They say if you’re going to criticize something, unless you intend to do so out of cynicism or disrespect, to be prepared to answer those criticisms with solutions. I’ve offered simple alternatives in lieu of the criticisms of “ambush interviews” and Robin Hooding. But there is a bigger problem I want to point out. One that goes deeper than a few alternatives. One that I’ve struggled to pinpoint in a clear, single ‘pitch.’ Libertarianism has an image problem. An image problem that stunts recruitment and creates a bad taste in people’s mouths when they’re presented with good ideas. That problem doesn’t stem from its principles, and it doesn’t stem from state propaganda or brainwashing. It stems from libertarian culture. The way we think and act. Rather than just complaining, I want to attempt to go over a bit of scientific research and some intellectual ideas to explain that problem. At the very least, you may learn about something you’ve never heard before. At best, you’ll be challenged, maybe even offended, but in a way that promotes growth.
Contest is a part of human life everywhere that human life is found. In war and in games, in work and in play, physically, intellectually, and morally, human beings match themselves with or against one another. Struggle appears inseparable from human life, and contest is a particular focus or mode of interpersonal struggle, an opposition that can be hostile but need not be, for certain kinds of contest may serve to sublimate and dissolve hostilities and to build friendship and cooperation. -Walter J. Ong, Fighting For Life
The Wrong Expectations
To understand the issue within libertarian thinking, we have to dig deeper than looking at simple logical fallacies. Logic is a good starting point in everything, but it is always only the beginning. In this case, we must also start thinking about cognitive biases and heuristics. Starting with a simple formula; pluralistic ignorance + projection = false consensus.
Pluralistic ignorance is a cognitive bias in which members of a group may reject a certain principle or belief, but they all assume that every other member accepts it. Individual members will then publicly promote
the idea, under the presumption that it must be correct because everyone accepts it. For example, a group of college students that drink cheap beer and act like they enjoy it in order to gain acceptance from their peers. But in truth everyone thinks it tastes like piss water.
Projection is a theory we all know about. It happens when someone attributes their own characteristics to others. It’s usually a defense mechanism to deny the self. For example, a person who doesn’t think for himself or do his own research may say everyone who disagrees with him doesn’t think for themselves or do their own research.
When you mix pluralistic ignorance with projection, you get very interesting results. Doing so creates the false consensus effect. It is a cognitive bias that starts when people overestimate their own beliefs and assume that they are the majority opinion within a particular group. They then think that because their beliefs are the majority, they must be right. In philosophy, this is related to naive realism (or direct realism). Naive realism is when someone assumes that their perception of the world provides them with objective information about it. In other words, what they see and then interpret within their own minds, must be correct.
To put the false consensus effect in context, let’s use the example of central banking. Bob watches a few Ron Paul speeches about the Federal Reserve. Inspired to know more, he watches the documentary “The American Dream” on YouTube and then moves on to read, “What Has Government Done To Our Money” by Murray Rothbard and “End The Fed” by Ron Paul. He then comes to the conclusion that centralized banking is bad, and fractional banking is bad. Because Bob got all of his information from libertarians, he then assumes that all libertarians also disapprove of centralized and fractional banking. From there, he takes comfort in the fact that all libertarians agree with him on this issue, therefore it must be correct. The benefits of a central bank or fractional banking no longer matter, Bob is no longer concerned with opposition because he perceives himself to be firmly planted with the majority, even if he’s never bothered to find out.
In everyday scenarios, the false consensus effect leads to incorrect assumptions about what other people think and believe. It supports having incorrect expectations about others. Scroll through a libertarian forum online with these ideas in mind; pluralistic ignorance, projection, and false consensus, and you’ll start to notice a lot of it. A lot of insistence that one point of view is the “correct” answer when there is clearly no correct answer in any case. Or even worse, when it’s not even a political or moral issue. But we’ll get back to that later.
In the book “How I Found Freedom in an Unfree World,” Harry Browne, a former libertarian scholar and Libertarian Party presidential candidate, goes over fourteen ‘traps’ in ways of thinking that prevent a person from becoming free. One of those traps is called the identity trap. If you expect another person to be something they aren’t, know something they don’t, or think in the way that you do, you’re falling into the identity trap. For instance, trying to get someone to accept the non-aggression principle and expecting them to accept it after a simple explanation. And if they don’t, that must mean there’s something wrong with them. Even if they just find it to be as useless as the ten commandments. In that case, you’re trying to fit a circular peg into a square hole, it doesn’t work. If the NAP doesn’t resonate with someone, that doesn’t mean they reject peace, it means they reject the notion of the NAP as an objective standard. Nothing you ever say or do will ever change another person’s mind, this is another point we’ll return to later. For now, Browne simply suggests that you can only tell others what you believe in, if they choose to let that affect them, that’s their choice, not yours.
