Be A Minister For Liberty Part 2

There is a very interesting (If I do say so myself) discussion going on between me and Gregory over at In his recent post,, he expresses some very insightful objections to a blog that I wrote titled Be A Minister For Liberty. You can read my original post here,

I’d like to mention up front that we are both principled libertarians. We appear to both be Rothbardian/Misesians. Our disagreement is not on philosophy itself but rather how to spread the philosophy. We’re interested in discovering the best method for converting more people to libertarianism.

Also, it should be mentioned that Gregory (I think his name is Gregory) is obviously a very well read individual. His writings are always erudite and convincing; and he can flat out write.

In my mind the dispute centers on this question: Is it more effective to bring people over to the libertarian camp by appealing to their emotions or to their intellect? Should we primarily “speak in terms of liberty and slavery, of life and death, of good and evil,” as Gregory suggests? Or should we devote our time and energy to “study, contemplation, and being prepared to give well thought out, logical answers to….life’s most difficult questions,” as I’ve so grandiosely put forth?

Before I answer that question, I’d like to talk about a book by a Douglas Arnold Hyde. Its called I Believed: The Autobiography of a Former British Communist. Hyde used to be one of the highest ranking members of the British Communist Party. Later in life he converted to Catholicism and became a Catholic priest. The book is a series of lectures that he gave to the clergy. In these lectures he proposes that the Catholic church use some of the same methods that the British Communists used, in order to spread the Gospel.

According to Hyde, the British Communist Party’s success in influencing public debate was not attributable to “violence, spurious doctrines such as dialectical materialism and polylogism, and mass murder” or “their multi-layered strategy,…..their mass appeal through emotional arguments and their high-brow rhetoric,” as Gregory has written.

Rather, it was due to the British Communist Party’s efficiency in producing intelligent, honorable men who were looked up to and admired by people in their local community. Communist men were perceived as protecting the little guy against powerful interests; as leaders; and, yes, as intellectuals who were able to give plausible answers to life’s important questions.

It’s true, there was a certain emotional appeal. But it wasn’t emotional in a demagogic sense. People in the neighborhood felt something for these men and wanted to be like them. When individuals asked Party members how they could join the party, they were given books and told to attend weekly lectures. Success was the result of a thorough, organized, educational program.

Howard Zinn wrote about local Communists on page 171 of his autobiography,

“I admired them-they seemed to know so much about politics, economics, what was happening everywhere in the world. And they were courageous-I had  seen them the defy local policeman, who tried to stop them from distributing literature on the street and to break up their knots of discussion.”

He continues on page 173,

“The Soviet Union was this romantic blur, far away. What was close at hand, visible, was the Communists were the leaders in organizing people all over the country. They were the most daring, risking arrest and beatings to organize auto workers in Detroit, steel workers in Pittsburgh, textile workers in North Carolina, fur and leather workers in New York, longshoremen on the West Coast. They were the first to speak up, more than that, to demonstrate-to chain themselves to factory gates and White Hose fences-when blacks were lynched in the South, when the “Scottsboro Boys” we being railroaded to prison in Alabama. My image of a Communist was not a Soviet bureaucrat but my friend Leon’s father, a cabdriver who came home from work bruised and bloody one day, beaten up by his employer’s goons.”

Further, as Mises writes on page 675 of Human action,

“What made socialism popular with the immense majority of  its supporters was…the illusion that it would supply them with more amenities than capitalism.”

The ruthlessness of the Communist regimes in China and Russia ruined the reputation of communist parties around the world and caused leaders like Hyde to defect.

Most of the propaganda, brainwashing, and bloodshed came after the Communists were already in power.

That out of the way, I’d like to address this comment “Adam is entirely right when he says that someone who is swayed by an emotional appeal will generally only be so in the short term, but it is in the short term that history is made and elections are decided.”

On this we disagree. If Rothbard believed that history was decided in the short term, he never would have spent 7 years writing Man, Economy, and State. Mises would have given up the ghost after the Nazis invaded Austria and he was forced to flee his homeland. Why write for generations far in the future when the short term prospects are so depressing?

These men realized that changing the course of history is a long term project. You don’t write a a treastise on economics unless you plan to influence people for decades and centuries to come.

It was Keynes who famously wrote “In the long run we’re all dead.”

Hazlitt responded that “The art of economics consists in looking not merely at the immediate but at the longer effects of any act or policy.”

In my mind it is a huge error to focus on coming elections. You spend all of this time and energy on getting a guy elected. Once he’s elected he may or may not do what you hoped he’d do. The other politicians will fight him all the way on getting his agenda through. Most supporters will abandon the ideas once the elections are over.

