In the most controversial video to hit the libertarian community this year that has had everybody and their professors in an uproar, it was argued that libertarians need to become a “part of popular culture.” I think Ms. Borowski might have pushed her argument off the cliff when she said the reason to go mainstream was to appeal to women, and I think the objections raised by professors Horwitz and Skwire in their piece on Bleeding Heart Libertarians already point out those problems. What these two sides agree on, and what I have noticed as a general trend among libertarians, is as follows.
What Borowski does get right is that libertarianism does need to move into the popular culture. We do need more, and more vocal, libertarian authors, actors, musicians and so on, with the talent to produce good work that addresses themes of liberty without being dogmatically and annoyingly ideological.
In essence, many libertarians have been looking around and asking where’s our George Orwell, our Kal Penn, our John Lennon, and so on. It is certainly difficult to become a politically viable philosophy when the rock stars and the residents of Tinseltown that many ordinary people (male and female, I should note) admire are generally of a left-wing disposition. As a result, libertarians are hoping for other libertarians to come out of the woodworks and into the movie theatres and magazine racks. The problem: great celebrities of a libertarian-disposition do not grow on trees and cannot be mass produced in factories. More importantly, though, having libertarian celebrities is not going to be the turbine behind the winds of change. Rather, libertarian celebrities are going to be a symptom of a change – a change that must begin, predictably, with the libertarians in academia.
In Hayek’s “The Intellectuals and Socialism,” he demonstrates that the political battle is often decided long ago in smaller, more obscure, academic circles. The results of this battle is then passed on through the “intellectual class” who largely decide what views and opinions are to reach the public at-large. The intellectual class is comprised of the journalists, teachers, ministers, television anchors, artists, writers, professionals, scientists, doctors, and others who are experts in a certain field, but are listened to on others as well. It is generally their expertise in one subject that allows them to have respect in others. For instance, in the 19th century, the country doctor or the minister might have been the only people in a rural town to keep up with news and intellectual pursuits. As a result, they were likely the transmitter of ideas in their town. In our own time, we have seen a whole host of celebrities become advocates of various different causes which they might have little actual expertise in themselves: P. Diddy had his sort-of in your face “Vote or Die!” movement, Justin Bieber is now advocating paparazzi legislation, and of course, there’s Bono.
Bono actually gives us a telling example of the machinery of the intellectual class. When Bono saw the poverty and suffering in Africa, he looked around for an idea to alleviate the problems he saw. When he was looking around, he found Jeffrey Sachs. Sachs is the economist whose ideas had been peddled throughout much of the post-Soviet world. That Bono would stumble upon these ideas and want to popularize was no accident but actually an almost necessary consequence of the fact that Sachs had come to be a major, and easily recognizable, force in academia. It was not the case that leftists proponents of foreign aid sat around wondering where the next big left-wing pop-star was going to come from. Rather, leftist ideas were the mainstream in academia and were thus easily accessible for the pop-stars who were looking to do good in the world.
Thus, the real solution to popularizing our ideas is not to wish for – or even consciously try to produce – some sort of libertarian John Lennon. Instead, we, as a movement, need to engage in the mainstream academic discussion – in all fields with political implications from economics to history to sociology to philosophy. Once our ideas are part of the discussion, they will be more accessible to the pop stars and poets who are looking for weighty, political song lyrics or to effect change in the world. Being mainstream in academia will proceed being mainstream at the magazine rack.
Already, many libertarians are engaging in the popular discussion. The philosophers at Bleeding Heart Libertarians are wrestling with Rawls’ ideas of social justice. The economists who have graduated George Mason don’t strictly stick to economists like Rothbard or Mises, but often stand on the shoulders of more commonly known thinkers like Nobel Prize winning economist Elinor Ostrom, judge Richard Posner, or philosopher Michel Foucault. By engaging in the mainstream discussion, these libertarians are not conceding defeat, but are bringing libertarianism into the larger discussion and thus making the ideas more accessible.
So if you hope to see more libertarian celebrities one day, you might be better off going to graduate school and engaging in the mainstream academic discourse. This isn’t a call for libertarians to pander their ideas or concede defeat on key issues. But we do need to understand the mainstream arguments – and not just any mainstream arguments, but the most charitable and well-argued versions of those arguments. My friend, Zak Slayback, did a good job of this in laying out the main points of Rawls’ philosophy in a recent blog post. Once those arguments have been grappled with, liberty will once again be a major part of the discussion, and will thus be more accessible to do-gooder celebrities. For the rest of us, we’ll either find better justifications for liberty or find that we were sorely wrong in understanding of the world. In any case, we’ll be closer to truth.