The Task of Persuasion

Bob Higgs writes,

once the libertarian has persuaded someone that government interference is wrong, at least in a certain realm, if not across the board, there is a much smaller probability of that convert’s backsliding into his former support for government’s coercive measures against innocent people. Libertarianism grounded on the moral rock will prove much stronger and longer-lasting than libertarianism grounded on the shifting sands of consequentialist arguments, which of necessity are only as compelling as today’s arguments and evidence make them. Hence, if we desire to enlarge the libertarian ranks, we are well advised to make moral arguments at least a part of our efforts. It will not hurt, of course, to show people that freedom really does work better than state control. But to confine our efforts to wonkism dooms them to transitory success, at best.

Pointer from Don Boudreaux. Let me re-state this in terms of the three-axis model. Using consequentialist arguments is an attempt to meet someone on their own axis. The “moral rock” that “will prove much stronger and longer-lasting” is to get someone to shift axes.

Claiming that government anti-poverty programs do not work is a consequentialist argument that is intended to meet the progressive along the oppressor-oppressed axis. Claiming that drug laws tend to increase violence is a consequentialist argument intended to meet the conservative along the civilization-barbarism axis. The advantage of these sorts of arguments is that they are easily comprehended by those you are trying to persuade. The disadvantage, as Higgs points out, is that this form of argument involves painful struggles, issue-by-issue and fact-by-fact. Arriving at the inevitable military analogy, Higgs writes

the anti-freedom forces with which libertarians must contend possess hundreds of times more troops and thousands of times more money for purchasing munitions.

Instead, suppose you try to convince people of the similarity between government and organized crime. You say that both provide “protection” backed by coercion. The advantage of this is that if you can get someone to shift to looking at issues along the freedom-coercion axis, that person will be less receptive across the board to arguments for state intervention based on the oppressor-oppressed axis or the civilization-barbarian axis. The disadvantage with this strategy is that your position is likely to be incomprehensible to most of those you are trying to persuade. To most people, drawing an analogy between government and organized crime seems crazy. It makes you sound like a very bitter, alienated person who resents the obligation to participate in society.

My guess–and perhaps Higgs would agree–is that the best strategy is to meet people along their preferred axis and to use consequentialist arguments until they begin to have doubts about the utility of government in dealing with oppression or barbarism. At that point, they may be ready to consider the freedom-coercion axis. However, if you go straight to the freedom-coercion axis and skip the step of meeting progressives with consequentialist arguments along the oppressor-oppressed axis or meeting conservatives with consequentialist arguments along the civilization-barbarian axis, then you risk getting nowhere.

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6 Responses to The Task of Persuasion

  1. Georg Thomas says:

    I have the highest regard for Bob Higgs. However, this does not prevent me from disagreeing with him on a range of fundamental issues. Let me offer this hypothesis: His advice “to make moral arguments” is really an appeal to dogma, the especially unsatisfactory Rothbardian variant of “natural rights”. Unfortunately, modern libertarianism ignores the classical liberals, most notably David Hume, who (quoting me from a comment made at Cafe Hayek)

    ” … has paved the way toward a differentiated incentive-structure-analysis of government, by discovering that “rights are not deriv’d from nature but from artifice.”

    I should add: once you challenge the dogma that “rights … are deriv’d from nature” you unblock the path that leads to an analysis of what “deriv’d by artifice” means. That’s the moment when you start to look at the world as it is, and you discover politics and the state, however much you may dislike them, are decisive parts of the process that churns out rights, good and bad.

    Yes, Mr. Boudreaux, modern libertarians are well advised go back to David Hume, so as not to go astray by concentrating exclusively on the defects of government / the state, which is the result of the moral dogma of ‘natural rights’.”

    What strength is libertarianism expected to gain if it refrains from politics and refuses to engage in the struggle to form the nature of the state? Out of dogmatic moral vanity; attracting those content to mope rather than to act, protect and further freedom in a naturally messy world.

