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To dissolve, submerge, and cause to disappear the political or governmental system in the economic system by reducing, simplifying, decentralizing and suppressing, one after another, all the wheels of this great machine, which is called the Government or the State. --Proudhon, General Idea of the Revolution

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Monday, April 11, 2005

Selling the Store?

Interesting exchange on libertarian outreach strategy between Brad Spangler and Thomas L. Knapp.

Commenting on the formation of the Libertarian Reform Caucus, Brad writes,

....it is perhaps no surprise that Libertarians have collectively failed to recognize one of the most important things they can control to improve the situation…

Recognizing that a political party makes a damned poor educational organization and vice verse.

Call me Mr. Obvious, but does anybody think that maybe part of the reason that the Libertarian Party (an ideologically oriented political party) is not more successful might be that conscious public allegiance to libertarian ideology isn’t more widespread? It takes serious, hard educational efforts to produce something like that — and a political party isn’t necessarily the best tool to achieve it.

The Libertarian Party will start kicking more butt when we’ve got — gasp! — a whole buttload of libertarians (and not before).

That doesn’t seem like a difficult point to grasp. Yet Libertarians are perpetually exhausted from trying to run a political party on a skeleton crew. That’s not an effective way to build a Libertarian majority. The situation calls for activists educating themselves more thoroughly and then going out and educating a lot more people — even if it means they have to let the party not be the focus of their libertarian activism for awhile.

Tom responds:

[Brad] thinks that what's needed is not a "softening" of approach, but rather a concentration on creating more people who like the party's ideology.

What's missing here?....

Both the LRC and Brad seem to think that the party is the product. It isn't. It's the store.

The platform isn't the product, either. It's the store's mission statement....

The party is the store. The products on the shelves are candidates, policy proposals and such.

You don't sell the store. You sell the products.

You don't sell the store's mission statement. You sell the store's products....

One of the basics of sales doctrine is that you sell benefits, not features....

Any approach that focuses on:

a) selling ideology (feature) instead of policy outcomes (benefits); and

b) selling the party (store) instead of its candidates and policies (products)

... is doomed to fail....

I tend to agree with Tom that priority should be given to pointing out the benefits of libertarian policy, from the standpoint of the general public's existing interests and concerns. In the case of libertarianism, any educational effort aimed at getting people to prefer libertarian principles (e.g., and especially, non-aggression) for their own sake will likely be both very long-term and uphill. On the other hand, an educational effort aimed at reaching people where they are now, and selling libertarian policies in terms of the things they currently value, could be quite effective.

But there's a fine line between marketing and education. Consider:

As I understand it, Tom's sales strategy involves 1) pointing out to the public, in some area of policy, how the existing evils they object to, what they see as pressing concerns, are a direct result of the state's policies; and 2) pointing out how a free market order would reduce those evils.

In each case, the libertarian argument shows that the forms of government intervention which the court intellectuals sell as limits on the power of big business, were actually started at the behest of big business. In each area of policy, the regulatory-welfare state is shown to be a system of government intervention on behalf of the rich and powerful; and all the assorted evils they object to in our society are shown to be its side-effects. Pollution is a result of subsidies to polluting corporations and legal protections against internalizing pollution costs; sprawl results from subsidies to outlying real estate developments (and to politically connected real estate developers); outsourcing from subsidies to the export of capital; the energy shortage from subsidies to transportation and energy consumption; etc., etc.

Such case-by-case argumentation could well have, cumulatively, an educational side-effect (for many, at least). Point out enough individual cases showing that a policy (which the public has been taught from grade school to view as an enlightened, idealistic, and "common sense" measure) actually benefits the rich and powerful at the expense of everybody else, and some people may take the next step of inductive reasoning: making the generalized observation that benefiting the privileged rich and powerful at everybody else's expense is what government does.

It doesn't necessarily mean that such a libertarian outreach program will lead to a majority of people adopting the non-aggression principle and becoming libertarian ideologues. It is likewise unlikely to lead many people to adopt, as an article of faith, that government is always the "political means," or a "zero-sum game," or any other catchphrase you prefer. It might, however, lead many more people than at present to accept, on the basis of experience, that this is often (or even usually) what government does. It might lead to an increased skepticism of the good intentions of the "progressive" state, and a willingness to look for the man behind the curtain when they hear "progressive" rhetoric.

In short, each specific libertarian policy proposal should carry with it a little lesson in what government really does, and who it really serves. Enough such little lessons, cumulatively and perhaps subliminally, might lead to a big lesson.


Blogger Unknown said...

That dovetails pretty well with some of my recent thoughts about the Skeptical Society.

