Thursday, November 12, 2009

Time for Free Marketers to Learn About Advertising!

Today, a number of things have been on my mind, all quite connected.

First, there's this BBC article, which illuminates a 29,000 person survey they had recently conducted on public opinion regarding economic systems in light of the 20-year anniversary of the collapse of the Soviet Union.

According to the article:
"Twenty years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, a new BBC poll has found widespread dissatisfaction with free-market capitalism.

In the global poll for the BBC World Service, only 11% of those questioned across 27 countries said that it was working well.

Most thought regulation and reform of the capitalist system were necessary."
Obviously, this is upsetting to me, though not at all surprising. Now, let's set aside the fact that no country in the world has adopted "free market" Capitalism. The American economy is about as Corporatist/Mercantilist as you could possibly get, most everywhere else is on the border of outright Socialism or hybrid Fascism, and many countries are nothing more than loosely organized kleptocracies where property rights barely exist and certainly aren't protected... I could not name a single example of a free market macro-economy anywhere in the world (though I could name about a thousand wonderfully free micro-economies doing great things).

Yet, as misinformed & confused as people are about their own economic systems, and as completely and as irrevocably wrong they are on understanding the power of economic freedom to bring prosperity and wealth to the masses... The fact that only 11% think it's a good thing is utterly predictable.


Because from the time people are born, through every meaningful stage of intellectual development, people in America and around the world are bombarded with media, entertainment & a cultural philosophy that ingrains exactly that opinion!

Merely to pull from my own life, when I was 9 years old, the movie "FernGully: The Last Rainforest" was released in theatres. For those who missed out on that gem, it was about a magical Australian rainforest inhabited by cute woodland creatures. There was even a crazy fruit bat/research laboratory escapee who'd been injected and sprayed with all sorts of cruel chemicals (played by Robin Williams, of course). There were also fairies, sprites and some other nonsense.

For no apparent reason, their home was being decimated by loggers - American ones at that - who unwittingly released the "Hexxus", an evil smog creature (properly voiced by the demonic, Tim Curry) from some bazillion year old tree which they cut down just for fun. The Hexxus thrives on pollution... Needless to say, by the end of the movie he was insanely powerful, and the bumbling, idiot humans needed to be taught that polluting is bad.

What lesson did 9 year old me get?

That humans are evil destroyers of the planet, that "the boss" of any business doesn't care about anything and wants desperately to release poison into the atmosphere while cutting down as many trees as possible (for what purpose, the movie never explains, and most of the trees wind up being run through what appears to be a woodchipper lit on fire... Perhaps they were making mulch?), that animal testing is evil and hurts the poor bat, and of course, that an overgrown rainforest in its "natural" state is always best and no rainforest should ever be "exploited".

That's a pretty heavy message for a 9 year old kid... But I had no trouble getting it. Neither did any of my classmates. In fact, I got it so well that I actually wrote and illustrated a series of "books" filled with stories pedaling what I felt were pro-environment messages. If I had been older and knew what I was doing, I might have joined PETA. Fortunately I didn't...

But ok, sure - that's just one movie, when I was 9, right? Wrong! It was dozens of movies... It was most of the media I consumed as a boy, I bet it was most of the movies you watched as a kid too, almost regardless of your age! The vast majority of films marketed to children contain moral lessons that basically follow one of only a couple scripts:
  1. Technology & business are evil and are mutually exclusive to family and sentimental attachment or love.
  2. Nature is perfect, and animals are innocent, cute, intelligent and noble, whereas mankind is unnatural and ruins it... So stop ruining nature already!
It's just the same today as it was then... One of my favorite examples is Roger Allam's portrayal of E.P. Arnold Royalton as the main villain in the recent live action movie version of Speed Racer, representing corporations and evil business interests.

Evil Businessman!! Is there any other kind!?
First off... Look at his suit... Excellent. Look at his sneer as well... Fabulous!

Seriously though, this is the point. We have decades of media - I'd suggest at least 50 years in fact - which portray business interests as evil and economic liberty (rather than corporatism) as responsible for people like Royalton getting to run the world by cheating their way to the top.

Royalton is only one of an endless series of examples of this point though. As I've previously noted, some studies have found that over 70% of prime-time television can be considered "anti-business", based on their consistent use of business-people as villains. It's all a series of flawed premises and bad reasoning though, isn't it?

Royalton, in the scene depicted above, is sneering about the sport of car racing being fixed, and that the only scoreboard that really matters is his stock-ticker. He goes on to say that there isn't a car on the roads or a plane in the sky that doesn't use one of his company's motors. Granted, he was exaggerating, as we know he doesn't have a monopoly, but regardless - isn't that a good thing?? Without Royalton Motors, setting aside the unnecessarily bad sportsmanship & fraud perpetrated by Mr. Royalton (certainly worthy of retribution and potential jail-time, to be sure), how can we hate the company he represents for providing the engines that power people's lives and make everyone better off?