    There may be good reasons to disdain politics, the state and democracy, but you should have a sound and well-developed theory of the state, politics and democracy before you go advertising this contempt as your sole default position. Libertarians do not have such theories – how would they if the said phenomena are being prejudged self-evidently to be uniformly evil.

    It seems to me that my fellow-libertarians have a strong tendency to avoid the hardest part of liberty. Making it happen in a world that will never be free of politics and state structures.

  2. JH says:

    I think there is a difference between libertarianism and anarchy. I believe in a government which provides for the national defense, establishes a common currency ,and enforces property rights. The trick comes in preventing the government from becoming the oppressor or descending into barbarism .

  3. Becky Hargrove says:

    There is something about stepping into certain non-fiction sections of bookstores that is very telling about this whole scenario: what has been missing from the shelves, for years. The work of community revitalization: while it exists in certain limited economic scenarios online, there is no emotional and social component in the present in print that actually sells. There were some hints of a resurgence in the last century that were ground out with 9/11. There are still a few books on the shelves that excited progressives thirty and forty years ago – one author I remember from the seventies actually made the top 100 sellers in 2012. But I digress. It seems that appeals to progressives need to take desires and dreams of leaving a mark on the world into account, as the connection between self and society was cut in this regard at some point. Progressives still see no way to seek the realizations of their aspirations in libertarian terms. Freedom to live the way they actually desire does not seem possible as they go into full defense mode to prevent more loss on the terms they have known so long. Now if someone seeks professional counseling, the emphasis is on medication to “deal with the world as it is” rather than any unified effort on the part of our social services to make it a better place. The task of persuation also lies in creating a new “bookshelf of hope”: a dynamic non-fiction section of economic individual and community possibilities on flexible terms. Until social non-fiction is revitalized in positive terms of what people could actually do, there is just escape fiction and made up realities in the bestseller list, or negative diatribes in the non-fiction sellers.

  4. David Silver says:

    Arnold – This is a great job taking the most charitable view of Higgs’s argument. My own initial view – admittedly based only on your quote – was that basing an argument purely on moral grounds is akin to making libertarianism a religion. You do a nice job explaining how his view has some merit.

    On a related note. I would like to see some examples of issues on which the oppressor-oppressed axis or the civilization-barbarism axis is superior to a freedom-coercion axis.

  5. PQuincy says:

    “To most people, drawing an analogy between government and organized crime seems crazy. It makes you sound like a very bitter, alienated person who resents the obligation to participate in society.”


    And it does so not because there are no structural similarities between legitimate government and organized crime, because it ignores the issue of legitimacy and authority (components of your civilization-barbarism AND oppressor-oppressed axes, if you like).

    Thus, if I understand Mr. Higgs’s proposal, he isn’t being tactical in terms of the Kling three-axis model, he wants there to be only one axis. Since almost all of us (perhaps inherently, but certainly empirically) tend to have understandings of the world that involve all three axes, such an approach is not likely to be effective — fortunately, to me, who finds libertarian critique important, but libertarian prescriptions pernicious.

  6. Ajay says:

    I am very skeptical that you can get people to jump rails to another axis, as they often do not even listen to consequentialist arguments and the argument itself is filtered through the prism of their axis as they try to interpret it. Hence, liberals always assume that libertarians are part of a secret plot by rich oppressors, say the Koch brothers, to steal more money from the “poor” and therefore any argument libertarians put forth has to be twisted around to find that secret motive. A recent Fox News innovation has been to throw this tactic back at the liberals by convincing their viewers that George Soros is the left’s equivalent, a diabolical billionaire always scheming to undermine “civilization.”

    The best one can do is make consequentialist arguments that seem to address the concerns of the listener’s axis, and even then progress is slow-going. And I fundamentally disagree with the “moral” approach, as exemplified by those libertarians who emphasize “rights,” such as Higgs appears to do. As David says, this turns libertarianism into yet another religion, a backwards move in my opinion. Rather, the aim should always be to persuade on consequentialist grounds, and instill an appreciation for how the freedom-coercion axis is at the very least a possible way to look at things; at the very best, the way most issues should first be looked at.

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