political exhaustion

Libertarians Suck at PR

In case I forgot to tell everyone, I submitted a couple of articles to a monthly libertarian newsletter, Front Range Voluntaryist (frontrangevoluntaryist.com). You should read it. I’m probably the best writer you’ll read today. Unless you’re reading smart things like Hoppe or Alain de Botton or something. Then I’m probably lower middle tier, at best. But you should definitely read my articles wherever you might find them.

Is that not the worst PR you’ve ever read? Spoiler: It’s not. There are plenty of libertarians that make me look like the Steve Jobs of PR. Libertarians are shit at PR. They are total shit. Yeah, I said it, and I don’t regret it.

Most libertarians I know personally are intellectually rigorous. They like to fight about definitions and historical data. They’ll argue over which cryptocurrency is going to have the biggest gains and then split hairs over whether they were referring to dollar amount gains or percentage gains. I am certainly no better, and most of the time, I love it. But after such a time, it gets exhausting. I, personally, am exhausted.

I think a lot of libertarians feel battle-worn, and it’s no wonder. We take it from all sides. It goes without saying that leftists hate us. They tell the world that we’re fascists, racists, and flat-earthers. Conservatives hate us because we don’t want to nuke the whales. Given that the rest of the world is seemingly against us, you would think that, at some point, there would be some effort to stop the infighting and at least make some vague attempt to be likeable. But no. Nope, we’re arguing over whether or not Liberty Hangout is libertarian enough.

I’m about to drop a big, bad truth bomb on you libertarians out there: A big part of the reason that the message doesn’t resonate isn’t because the message is bad; it’s because you suck at delivering it. Moreover, you suck at cooperation. You can’t even find peace amongst yourselves. How the hell are you going to promote peace to others?

Don’t even start arguing with me! Ima let me finish!

Don’t come at me with some bullshit excuse like, “But I live a peaceful life! What I say on the Internet is just words! That doesn’t matter! Words aren’t violence!”

Yeah, I know that. So do all other reasonable people. Hardcore leftists don’t know that, but they don’t know that living outside of your parents’ basement or getting haircuts that don’t feature the color pink are real things either, so set them aside. There are reasonable people on both sides of the aisle, and they are just as frustrated with the state of current affairs as libertarians. I don’t think anyone has stopped to consider that there might be a remnant among them, too. No, that’s a lie. Dave Rubin has, and he’s about it. And I wouldn’t really call him a libertarian.

Words do matter. Words are not violence, but they inspire feelings. Anyone that has listened to an effective orator or read an inspiring passage from a great novel implicitly understands this truth. Words have power. Words have meaning. The human mind can make incredible things happen through the power of language. Libertarians, for all of their love of mathematical intelligence and logical thinking, seem to generally miss this point. I have been just as guilty.

I listened to Jeff Deist’s speech at Mises University about Rothbard – the one that ended with a mention of “blood and soil.” I was a German student, once upon a time, and was a fairly passable German speaker and writer. I am well acquainted with that expression, and I understand the meaning, historical context, and the context in which it was used. You can factually defend it all you want, and I would agree that there was no particular harm meant in using it. It was not a dog whistle. It was, however, shitty PR. Like, next level shitty.

That is no criticism of Deist as a person, mind you. I like Jeff Deist. I think he is a reasonable, articulate individual, and there is zero reason to believe that he has anything other than good intentions. What he is not is a good PR player, at least based on that speech. Even I, someone who understands from front to back what he meant by his speech and saw no real harm in it, couldn’t help seeing armbands and swastikas in my mind when he said it. Because that’s the association. It existed decades before Deist ever opened his mouth.

Associations are not necessarily logical. Our brains are not logical. They work in images and impulses. I am not a stupid person. I am educated on the subject of Germany circa 1930-1945 to an extent that most Americans frankly are not. In spite of this, image associations are not something I can control, and that is not because I lack intelligence or self-control. It is because I am human. All humans are like this. Some of us can approach our associations with a somewhat higher degree of awareness, but many and even most of us cannot. None of us are totally immune to persuasion or emotion, no matter how much we understand it or would like to believe otherwise. Humans are always, to varying degrees, influenced by perception, influence, and emotions.

Given this information, why would a smart man like Jeff Deist have chosen the words he did? I do not buy the dog whistle theory, so you can throw that out. I actually think libertarians labor largely under the notion that facts are the only thing that matter when the opposite is self-evidently true. Facts are rarely important in arguments. Appeals to emotion? Those may not have a 100% success rate, but I bet they get closer to the target than facts.

I have some proposals for all of you readers to consider regarding how we might make libertarianism more marketable. I do not have all of the solutions, but I have been told once or twice that I am good at making people like me, and I am good at finding common ground with people in extremely unlikely places. I would like to take this semi-natural talent of mine and use it to help some of you who are lower in agreeability than I am. Put on a little polish. What can I say, guys? I’m really good at curling my hair with a flat iron, covering adult acne with cleverly placed concealer, and plying people with conversation and drinks. You all need my makeup skills. So are you ready for a makeover? 

If your aim is not merely to win arguments, but also to get people to do what you want – that is, you want people to work with you towards mutually desirable outcomes or actually go full bore and convert to libertarianism – you need to stop talking. Full stop. Shut up. 

