Last weekend, I was having lunch with a diverse group of individuals, including one very libertarian guy and one very liberal girl. The two individuals were having a conversation about social security, and I sat back to absorb their debate and see what I could learn from it. While I picked up many insights, one stuck out that I felt compelled to write about: the libertarian who argued against social security, in my opinion, did more harm than good for the cause of liberty because of the way he presented his argument. I didn’t get a chance to write down the conversation verbatim, but here are few of the highlights that I could reconstruct of the conversation:
Girl: “I just think that’s heartless to let old people die.”
Guy: “I consider it heartless to steal from others to give to them!”
Girl: “I don’t want old people dying in the street.”
Guy: “They have families that can take care of them!”
Girl: “I’m willing to pay a little more to avoid people dying.”
Guy: “Then why don’t you give to charity?”
Guy: “But the economics just doesn’t back it up.”
Girl: “Then I guess I’m just one of those irrational, unselfish people.”
Based on this back and forth and the general feel of the conversation, I can honestly say that I, an adamant libertarian, was not persuaded by the guy in this case. In fact, I worried that he was doing a disservice to libertarianism by preventing the girl from engaging in a meaningful dialog about liberty’s merits. When trying to persuade others to believe in liberty, the way we present arguments is as important as the substance of the arguments themselves. Yet this is often forgotten by liberty advocates and expressed by the inability to understand how people just don’t get it through logical reasoning alone. So here are a few tips on what NOT to do if you want to be an effective advocate for liberty:
- Don’t get angry. No one is ever persuaded by the person who is angry. Anger is good for rallying people who already agree with you, not attracting new allies.
- Don’t just rehash stock arguments that other libertarians like. I am sure the guy thought he was being clever in saying it’s heartless to steal from others in the case of social security, but it didn’t come off that way at all in the conversation. To say that it’s heartless to take a little bit of money from someone with plenty of it to save the life of a person who has nothing is just foolish. I’m a libertarian and I didn’t think that was persuasive.
- Don’t offer piecemeal solutions to a large problem. The guy’s reliance on the argument that family members can take care of old people who didn’t save money just seemed shallow. Certainly it’s the case that some people won’t have that. The answer is not in arguing against the sentiment that we should work to avoid old people dying in the street, but arguing against the proposed government solution and saying that the free market will be able to solve it better through experimentation and diversity of offerings. When presented with a significant problem, people want a significant solution. That is the strength of the call for government intervention: they can claim the ability to solve the entire problem in one fell swoop. The free market alternative needs to be able to respond to the claim that the government can solve everything.
- Don’t use rhetoric that will put the other person off. Calling the government “a band of thieves” may rally your libertarian friends, but it’s something that many people think is absurd. If you want to persuade them, don’t say something they are going to think is stupid. Find another way of making your point in rhetoric they will understand and appreciate.
- Most importantly: Do NOT think that you will persuade someone in a conversation to change their minds because of the sheer force of your argument. It doesn’t happen, and usually you come off looking like a fool when you try. Why? Because the other person is defending their ground and arguing against you. The nature of the exchange doesn’t really permit them to admit you’re right. You put them on the defensive so that their mind is constantly trying to think of ways to rebut your point rather than internalize and digest it. It’s far better to have an open conversation where you just search for the truth rather than try to prove them wrong. Why do you come across as a fool if you try to beat someone down with your arguments? Because your purpose is to make them look like an idiot, and most of the time, the tone, rhetoric, and bodily gestures that come with this purpose show it. And whenever you try to make someone else look like an idiot, you usually end up looking like one instead.
When having a conversation with someone who disagrees with liberty, it’s best to adopt one of two simple strategies for how to produce the best outcome in the situation:
- Persuade the other people around who are listening to the conversation. Most of the time when you’re having a debate with someone in a social setting, the debate isn’t just for the two of you; it’s for an audience as well. Whether it’s a single other person listening over drinks or a group at a dinner party, there are other people watching how you and the other conversationalist engage one another and evaluating both sides in their mind. Since you and the person you are conversing with take opposite sides of the issue, it’s often a good strategy to not actually try to persuade the other person, but to try and persuade the people who have not taken a side in the debate and just looking on. They are the ones open to influence (if they didn’t care about the debate, they wouldn’t be listening). They are the ones digesting everything you and the other person say and evaluating which side they think is stronger. Present yourself and your position in a manner that commands the onlookers’ respect and intrigue. Treat the conversation not as a debate against another person, but as a performance for the other parties and you can influence many more minds.
- Plant seeds of doubt in the other person’s mind. You are not there to win a debate. You are there to expose them to a new idea or to create new connections between ideas in their head that they didn’t have before. The best thing you can hope for is that the person thinks about the points you made after they leave the conversation, weighing their value. Perhaps they will start to follow the reasoning of the argument themselves. Perhaps they will go and read up on the topic some more. Or perhaps they will want to talk with you again to learn more about your perspective. Focus on persuading them in the long-term, not in the conversation itself.
Leonard Read wrote a piece in the Freeman arguing against the right of striking airline workers to forcibly prevent anyone else from doing the jobs they chose to stop doing. It was a standard FEE piece. Objections to union violence and coercion were a common thread in the minds and writings of early libertarians. Read received an angry three-page diatribe from a labor union organizer, a fellow known as Whitey. Read replied carefully and with scrupulous politeness. The labor organizer wrote back to apologize for his rudeness. Read sent him a couple of FEE pamphlets, including F.A. Harper’s Why Wages Rise. (The answer, you can bet, was not “union agitation.”) Whitey was fascinated and wanted to know more. After a couple more rounds of correspondence, he told Read that he’d love to read anything the sage from Irvington might deign to send him, and include whatever invoice Read thought appropriate.
Soon they were fellow libertarians and good friends, and Whitey was no longer a labor organizer. Read revealed to him the simple wizardry he’d performed to nip their feuding in the bud. He’d removed the tension, given the angry man nothing to push against. When the former union man was hospitalized after an auto wreck, he wrote his friend Leonard to tell him that “you should see the interest my three doctors are showing in our philosophy.”
And that, many of his old friends would say, is the kind of man Leonard Read was.
Leonard Read was one of the strongest proponents of libertarianism and was without question of the most pivotal figures in popularizing the ideas. We could use a few more people like him.