On libertarian strategies
By Alberto Mingardi
Sometimes libertarians remark that they spend too much time thinking about liberty, and not quite enough attempting to spread it. Well, in my experience, libertarians do talk a lot about “political strategy.” The weird thing is that for people who tend to believe in the spontaneous order of the market process, most libertarians are prone to become very upset at fellow libertarians who don’t share their own strategy to spread freedom. There were a number of feuds in the past, mainly in the US but in several European countries, too (sometimes in Europe you get libertarians reacting to battles that happened in the US some thirty years ago, like they’re staging a historical reenactment). Quite a few libertarians fervently believe in competition in everything but strategies for achieving competition in everything.
I suppose this is basically the case because libertarian causes tend to be underfunded, and so everyone aims at “capturing” the few supporters available, and turning them into enthusiasts of her own idea of how to make the world a more libertarian place.
My–perhaps naive–take is that, if something like an “effective” strategy to spread our ideas exist, so far we haven’t clearly identified it, and so we’re better resort to competition, to try to sort it out.
For those who don’t believe they have found the “right” method to overcome statism, and who yet are serious in their search for it, the latest Liberty Matters is the place to start.
David Hart, a scholar whose writings are always precious and insightful, provides a fascinating overview of different strategies for achieving social change. He asks “who is our Antonio Gramsci,” and focuses in particular on the contributions of F.A. Hayek and Murray Rothbard. Both Hayek and Rothbard were great theorists, albeit in different ways, but they were also highly interested in regaining ground for the ideas of liberty. Hayek, as is well known, promoted the birth of the Mont Pelerin Society, greatly helped the British Institute of Economic Affairs, and was always happy to travel the world on the invitation of the then-developing network of free market think tanks. Rothbard was among the founders of the Libertarian Party, the Cato Institute and the Mises Institute. Rothbard was a tremendously prolific writer, and he wrote a lot of journalistic pieces, aimed at expanding the following of libertarian ideas.
Hart so systematised what happened in classical liberal circles ever since WW2:
The First Generation during the 1940s was concerned about rebuilding the classical liberal movement after the devastation of WW2, a strategy which might be termed the discovery and preservation of “The Remnant”; the Second Generation was active during the 1950 and 1960s and busied itself with establishing a variety of educational and publishing institutes and foundations, or a strategy of “Hayekian Educationism”; the Third Generation in the 1970s and 1980s saw the creation of many public policy and outreach programs, or a policy of “Converting the Senior Bureaucrats” combined with “Reverse Fabianism”; and the Fourth Generation in which we are now living has a much more diverse range of activities, several of which take advantage of the internet to disseminate ideas, or a strategy of “let a thousand electronic flowers bloom”.
Hart finds it useful to refer to Austrian capital theory, and in particular the concept of the “structure of production of goods”, to point out that any successful strategy to change the minds of people needs different actors: pluralism, in a sense. it is not just that a “monistic” approach won’t be very libertarian, but you do actually need different kinds of people and lines of effort if you hope to have success.
As Hart clarifies:
For this structure of production of goods to exist, we need investors with a low time preference who are willing to invest their capital in the various stages, we need entrepreneurs who can bring together the funds, skilled personnel, and managerial talent to produce the appropriate goods at each stage of production, and we need a sales force who can persuade consumer to buy their particular product from among all the others goods made by competitors.
When we apply this analysis to the spread of classical liberal ideas it becomes apparent that a successful movement needs all of the following types of individuals and activities:
• individuals who are capable of supplying the intellectual raw materials (the theory of liberty as applied to economics, politics, and society)
• investors who are willing to provide the financial means for these ideas to be produced and distributed to others
• entrepreneurs who can identify a market opportunity (a “strategic issue”) and can organise all the components needed for the production and distribution of ideas for different types of markets (scholarly, general interest, education, mass market)
• a salesforce (marketers, advertisers, salespeople) who can persuade the consumers of ideas to buy this particular product in a competitive market for ideas
• consumers who buy our products (ideas).
Hart has in mind what happened in England with Free Trade, with Adam Smith supplying the intellectual raw materials in 1776, journalists marketing it for half a century, and entrepreneurs identifying the “strategic issue” of Corn Law abolition with the establishment of the Anti-Corn Law League in 1838.
Jeffrey Tucker is a skeptic about “this idea of applying to the world of ideas the structure of production as it pertains to the physical world” . Indeed, ideas aren’t “scarce” in the same way goods are (but resources that are needed to produce “cultural products,” whereby ideas can circulate, are scarce indeed ). David Gordon has a very insightful explanation of why he believes Hart is wrong in juxtaposing that concept to the “production” of liberal scholarship. In particular, “To bring an idea to the public, by contrast, you do not need to have as “raw material” a scholarly idea that you will then simplify.” However, Hart is basically using the Austrian “structure of production of goods” as a metaphor, for his key message is that we need lots of different “inputs” for our ideas to be successful (hopefully, at some point).
This very insightful conversation that it is well worth reading in full.
Steve Davies also has two interesting insights. The first one is related to one of the risks that are most typical of fringe political movement, the fact that they tend to be magnets for all kind of eccentricities.
Davies refers to Colin Campbell and points out that he and other sociologists observed that
people who held one view that deviated from the orthodoxy tended to hold other unorthodox views on matters completely unrelated to their main interest. Thus when socialism was very much an unorthodox view, its adherents were disproportionately likely to also be vegetarians and interested in the occult and cranky or discredited views of history. Today people who have fascist politics are also disproportionately likely to believe that the earth was contacted by aliens or that enormously advanced technologies exist but have been suppressed.
[T]he classical liberals who came together after World War II (…) managed to avoid this trap for the most part, although it remains a peril.
The second interesting point Davies makes is that
In the 19th century, liberal ideas came to permeate much popular culture through literature (as for example in the works of Stendahl, Schiller, Manzoni, Victor Hugo, Trollope, and Thackeray), fine art and architecture (most notably in the works of the “Academical School”), and music (notably the work of people such as Beethoven and Verdi). This was not uncontested of course; we can point to figures such as Charles Dickens, Thomas Carlyle, or Richard Wagner on the other side, but at that time the liberal way of thinking was widespread and influential.
Now, from this you should not infer the necessity of writing the definitive classical liberal novel, or the definitive classical liberal cartoon. Manzoni or Stendhal didn’t have that in mind. But popular culture is important both because it signals that certain ideas are or aren’t widespread in a given society, and because it can be a wonderful way to bring people to think about certain problems. Manzoni’s “The Betrothed,” for example, is a great novel about power (besides having a chapter that is kind of a little treatise in economics). In the 20th century, we had Ayn Rand and some good libertarian sci-fi, but perhaps the closest thing to a strong pro-liberty sensibility in literature were dystopian novels, which opened the eyes of many to the dangers of an overly strong governmental direction of society.
Strategic discussions are fascinating, and they are certainly useful, particularly for leaders of liberty-minded organisations that need to think how to allocate their scarce resources (shall my think tank ‘produce’ x seminars and y books or vice versa? shall we fund PhD fellowships or high school lectures?), and for those donors who really want the most to be made of their money. But you can’t “plan” great scholarship and certainly you can’t “plan” great literature.
Jeffrey Tucker puts it best:
Just as we cannot anticipate the emergent shape of social institutions under conditions of freedom, we cannot anticipate, much less plan, the way in which liberty-centered ideas will bring about social and political change. We think we know, but then, as it turns out, we don’t know.