Okay, now that we’ve got that out of the way, watch people and listen to what they are saying. Assume for a moment that people are being truthful with you about their experiences in life. Take it as a given that you may not agree with their interpretation of what’s going on. You can listen to their interpretations and their actions and make a reasonable decision, based on that information, whether or not you will be able to successfully work together with them or persuade them. There are legitimately some people who are blinded by their own agenda and anger and will not make good candidates. Choose your fights wisely and don’t waste energy on these people. Yelling at SJWs is not a good use of your time. It’s fun to trigger them sometimes, but it’s not productive.

If, however, you are face-to-face with a reasonably normal human being, chances are pretty good that, as you are listening to them, they will say something that you do not believe to be totally objectionable. Maybe you are passionate about nonviolence and agree with that person that people should be vegetarians in pursuit of ending violence. (I have seen those libertarians on forums, so I know they’re out there.) Have a thoughtful productive conversation with them about that because you already know that it’s something that they feel positively about and want to share with others. Don’t beat use the opening as an opportunity to beat them over the head with Scott Horton interviews. Gain trust on a shared issue and then slowly introduce related ideas. You want people to associate your views with something that they already feel good about. You can’t force someone to feel good about something. That would be coercive.

The second thing you need to remember is that you don’t have to tell people everything. Think about approaching would-be political converts as potential dates. Sure, you know you have an unconventional fetish, but that dime piece you have your eye on does not need to know that on the first date. Similarly, you don’t have to tell people that your eventual political aim is to bring the government crashing down while Backwordz blares in the background. You can politely tell them that you are in favor of less government. This is directionally accurate without being completely terrifying.

The third thing is that you need to be clear about what you are not. I love Tom Woods, but after giving this a lot of consideration, I think that he was wrong in his assessment about disavowing the idiots in Charlottesville. He was correct that the extreme left would not care what he or any of the rest of us said. The issue is that there are still people on the left (and right) who are not completely insane. However, you cannot assume that everyone who is sane knows who you are and what you stand for. That does not mean that they will never be good allies in some fashion in the future.

It is best to be clear about what you will not tolerate. It does not matter that it should be reasonably evident that none of us are in favor of fascism. As I stated above, people are not good at reasoning, as a whole, and even when they are good at reasoning, emotions can quickly overtake them. If you do not believe this is true, take up Forex trading and see how you feel when you win or lose large sums out of your account. Your emotions will run you, and then you will know the depths of your potential irrationality. (Please do not actually trade Forex unless you know what you’re doing, but please do read books about trading psychology because they will help you be better at life in general.)

The next point I’m going to make today may ultimately be the most important point I make, and that is that we need to find peace amongst ourselves. The last 18 months have been politically rough for everyone. The libertarian world has seen its share of feuds, disappointments, and surprises, and I think we are all tired. We have also been fighting amongst each other at an incredible rate, which isn’t entirely surprising, given that libertarians like to drill down to the semantics and finer points of philosophy. However, since we are under near-constant scrutiny from statists, it seems like it might behoove us to try and find common ground with one another.

That is hard sometimes, especially when we are so invested in perfecting our ideology. We need to realize that people have reasons for seeing things as they do and holding the beliefs they have. Sometimes those beliefs serve them well and sometimes they do not, but we need to accept the fact that just because someone sees something slightly differently does not make them a bad libertarian. It might make them a different libertarian, but not a bad one. And if you asked that person, I bet they would be just as thrilled with a night watchman state as you would be.

Framing is the final point I want to talk about. Libertarians suck at framing. Framing sets the stage. Framing is what gives you the feels. Libertarians have this tendency to come in and tell everyone what is bad, why they are going to take things away, and then when someone asks what they plan to do to help people, the answer sounds like, “Well, they can help themselves, of course!” This would be great advice in a world where we weren’t faced with fifth generation welfare recipients and soldiers with PTSD from the wars, but that is not the world that we live in today. We need to have answers ready, and they need to be framed towards feelings of security and self-ownership. People need to feel confident, and simply taking everything away from them and leaving them nothing is terrifying for most people.

I am not advocating for bigger government, so do not accuse me of that. I am advocating for conversations across all aisles. It would nice if we started at home with our fellow libertarians. It would be even better if we could work, even in small ways, to extend that olive branch to others with completely different beliefs.

Some might try and make the point that by opening up these dialogues, I may be unintentionally advocating for the continuation of the US government. I am not. A voluntary society is my ideal. However, I am far from convinced that a total collapse of the US government would produce the desired effect. This is my fear with secession, which is a legalistic means of dissolution and which could produce a sudden, traumatic, potentially violent conflict. Also, like it or not, the legal precedent has been set to punish secession. My hope is that, where legal means fail, the market will prevail by providing a slow burn, frog in boiling water type of solution that will quietly eliminate the need for government. No, I do not know how this will come about. Far greater minds than mine are likely at work, pondering such things.

In the meantime, we can spruce ourselves up a little. Speak positively. Find shared ideals and goals. Listen more and talk less. The name of the voluntary game is cooperation, and if we can’t find anyone to cooperate with us, it’s going to be a long, hard, lonely road. I don’t know about you, but when I’m traveling down the road, less traveled I like to take a couple of friends along for the ride.