Casey Given recently criticized the slew of posts relating libertarian themes to pieces of popular culture. He successfully makes the point that each of the works pointed to as libertarian (or statist)could be just as easily interpreted in the opposite way. But he neglects to consider whether or not these pop culture parallels add any value to the liberty movement. They do.
My primary focus as a libertarian is to create more libertarians. No matter how you think social change is made, at some point in the process it must involve the changing of hearts, minds, and paradigms. But how can we convince people to alter their feelings, opinions, and ideologies?One way to do it is through rational discourse. This is probably the most common approach, and it simply involves talking with people, providing arguments, and hoping to convince them that your position is the most moral, or has the best outcomes, or both. But we hardly need a reminder that people have an extraordinary talent for fooling themselves and persisting in false beliefs even when provided with irrefutable evidence (of which, by the way, no political ideology has very much). I can explain to someone all about the price mechanism, comparative advantage, and even take them to visit Hong Kong, but that won’t necessarily make them see the sweet free market light. And I can talk about self-ownership, overcrowded prisons, black market crime all day, but I can’t convince everyone that we should legalize drugs (not even just pot! I mean, come on!). They have their counter arguments. Mine are right, of course, and theirs are wrong, but they’ll tell you the exact opposite. Even when opinions do change, it takes a great deal of time, and it happens gradually. For about a year you could hear me saying, “I love Ron Paul, except for his foreign policy.” I am embarrassed to admit that I even supported Arizona SB1070, while self-identifying as a libertarian!
It’s hard to change people’s minds because a shift in ideology carries some seriously cumbersome baggage. Our political opinions often feel like intrinsic aspects of ourselves; they are treated as moral, cultural, and social signifier?
As moral traits, political opinions are hard to change because change will force people to reexamine their moral compass, which sounds awfully uncomfortable. For example, many liberals believe that they are good people because they support things like welfare. Convincing them not to support welfare, either through deontological or consequential argument, can violently shake their self-perception. Similarly, a religious conservative may believe that his opposition to gay marriage makes him a good, God-fearing Christian. It’s true; good, God-fearing Christians can support gay marriage, but a lot of people might have some serious trouble believing that.
As cultural and social traits, political opinions can be important attributes of a person’s external presentation. Think about bumper stickers. Does anyone really think that a message on a bumper sticker is going to convince a single person that we need to end a war or get rid of coal? I hope not. People put political bumper stickers on their cars as a badge to show the world, “Here are my political opinions! If you agree with them, you’ll think I’m cool! If you disagree with them, I feel better than you!” (Full disclosure: I have a “Vote BJ Lawson” sticker on my car, and my laptop is covered with Beaureaucrash, SFL, and Reason swag.) They wear their political opinions as accessories, as a part of their personality wardrobe. When a former conservative starts supporting the legalization of drugs, does he have to grow out his hair and buy Birkenstocks? When a former liberal stops supporting affirmative action, does she have to stop going to poetry slams? These examples are kind of silly, but the point is that there is a whole lot of cultural junk tied up in a person’s political identity, and often, political opinion is a keystone of cultural identity.
So, what’s one strategy for dealing with this problem? Take the culture that people already use to identify themselves, and show how it can support the message of liberty! When a statist becomes a libertarian, the transition might be made a little smoother when he considers that books he has long admired like Nineteen Eighty-Four can be used to support the message of liberty. And if people are used to having their elected officials portrayed as bumbling idiots at best and unscrupulous puppets of evil at worst, as they are in Harry Potter, the groundwork for a public choice discussion has already been laid.
Casey argues that most of these so-called libertarian messages are really just anti-authoritarian, and that virtually everyone in America would self-identify as anti-authoritarian. So what? Use that! “You’re anti-authoritarian, right? Well let me explain to you why I think libertarianism is the best way to avoid authoritarian government.” Show people why libertarian values are human values.
There is another benefit of over-analyzing pop-cultural phenomena to support the message of liberty: it’s fun. Does Casey Given hate fun? I think he might.