Political campaigns are only useful if they are used as an educational platform, a la Ron Paul. But this goes back to my point that intellectual arguments, as opposed to the standard political fare of manipulating people’s feelings, are required for the long term success of a movement.

Perhaps even more important though, is the question of whether libertarians should be trying to reform government at all. Some people want to live under a social democratic state. It would be un-libertarian to deny them that right. Forcing libertarianism on people through the electoral process seems to be anathema to our beliefs.

Instead, in my view, it is the job of libertarians to motivate people to opt out, or secede, from their current government altogether. When viewed in that light, the intellectual work becomes even more important. Convincing people to undertake sustained, non-violent, civil disobedience is a behemoth task that very few movements have been able to accomplish. Participants in such a movement must be able to cleave to a strong, thoroughly reasoned, belief system.

In any event, now that I am certain that I’m on the verge of rambling, or perhaps already rambling, I leave you with this quote that essentially sums up my position.

In his essay, How To Advance Liberty, the great Leanord E. Read writes,

“A final word: Ideas, be they right or wrong, are indestructible. The only possible change is people’s attitude toward them. There is indifference or acceptance or rejection. Ideas on liberty are greeted more by indifference than by rejection, an attitude that tends to harden if left undisturbed. But when we try to turn indifference into acceptance by obtrusive and officious methods we get only rejection for our pains and, for good reason: these are not the methods of liberty.

The sole force that will turn indifference into acceptance is the power of attraction. And this can be achieved only if the eye is cast away from the remaking of others and toward the improvement of self. This, as an aim, is in harmony with personal and human evolution; the effort demanded of each individual is not a sacrifice, but the best investment one can make in life’s highest purpose.”


One Response to Be A Minister For Liberty Part 2

  1. galudwig says:

    Great reply there Adam 🙂
    I should clarify that I’m not advocating a one or the other-solution, my position is that we should speak both to the mind and to the hearts of people. It’s just that, in the eyes of many people, libertarianism has this image associated with it of a scruffy old ideology for people who are obsessed with books and arguments, but don’t care about “the children” if you know what I mean. This is purely based on my own experiences of talking to people about liberty. To me it definitely seems that the majority of people I try to get interested in the movement really couldn’t care less about logical arguments, yet it is their vote which determines our future. Any emotional appeal which gets people interested in the short term MUST always be backed by a stream of sound logic and rigorous argumentation, but our strategy must be “multi-layered” in the sense that it should include differing approaches so we are not simply dismissed on the basis of being a band of “selfish old men”.

    Your points about the communists being active, caring and smart pillars of society are well taken and very true indeed, however, I must disagree with your interpretation of the Mises quote from Human Action.
    “What made socialism popular with the immense majority of its supporters was…the illusion that it would supply them with more amenities than capitalism.”
    To me, this sounds more like Mises is saying here that it was the emotional appeals of socialism which contributed very much to their popularity with the masses. Surely, the claim that socialism would supply its supporters with more amenities than capitalism is based on emotion and intention rather than logic and economic science, at the very least since the days of Bohm-Bawerk?

    On my comment that it’s in the short run that history is made and elections are decided, by this I did not mean that we should neglect the long term in favor of the short. And by no means should we just focus on getting “the least of two evils” elected in the next election. You are entirely correct in that regard.

    But I do mean, and you and Rothbard would most likely disagree with me on this, that we should also be making temporary alliances with any movement which aims to cut back the state through political means. I do not see it as unlibertarian at all to use the state to “force” libertarianism on people, because all we’d be forcing on them is freedom and their right to organize themselves whichever way they see fit. But their right of self-determination does not give them carte blanche to include me in their arrangement. Any cut-back of the state’s coercive power should be cheered. We need a big inclusive movement as well as a hardcore nucleus of radicals. I would count myself with the latter (if one tends towards anarcho-capitalism, one cannot be anything but a radical), but as long as others are pushing in the same direction as we are, we should put our shoulders to work and push as hard as we can with them, whichever words they’re using to get others to do more pushing. The state is taking away our rights, our property, our dignity and expects us to thank them for it, and I am too impatient for our ideas to seep slowly into the minds of the rest of the population while we grow increasingly enslaved by this gigantic monster. I think the problem with a strategy of libertarirans attempting to secede from the state is that we would be thrown in prison unless we have a lot of popular support. And we’d only get popular support if we move with them, instead of putting ourselves out of the political spectrum (which, it is true, is where we belong).

    Lastly, I completely agree with you on the power of ideas. We both would not be here talking about these issues if it weren’t for the spreading of the powerful idea of liberty. But, alas, most people are not like us..
    Btw, I’m really tired, sorry for spelling/grammatical errors in this comment 😀

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