Brian Micklethwait: Propagandising for Liberty
Updated: Jan 2
This is part of a series of blogposts republishing previous events of the Oxford Hayek Society and the Oxford Libertarian Society. The original blogpost, written by Andrew R. Gimber, was published here.
On Friday 14 November 2008, Brian Micklethwait, a libertarian blogger and former pamphleteer for the Libertarian Alliance, addressed the Oxford Libertarian Society on the subject of 'Propagandising for Liberty'.
Brian gave a fascinating and engaging talk, full of interesting and entertaining anecdotes and digressions. He argued that libertarians should:
clearly define their ideas, especially 'liberty';
stray away from using vague terms;
not dilute their libertarianism;
not bundle arguments together;
converse with, rather than bombard, their opponents;
maintain their intellectual virtue, eschewing exaggeration;
be patient and optimistic, remembering that libertarians can influence policymaking without being elected.
Sadly, time has lost our audio-recording of this event. (Please get in touch if you have it stored somewhere!) Thanks to Andrew R. Gimber's detailed and thoughtful write-up, edited below, we have however preserved the contents of Brian's talk.
What do we mean by Liberty?
Brian argued that libertarians must be clear in their messages, avoiding words with ambiguous or disputed meanings. In fact, he questioned our title of his talk, arguing that notions of 'liberty' are unhelpful when "almost everybody in the Western political tradition believes in 'liberty'.
For Brian, a libertarian concept of 'liberty' is distinguished in the importance libertarians attach to the value of consent over the harm principle. Libertarians must allow individuals to consent to be harmed, as boxers do in a boxing match. Many libertarians stray into saying that everyone should be willing to do as they please without harming others, but this is short-sighted:
"In fact, if you take the principle of harm seriously, you open the door to a world of government intervention."
The use of vague words stretches beyond just the word 'liberty', especially in the realm of electoral politics:
"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…change.
"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."
The First Rule of Propaganda: Don't Dilute Your Ideas
Early on in the talk, Brian set out what he called his "first rule of propaganda": don't dilute your ideas.
"[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."
In Brian's experience, many libertarians - while agreeing that such a rule is obvious - in practice tend not to state their beliefs so outrightly. Moreover, they believe that in order to be effective propagandists, they must 'dilute' their ideas - that is, to argue for watered-down, more politically-respectable versions of their political theories and preferred policies.
Brian compared such libertarians to drug dealers, offering recruits 'gateway drugs' before the real thing. He traces the problem to electoral politics and the need to appease voters by chiming with their pre-existing moral intuitions, worldviews and policy outlooks.
When listening to a politician, voters 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. In fact, Brian hypothesised that people are more open to hearing radical ideas from non-politicians because there is no immediate prospect of those ideas being put into practice.
So while standing for election on a radical libertarian manifesto would be unpopular, the rules of electoral politics do not apply when libertarians propagandise for abstract ideas outside the realm of electoral politics. Libertarians can afford to be bold: there is no need to moderate their positions.
In fact, Brian claimed it may 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.
Nevertheless, while libertarians should not dilute their ideas, Brian argued that although soundbites are unsatisfying to the eloquent, "they're jolly good things...if you can do them."
Brian extolled the advantages of separating out different arguments - and indeed, different parts of arguments - rather than bundling them together. It is easier for an opponent to agree with a libertarian's arguments if the opponent is not made to feel as though they must accept all of the libertarian's arguments or none of them.
Indeed, Brian argued that it is often ineffective to overwhelm people with many different ideas:
"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."
"One of the reasons that I liked doing pamphlets was simply that each pamphlet could contain a separate idea."
On the reverse side of the coin, a libertarian that bundles all their opponents' arguments together, or judges the worth of all of their opponent's argument solely on the basis of one poor argument they made, will make their opponent feel as if they have been misunderstood, rather than challenged. Propagandists must separate out both their own arguments and those of their opponents.
Conversation or Bombardment?
Brian contrasted two different models of propagandising - the 'conversation model', where propaganda is disseminated during a naturally-flowing conversation, and the 'bombardment model', in which a propagandist overwhelms their audience with poor etiquette and loud shouting. Needless to say, Brian considers the conversational model superior to the bombardment model:
"I use the word [propaganda] in its literal Latin sense: 'that which should be propagated', which I do not think necessitates bad manners or excessive decibels."
Brian challenged 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 possibility to hold views outside the politically-respectable realm (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.
For Brian, part of this intellectual virtue is not making incredible exaggerations of opposing points of view:
"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."
Although it is important to control your own media, Brian argued that 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.
Patience and Optimism
Brian acknowledged that propaganda can take a long time to have an effect, so patience is a necessary virtue.
However, Brian argued that universities are a special case where impatience pays off and the only real crime is to do nothing. In closed communities like universities, messages 'bounce around', and people in the closed community often receive the same message from several different directions:
"[Universities are] great amplifiers of ideas if you can only get your ideas into them in the first place."
Even a very small group of libertarians at a university can make an important contribution because of this amplification effect. Be optimistic!
Libertarianism and Policymaking
An interesting point to emerge from the Q&A session was that libertarians don't have to get themselves elected to have an impact on policy.
Once in office, politicians need a supply of ideas to enact the promises they made to their voters. Brian praised the ethos of the Adam Smith Institute: it looks at policymaking from the incentives of politicians and their demand for ideas and then it assesses how free-market policies could be adapted for sale to them. Its effectiveness has been proven in the vast number of the ASI's policies that were adopted by the Thatcher and Major administrations:
"In other words, there is a future for libertarian ideas if you separate them out and present the relevant ones to politicians."
Brian Micklethwait is a libertarian blogger and a former pamphleteer for the Libertarian Alliance, a libertarian thinktank based in London that was renamed Mises UK. Brian writes at www.brianmicklethwaitsnewblog.com.