More and more, I am starting to think that cynicism and skepticism are the best tools we have to bring about a free world. Besides the obvious things, skepticism is the best protection people have against fraud and malfeasance.
Trusting "authority figures" and "experts" is the biggest mistake the modern Joe Public makes.
The only difference between the mafia and the corporate state, is that no one believes the mafia is legitimate.

April 11, 2005 7:29 PM  
Blogger Thomas L. Knapp said...


You wrote:

As I understand it, Tom's sales strategy involves 1) pointing out to the public, in some area of policy, how the existing evils they object to, what they see as pressing concerns, are a direct result of the state's policies; and 2) pointing out how a free market order would reduce those evils.

Keep in mind that in the discussion at hand, we are talking about a specific context: That of a political party operating in the American electoral system.

In that context, I don't mean anything like the above. What I mean is that goals aren't achieved by a party selling ideology at all -- neither the features nor the benefits.

In the context of American politics, goals are achieved by individual politicians convincingly telling voters a) I'm on your side and b) THIS is what I'm going to do for you.

As long as the LP tries to sell ideology and gain ideological converts, it will make no progress AS a political party in the system that exists. And if it wants to continue BEING a political party in the system that exists, then it won't make much progress toward achieving widespread adoption of its ideology either.

The LP needs to decide whether it's going to be an ideological education organization or a political party. It can't effectively be both.

Tom Knapp

April 13, 2005 8:22 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

"In the context of American politics, goals are achieved by individual politicians convincingly telling voters a) I'm on your side and b) THIS is what I'm going to do for you."

Isn't "b" a benefit? A benefit of the ideology even? I mean, it's a direct promise, rather than an abstraction, but what the LP politician is ostensibly going to "do for" the public, is get rid of the laws holding them back.

April 13, 2005 9:06 AM  
Blogger Kevin Carson said...

Thanks for clarifying, Tom.

But (and this ties in with what Adem said) even a "this is what I'm going to do for you" approach at least *implicitly* assumes a common understanding with the voter of the *causation* behind what's holding them back, and *why* the policy would benefit them. So it would still involve an educational/ideological component.

Obviously, convincing a voter that a libertarian policy will benefit him requires undoing his present misconceptions about why he benefits from existing state intervention, and why the intervention is necessary to prevent some evil or other. If he already understood this, he wouldn't need to be convinced to support scaling back the state.

April 13, 2005 1:15 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wrt Adem's comments on cynicism and skepticism; the absence of teaching the Socratic method in most schools, er, "Publick Skools," is for a reason. The factory schools are for teaching obedience, not independent thought.

Wrt to the LP's, Brad's and Tom's comments, I disagree that there are not enough libertarians in the USA. The more terrifying reality for the LP, too terrible to face, is that most US libertarians disagree too much about various LP approaches, policies, rationalizations.

Imo, at least one fifth, and possibly one third of all Americans are strongly libertarian.

The LP's real problem, is that they are too much in the pocket of Koch type interests, the kind of people who support the LP and Cato. These interests believe in the privatization of the commons absolutely, without any conditional compensation due to us commoners.

Likewise, the LP does not share an intuitive sense of mutualist ownership of the Commons, which touch on a whole slew of issues, like environment, pollution, land, mineral resources.

The LP doesn't seem to have a coherent principle for the foundation of rights, except a dogmatic fiat pronouncement of abstention from intitiating force (but why? Why is this a good?) Hence, the LP has no clear cut path for the relationship between civil liberties and civil responsibilities, no non-fuzzy path through the abortion quagmire, no understanding guidance for how to deal with less obvious violations of rights like entrenchments, like indirect compulsions, like market privileges that corrupt trade into a one way transfer of value, etc.

The LP hasn't discovered that "equality" is just as important as "liberty;" that the full equation for a just, civil society is the cross product of Equal Liberty, not the half baked, one-sided Liberty of License for robber baron pirates.

If I didn't know better, I would think that the LP was designed specifically to make libertarian ideas look as silly, stupid and outragious as possible so as to marginalize libertarians and genuine libertarian ideas as much as possible.

The LP won't make any progress until it rediscovers the "Commons Ground" that was the heart of genuine, Classical Liberalism. Without this intuitivity, the USLP is a mere caricature of classical liberalism. It won't understand rights the way most Americans do, it won't understand the libertarian qualitative limits of govenment. "Small government" is a mere, indefinite, arbitrary limit. It isn't enough.

The LP needs to balance its concerns for the property rights of the few people who already own their castles with the opportunity rights of those who don't.

May 06, 2005 3:10 PM  

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