I don't. Yet, the film makes it perfectly clear (again... look at that sneer!) that we must. We have no choice. He's a cheater! He's rich... And as John Goodman's character of Pops Racer points out:
"When people get too much money, they start thinking the rules don't apply to them."
Too much money for Pops is anything that would fund operations larger than his small engine shop, apparently... I think I've made my point here though: It's not just me reading too much into the content of these films - the message couldn't be any clearer. If you are rich, or you are running a successful business - you only got there by cheating. There is no other option.

And all this populist jive plays well with people for the same reasons it's always played well with people... Envy.

It is just easier for most people to believe that they did everything they could to get ahead, and if they haven't managed to break out of their average socioeconomic situation, it is naturally some one else who is to blame. Recognizing this fact, writers working in entertainment succeed quite often by regularly making their protagonist the lovable "everyman" who is mistreated by the rich & powerful elite. And in real-life, corporatist cronyism reinforces these ideas. But far from being a product of "too much liberty", this is something that results from far too little.

When I left SmartSound, I set out with a mission to help correct these misconceptions and to offer a better way - and it's a tough mission indeed. What's making it remarkably tougher, however, is that some of the very organizations that are best positioned to combat these problems (free market think tanks, economic policy groups, supporters of liberty in general) appear to have only minimal interest in expanding their influence beyond that which basically finds them.

I cannot accept this.

I simply can't... Nor can I abide some of the Free State Project or Free Keene folks who seem to believe that they can avoid the problems of a culture unsympathetic to liberty by pretending that it doesn't matter what anyone else thinks (even while being subject to the laws & taxes imposed by those very people)... Or worse, those who think that it's possible increase the opportunities for genuine liberty through childish civil disobedience and irritating their neighbors with protests & ridiculous stunts.

So what am I doing about it?

Well... At the moment, I'm continually in the process of pitching my services to a wide array of such organizations and making these arguments. I just wrapped up a consulting job for the Mises Institute, and I'm hoping that their president, Lew Rockwell - who just yesterday wrote a hefty article about the BBC poll, and the "triumph of socialism" - believes that the 11% can be corrected. I agree that this is a situation that can definitely be improved, and they can lead the way if they want. I can help.

But it doesn't seem like Lew is very hopeful... Regarding the fall of the Soviet Union, he wrote:
"What can we learn? Far from not having learned anything, people have largely forgotten the experience and have developed a love for the ancient fairy tale that all things can be fixed through collectivism and central planning."
It's true, people have forgotten the lessons of the evils of socialism.

But to really understand this situation free-market supporters are in requires them to learn an important lesson of their own: It takes more (much more!) than a good argument and facts to convince the vast majority of people of the correctness of one's views.

What it really takes is persuasion, and to do that, one must realize that what motivates most people is not abstract theory and logical reasoning, but emotional investment in the ideas.

Socialism always presents the opportunity for its supporters to claim that they "care", and because they care, they would give everyone "free" food, health care, housing, transportation... You name it. Because everyone deserves to have these things. In fact, not only do they deserve to be taken care of by someone else, it's an indispensable right without which, people would not be truly free - free to meet their highest potential... Free from worrying about the basic necessities.

Doesn't that sound wonderful? Surely it does. However, it glosses over some pretty extreme problems. I've explained these problems in a previous post, and everyone from Ludwig von Mises and F.A. Hayek, to Ron Paul and P.J. O'Rourke have as well. But the trouble is; to fully understand why the people who make such lofty promises are never able to deliver, one has to possess some rather specific historical & economic knowledge and a penchant for abstract reasoning that most people never bother to acquire.

"I'll give you free stuff" is quite a bit easier to understand than "rational economic calculation is impossible without freely shifting prices" or "wage controls result in increased unemployment as the labor cost mandated exceeds the marginal utility of labor." Granted... But this does not mean that people are not smart enough to understand the more complex aspects of these things, when presented correctly.

Simply trying our best to actually cater to ordinary people's expectations about the type & quality of one's media presentation is a great way to start!

WAY too many libertarian organizations ignore this step completely for reasons that remain entirely mysterious to me.

I often get the impression that many are actually afraid that if their ideas were presented properly, the ranks would expand. Though most people realize that expanding the ranks is the whole point, like a teenager disappointed that he wasn't the first person to discover a popular band, some people have a strong attachment to the "purity" of their ideas and those who share them. It's a strange breed of tribalism that I'd think wouldn't crop up with adherents to such an intrinsically anti-tribal philosophy, yet it rears its ugly hydra-heads again & again. So for some, it seems like belonging to the club is more important than seeing the ideas of the club actually change the world for the better. I can't waste my time with that view. Freedom is good, for everyone... Not just for people who "get" it.

Libertarianism can absolutely be appealing to mass audiences... IF only the leaders of the intellectual movements would step up to the metaphorical plate.

That said, it certainly seems to me that I shouldn't really wait for anyone else to take this initiative. Given some of my experiences, I may be waiting a long time. So, I think I'm about to create something on my own. It's time to put my own foot forward on this issue... So in the coming months, I'm going to be working diligently, not only to produce new content that makes important and persuasive points in defense of liberty, but also to set up a home for such content on the web. Not simply a "library", not another version of fr33agents... More like Al Gore's "", but... Intelligent.

Any additional support will always be welcome.

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