point to come out of the Q&A session was that libertarians don't have to get themselves elected to have an impact on policy:
[1:07:40] Politics is not only finding out what the public wants and telling them that you're going to give it to them. There is also the process that comes afterwards…
[1:12:08] The Adam Smith Institute, during the Thatcher years and John Major's time as well—and perhaps also during David Cameron's forthcoming government if that's what happens—they were very good at looking at the world from the point of view of politicians (also from the point of view of free-marketeers) and saying, "What are your problems? What are you trying to do? Maybe we've got a policy that will help you."
[1:14:08] You get this demand for ideas. Ideas are not just put out there—supplied to people, depending on how cleverly you propagandise—they're also sucked in to political decision-making, and often in a way that is out of all proportion to the number of people who merely believe these things or have studied them.
[1:16:57] In other words, there is a future for libertarian ideas if you separate them out and present the relevant ones to politicians.

Other highlights

Brian on soundbites:
[19:54] People who aren't eloquent hate soundbites, but they're jolly good things from a propaganda point of view if you can do them.
On the "Devil's Kitchen" approach to propaganda (in response to a question):
[54:04] I'm in several minds about that. One of the things I really loathe is fake anger…Pretending to be angry about everything I despise and warn you strongly against…On the other hand, there's something to be said, if you really are angry, [for] saying so.
On exaggeration:
[57:13] One of the things I really don't like is libertarians who confuse misguided policies—rather annoying policies—with absolutely catastrophically evil, horrible policies. I'm talking about the kind of libertarian who says something like, "There is no difference between Gordon Brown and Adolf Hitler." Yes there is. Don't say things like that—it just isn't true.
On technology:
[1:00:45] [Gadgets] are done really well, and that's because they're considered not really very important by the politicians, thank goodness. If the politicians cared about digital photography you can forget about cheap digital cameras—they wouldn't exist. Lucky is the trade which the politicians consider to be beneath their contempt…[1:01:53] We've now got politicians who are fascinated by the internet, God help us, and they're going to start controlling it (or trying to).
On vague political rhetoric:
[1:04:35] Electoral politics thrives on using words that mean literally as many different things as there are people in the room hearing it. A classic electoral word would be something like…I'm just making something up…change—now there's a word…Put it this way: I would rather be disagreed [with] by somebody who understood what I thought and what I'd said than to be agreed with by somebody because he didn't understand what I actually thought and said. I'm interested in spreading actual ideas, as opposed to merely spraying a kind of benign mist over everybody and the only clear notion is "Vote for me". That I find deeply dull as an activity and…very undignified.

1 comment:

libertarianalliance said...

I've just discovered this and shared it on facebook.