Brown also gives four principles to follow in order to avoid the identity trap. One, understand that you are a unique individual. Your ideas are yours, there is no reason anyone else should ever accept them. Two, each individual is acting from his own knowledge in ways he believes will bring him happiness. Austrian economics teaches that the values people place on objects or ideas can not be compared or added to create one ‘meta-value.’ If someone does not value your libertarian beliefs, get over it, it doesn’t make them wrong, it makes them an individual. Third, you have to treat people in accordance with their own beliefs to get what you want out of them. Want to be released from the system of government to create your own community? Telling believers of this government system they’re wrong won’t help you get there. Fourth, you view the world subjectively. Your beliefs may be right for you, or not and you’ll find yourself to be 100% wrong in six months. Either way, your beliefs will never be an objective truth, and there will never be an objectively correct answer.
There’s a common thread within Harry Browne’s advice. Individualism. Libertarians often espouse individualism a great deal. Anarchist theories like ‘human action’ and ‘spontaneous order’ support the idea of individualism. But how many conversations have you been in where you, or someone else, mentioned a celebrity and the other said, “Yeah, but isn’t he a reality hating, non-bathing, socialist, Marxist, neck-bearded, cuckold, commie?” Said in jest, it may be simple fun, but how often do you see libertarians very seriously rejecting people, either in life or media professionals, because they have one “wrong” idea? When someone says to me that some guy doesn’t “get it,” I’m usually thinking that the person talking to me is the one who doesn’t “get it.” Using a philosophy of individualism to reject or put down the beliefs of others is entirely contradictory, even if that other person is a collectivist.
The Wrong Approach
Truly understanding individualism and applying it to everyday life is a constant practice. It requires seeing the individual qualities within everyone and understanding them on a social level. If you find that you struggle with understanding social context and cues, this next theory is especially for you. In order to really understand individualism, and really understand that other people are unique and act outside of your world and influence, you’re going to have to exercise your theory of mind.
According to Wikipedia, theory of mind is, “The ability to attribute mental states – beliefs, intents, desires, pretending, knowledge, etc. – to oneself and others to understand that others have beliefs, desires, and intentions that are different from one’s own.”
Alex believes taxation is for the greater good and required under the social contract. A typical libertarian response would say that first, Alex is objectively wrong due to a few definitions and direct comparisons
between taxation and theft. They then might think that Alex believes what he does due to public school indoctrination, mass media propaganda, or a mix of those two and many other things. Most libertarians would flatly reject that someone believes in the social contract as a greater good. There must always be an outside actor forcing that belief on what would otherwise be a “rational” person. An inability to see and accept another person’s beliefs as a rational choice, as an intellectual choice made with individual thoughts, is a symptom of lacking theory of mind.
Research shows that theory of mind can be improved by reading fiction because it portrays the inner feelings and thoughts of multiple characters on single subjects. However, you can’t deeply develop theory of mind without self-analysis. If you don’t understand yourself, how can you possibly understand others? For example, if you copied your ‘personal values’ from a book, then you can never pretend to understand the values of others. In that case, you don’t have the experience or knowledge to understand what values are. If you don’t understand what values are, and if you don’t understand the values of others, you will most certainly never play a role in changing the values of others.
A problem I see in libertarian culture is that many people take a few philosophical theories and act like they are proven mathematical formulas. (Sometimes literally.) I see people ditch their former selves in order to manufacture a new personality that perfectly adopts the values of libertarianism under the assumption that libertarianism (or Austrian economics) is a perfect, objective answer to everything.
In “Defining Your Core Values” Brett and Kate McKay explain why it is important to develop your own values through your own internal compass.
When you don’t know or you haven’t clearly defined your values, you end up drifting along in life. Instead of basing your decisions on an internal compass, you make choices based on circumstances and social pressures. You end up trying to fulfill other people’s expectations instead of your own. And before you know it, life has passed you by and you haven’t even started to live. Trying to be someone else and living without core values is down right exhausting and leaves you feeling empty and shiftless. Conversely, living a life in line with your core values brings purpose, direction, happiness, and wholeness.
If your values don’t come from internal analysis, but from books or from your libertarian peers, you’re living by something that isn’t yours. And that can be as equally exhausting as having no values. In fact, it’s truer that you’ll end up trying to live up to the expectations others have for you (which may be wrong based on the identity trap) instead of your own.
Taking on the principles of libertarianism can be exhilarating the first time you’re introduced. I spent four years obsessing over every live Mises Institute class and every book recommended by Ron Paul, Tom Woods, or Lew Rockwell. But seeing others not accept those same principles became frustrating. I didn’t just want to share what I was learning, I wanted to give everyone the secrets to the universe. Even though I didn’t have them. That frustration mixed with the fact that I was a walking billboard for the words of others made talking to people about libertarianism difficult.
Think about it from the other side. A newly born anarcho-communist just finished reading “Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution” by Peter Kropotkin. They’re excited to espouse the ideas of cooperation and mutual aid as a superior form of society. They tell you about Kropotkin’s scientific expedition and pre-feudal societies. Both of which “prove” their point. But all they’re doing is repeating simple talking points that have no relation to you or anything you care about. It’s mind numbing. You’re not only bored, but you’re being told that what you believe is a morally repugnant position based on the propaganda of the capitalist class.
In this case, you’re much less likely to care about the findings of Kropotkin and how you can apply that to your own beliefs. In fact, you’re likely to dismiss all ideas found within anarcho-communist literature altogether. That’s called the backfire effect, and it’s probably more common than you think.
The backfire effect is when hearing contradictory evidence to their beliefs, people’s beliefs get stronger. We all have a natural instinct to protect our beliefs. When someone challenges them or blindsides us with new information, we stubbornly stick to our original beliefs and sometimes desperately seek out any small amount of information that may provide comfort. The internet has made it very easy to find information that agrees with us so that we don’t have to critically think about the information that disagrees with us.
Liberals show the backfire effect when they’re given information on the economic effects of government funding. Conservatives when given information on the dangers of the drug war, or any war for that matter. Libertarians may experience it when given information about how gold is a bad investment and a terrible store of wealth. Granted, a preference for gold is far less dangerous than economic leeching and waging unnecessary war, but the particular issues aren’t the point. The point is that everyone experiences the backfire effect, without exception.
If we dig a little deeper with the backfire effect, things get much more interesting. Libertarians are more often obsessed with the literature that confirms their own beliefs. They read libertarian authors more than liberals and conservatives read liberal and conservative authors. So they’re already more vulnerable to confirmation bias. However, what if we consider that because of this, libertarians share more literature and links, and that helps create the backfire effect for the other side? Many believe that sharing a lot of information is a way to advertise greater wisdom and credibility. First of all, reading more does not make one smarter. Second, considering what we’ve gone over, what if plainly sharing information only made things worse? Give the opposition opposing “facts” (according to the perspective of your sources) and you help solidify their beliefs due to the backfire effect.
To think about this more in-depth, we can look at holocaust deniers. In “Denying History: Who Says the Holocaust Never Happened and Why do They Say It?” authors Michael Shermer and Alex Grobman note:
Most Holocaust deniers are very knowledgeable about very specific aspects of the Holocaust – a gas chamber door that cannot lock, the temperature at which Zyklon-B evaporates or the lack of a metal grid over the peephole on a gas chamber – so that anyone who is not versed in these specifics cannot properly question and answer their claims.
In many cases, those who deny the existence of the holocaust, know more about it than the experts. Deniers gain their expertise through years of confirmation bias and backfire effect. The best, most practiced deniers have the perfect answer to everything. They may be able to out debate anyone about the holocaust. But could they convince anyone to believe as they believe? Maybe a very small amount, but certainly not a lot of people fall for it.
The point here is indeed to compare libertarians to holocaust deniers. But that is in no way to suggest that libertarians are wrong about anything in particular. The issue here isn’t right and wrong, it’s about how we are perceived. And let’s be honest, the image the average person has about libertarians in their head is very similar to their image of holocaust deniers. Libertarians put a lot of time and practice into having the perfect answer to everything. Even worse, they think they actually have the perfect answer to everything.
If you ask a libertarian about abortion they will almost always be pro-choice and have what they perceive to be a very ‘logical’ explanation as to why that position is the only correct answer. But ask them on a personal level, put aside the politics, and it’s about 50/50. On vaccinations, libertarians will very heavily reject the idea that they should be required based on “the use of force,” which they believe to be an objective standard. But again, take the conversation more personally, and they start to recognize that unvaccinated people can be a danger to the young and weak.
Again, this has nothing to do with the issues and their particular “answers.” I have talked to members of many political thoughts on their most important issues, doing nothing but asking and listening. While I agree with libertarians almost 100% of the time, there is no one that tows the party line with a greater patriotism and fervor than libertarians.
Loyalty to the Collective
The second you have an opinion that does not fall in line with “libertarian values,” you are officially deemed “not libertarian.” I can’t count how many times I’ve been called a leftist or an undercover fed for questioning a libertarian idea. I’ve even been called those things for suggesting that there is an image problem within libertarianism. (I’m sure someone will do it after reading the first paragraph of this very article.)
In order to be accepted by the libertarian community, you must think and act in a certain way. If you disagree with the wrong thing, you will be looked upon with suspicion.
Jonathan Mead, writer at Paid to Exist, asked his male friends what the one thing they felt was missing in their lives that held them back from becoming a man. With an overwhelming majority, the responses had
to do with a painful absence of brotherhood or mentorship. A stereotypical male relationship may revolve around getting drunk, chasing women, and watching football. Taking an interest in these activities is often only a way to gain acceptance within the group. Just like the college kids who drink cheap beer mentioned as an example of pluralistic ignorance.
In order to be accepted by the libertarian community, you must act in a certain way. Someone who doesn’t like bitcoin, thinks the NAP is impractical, hates guns, and is bored with stroking his or her own ego by
repeating libertarian talking points amongst friends? Not a real libertarian. Maybe this is why the libertarian community lacks camaraderie. Those within it are either wrapped up in drama or are really good at putting on the right mask in order to remain “libertarian enough.”
I don’t dislike bitcoin, but I’ve put a lot of effort into talking about its failures and downsides. Every time I do, I’m answered with typical answers from a 3×5 notecard, as Tom Woods likes to say. Cody Wilson tried to have the Bitcoin Foundation shut down (his site has since been taking down) because they had a conversation with the New York Legislature that eventually led to the dismissal of the “BitLicense.” Their communicating with a government agency is what made them officially not libertarian, and therefore, according to Wilson, they had to go. When I said that the Bitcoin Foundation’s decisions have no effect on bitcoin, and that bitcoin is not a political tool and that there is no reason that it should remain politically pure, he responded with a small fit of rage. When I suggested that bitcoin has not lived up to its own standards from the beginning, I was given links to joke websites about how bitcoin has died a hundred times. An irrelevant response straight off the 3×5 libertarian response card.
The insistence on purity from libertarians is not just about vetting whether people are “libertarians” or not. It’s become a moral decision. It’s an isolation trick straight out of the Molyneux handbook. “If you disagree with me, you disagree with the non-aggression principle. You are therefore a physical danger to me and I consider you my enemy.” This is an awful way of thinking that has harmed countless relationships within the libertarian community. And it has most definitely prevented a very large amount of people from entering into, staying within, or even being curious about the actual beliefs. It’s hard to see when you’re entrenched in the libertarian world, but take a step back to see the whole picture and it’s clear that once in the club, libertarians start to lose the ability to think for themselves. Once they’re in, it becomes discouraged through a very heavy form of peer pressure.
I once showed Bryan Sovryn why every single point on his “Anti-Google” page is totally wrong. He agreed it was all wrong once we had gone over the reasons why, but has refused to do so to anyone else. He talks a big game about how he’s willing to take back incorrect statements, but will not do so when most libertarians are against big tech companies like Google. Bryan eventually shrugged the issue off as unimportant. He said what’s important is that people are conscious about thinking about privacy online. Maybe he fears going against the typical libertarian opinion. His show is partially dependent upon pandering to technophobe conspiracy, no matter how untrue. Similar to Alex Jones, a lot of confirmation bias research goes into creating one particular narrative that has been meticulously built and sculpted for the public. Neither Alex or Bryan can just correct themselves, they’re too deep.
The deeper you get into libertarian culture, the less autonomy you have over your own thinking and beliefs. There’s no flexibility in fighting for what you believe in when you’re restricted by purity semantics. In fact, research shows that when most people lack autonomy, they lack the ability to act or make decisions altogether. But if you are going to do “activist work,” a large part of that is maintaining a certain pure libertarian image. If you don’t maintain that, you lose support. Just think about how quickly Gary Johnson lost support over baking cakes for gay people. There may be other “purity issues” with Johnson, but none so viral or as influential as the cake debacle.
Summarizing the Larger Point
Before we go any further, there’s a lot of information here to summarize and put together. I’ve done my best to repaint some big picture ideas I have going on in my head and if this is all too confusing or convoluted, use the comment section. For now, here’s the summary so far.
Projecting your personal beliefs onto libertarians and assuming that they’re the majority opinion, and therefore correct (false consensus effect), can lead to incorrect expectations of others (identity trap). Being disappointed with your expectations, when you’re expecting your peers to agree with you 100% of the time, can lead to a great deal of frustration. Solving this matter comes down to developing theory of mind. This will help you to better understand that people are unique individuals and have different interests and values. Even if you belong to the same group. When members of a group have copied their beliefs and values from other figures (Rothbard, Ron Paul, etc.), it can lead to exhaustion and even more frustration. If you try to convince others that their beliefs or values are wrong because they’re not “by the book” or not technically correct due to some colloquial choices in words, it leads to further unnecessary frustration.
Someone who argues on the basis of purity and “by the book” information has a greater chance of initiating the backfire effect in the person they are talking to. That is, the person they are talking to becomes more solidified in their beliefs the more that someone talks about how they are wrong. A comparison can be made to holocaust deniers. Deniers often know more than experts regarding the holocaust and have more information on hand to back up their claims than a typical scholar. The way they argue and the way they insist through aggressive tactics of “This is correct! This is the information that’s important!” comes across as desperate. Those desperate arguments do not get attention and deniers are labeled as crazy without further consideration.
The more you insist on informational purity and correcting people on every little definition and semantic, the less credible you are. And by extension, the less credible your information has from the perspective of the non-libertarian. Purity arguments harm personal relationships and weaken social connections as well. Calling out people who are not “libertarian enough” all the time, labeling them as leftists, statists or feds because they disagree with one thing restricts autonomy of thought within libertarianism and not only destroys community but discourages further activism. It then replaces it with a small, ineffective group that is more like a cult than a movement.
The simple (but not complete) answer to all of this is theory of mind. Make an effort to understand the individuality and nuances of other people and you start to appreciate their differences rather than fight them because they’re not “perfect.” This allows for autonomy and new thought within libertarianism that could help it grow. Breaking out of the 3×5 libertarian notecard allows for flexibility, growth, and magnetism. It means the culture becomes more attractive, and therefore its principles gain more attention. It’s not the principles that are holding libertarianism back, people accept the core values, it’s the people that are holding this philosophy back.
To make that simple answer more practical, I want to go over deep canvassing. A method of activist outreach that has multiple scientific studies showing it’s the most effective way to get people to change their minds. It relates to the above points because it not only reinforces the ideas that libertarian recruitment has been all wrong, and that its culture can be very off-putting, but it also provides an avenue to practice your ability to help cultivate a better community while doing effective activism. It’s a win-win.
David Fleischer of the LA LGBT Center discovered deep canvassing while doing Proposition 8 outreach in California. He noticed one simple thing, people were more open to change when approached in a nonjudgmental way. Activists were much more effective when they listened to personal stories, and even told their own. Instead of providing “rational arguments” and telling people why they should think in a particular way. The typical libertarian way of arguing makes people feel like they’re being attacked. You can’t connect with someone, understand their values, or help them understand yours if you’re attacking them. You can if you’re listening and having a decent conversation. Without judging their beliefs or use of words.
Yes, deep canvassing can go both ways. If you talk to a liberal for 10 minutes on a personal level, you may walk away a little more liberal without having an effect on them. That’s the risk. That doesn’t mean you should run home and Google Rothbard quotes like a catholic girl who brushed against a guys leg and ran to the bible to help rid herself of impure thoughts. It just means you’ve found something that may warrant further discussion and exploration. Maybe you’ve found something you disagree with libertarians about, there’s certainly no harm in that.
I use deep canvassing as my final point because it is very hard to change the self. It is, however, very easy to implement new methods to achieve external goals. Consciously using a method as a tool to help people understand your personal values in a way that helps you understand their values runs in line with everything I mentioned above.
If you try to understand others, you won’t project your own beliefs on them. By speaking with other libertarians with understanding, you’ll learn more about libertarianism instead of just assuming your perspective is the one correct answer. You won’t have incorrect expectations of others, which will save a lot of frustration. Exploring the minds of others will help develop theory of mind and give you a better idea of how to learn from them or teach them. It will help you explore the values of others as well as develop and refine your own unique values. It will make your conversations more holistic and attractive, which will help the attractiveness of your positions. With practice and time, you’ll develop more and more autonomy in the way you think which will not only help you become more active but make the libertarian community and its ideas more attractive as a whole.
It’s just a thought, maybe I’m wrong. Let me know your thoughts in the comments below (SFK excluded), or you can email me directly at glover (dot) ethan (at) gmail (dot) com.