Saturday, June 1, 2013

On Presenting Libertarianism

NOTE: This blog-post was originally written January 14th, 2013... It has been updated somewhat to reflect additional information and changes to my life in the intervening 6 months. With that in mind, I want to have an in-depth conversation about Libertarian Marketing.

* * * * *
The back story to what I'm about to discuss is a little complicated, but this past weekend way back in January, I produced a video with Cathy Reisenwitz, which was a response to what we felt was a somewhat sexist and tactically counter-productive video by the popular libertarian vlogger, Julie Borowski, on the subject of why there aren't more female libertarians.

This is Julie's video:

...and this was our response:

Our video ultimately became the first episode of what is now, essentially, "The Libertarienne Show", a (now bimonthly...ish) webseries that I've been producing on YouTube ever since - and for which, quite sadly to me, Cathy is no longer my partner and host.

This, along with a few other responses to Julie's video (including this bomb-thrower by Sarah Skwire & Steve Horwitz), threw some fuel onto the growing fire of a debate among a number of libertarians over a few issues. One of the biggest - yet most uninteresting - issues that exploded at that time was over whether you can or should be a social conservative and still be a libertarian.

This actually seems like a non-issue to me in philosophical terms... You can. Of course.

As long as you do not try to force other people to hold the same personal preferences about religion, sex, culture, language, etc. as you have, you may believe whatever you want and still be considered a libertarian. You can (theoretically) be the most socially conservative, or the most socially liberal person in the world. You can be kind, charitable and caring, or you could be stingy, greedy and cold-hearted.

As loathed as I am to say this, you can even be a racist or a sexist (or happily, an anti-racist and sexist)... and still be a "libertarian". 

Libertarian philosophy has little to say about anything directly except the role of force in society. If you think it's not ok to initiate force or to use government to do it on your behalf, you're in the club!

So that's the first issue. But for me, it's really not the important issue.

The second big issue debated was over the original question... Why, precisely, there aren't many libertarian women out there. But honestly, even though Cathy went on radio shows and spoke at ISFLC as a byproduct of our video on that topic, I'm really not that interested in that question either. At least not precisely...

What I am interested in is the way ideas are presented, and why presentation matters.

So, what's ultimately important to me is that regardless of whether or not you "can" be a proper "libertarian" and believe different things about culture, sex and religion, the way you present yourself if you wish to be a representative of "libertarians" in a public forum matters a ton.

Sure. You can be a jerk and also be a libertarian, but you shouldn't... for two major reasons:
  1. Being a jerk isn't a very good way to be as a human (regardless of political philosophy)
  2. If you are a jerk and you represent a political philosophy, all those who interact with you and are put off by your behavior will associate that behavior with other people who support your political philosophy - thereby tarnishing not only your reputation but that of others.
Fortunately, Julie isn't a jerk!

I don't know her very well, but in all of our interactions, she's seemed to be a very sweet and kind person. I actually like her a great deal. She's certainly bright and usually a decent representative for other libertarians. Sometimes, she's a downright fantastic representative, actually. Check out her video on "Why a $9 Minimum Wage is a Bad Idea" as one fabulous example.

Ultimate sweater-vest champion, Rick Santorum. Also
the nemesis of everything most people actually like.
However... The implicit social conservatism and mockery of popular social/cultural mores and personal preferences that the video Cathy & I responded to seemed to express does (in my view) reflect poorly on the rest of us.

I found that to be a little odd, since she began the video by suggesting that the reason there aren't more female libertarians is because libertarian ideas aren't well-represented in mainstream pop-culture. It seems to me that if your goal is to increase the presence of your ideas in pop-culture, insulting some of the most mainstream magazines (i.e. Cosmo) and social mores out there doesn't advance that goal at all.

Consequently, all of this aspect of the discussion created a new debate about "marketing", and opinions started flying.

And now that the backstory is all caught up, that brings me to the real subject of this post.

Presentation & Marketing

A lot of libertarians fundamentally don't understand why presentation matters or even acknowledge that it's an issue we can do anything about. A few days ago Quite a while ago now (again... mea culpa!), Bryan Caplan chimed in with the argument that certain types of personalities just won't be very receptive to libertarian conclusions, no matter what "marketing" you do.

At EconLog, Caplan wrote the following:
"Thinking people tend to have "hard heads" and "hard hearts," while Feeling people have "soft heads" and "soft hearts."  Unsurprisingly, then, Feeling people tend to hold more anti-market views.  I've similarly found strong evidence that males "think more like economists."  This gender belief gap increases with education, consistent with a simple model where male and female students gradually learn more about whatever their personalities incline them to study."
While I don't disagree that there are differences in personality that predispose people to being better economists or philosophers vs. artists and creators (and I've recently written extensively about this), I disagree entirely that these facts necessarily mean that certain conclusions about the world will or will not be accepted.

And I certainly do not believe that there is something intrinsic about being male or female that predetermines a person's political conclusions. The fact that an academic of Caplan's caliber would even say that is really disappointing to me.

As such, I wrote a lengthy post on Facebook in response to a guy who cited Caplan's arguments as "proof" that marketing is irrelevant, and that anyone who doesn't "get" libertarian ideas intuitively and isn't likely to be persuaded by white papers and plainly stated logical arguments won't ever get it.

Steve Horwitz re-posted my comments shortly thereafter, saying:
"Sean Malone just nails it in a comment on another thread. ‎I have cut some specific references, but otherwise not changed a word because I couldn't have said it better myself:"
Here's what I had written:
"I don't agree that being "soft headed" has anything to do with being a good or a bad candidate for "recruitment to libertarianism", nor do I believe that being "soft headed" leads to anti-market views necessarily. I believe that libertarians ... package libertarianism in such a way that tends to lack any appeal to empathetic thinking, and THAT is what turns people who have a more empathetic approach to life - regardless of their gender.

What you're saying is blaming the audience for not liking what you've presented to them. But it's your presentation that's the problem. This whole line of reasoning that says that empathetic people are going to want government to control everything is ludicrous.

Government is a violent killer and imprisoner of sons & daughters, husbands & wives. It's a destroyer of opportunity, wealth, homes, families, lives. There is NOTHING about the nature of thinking empathetically or being "soft" in that way that should necessarily lead anyone to be anti-market or pro-state. Libertarians over the last several decades are 100% to blame for the piss-poor presentation of libertarian ideas as exclusively the province of male intellectuals.

That realization was, in fact, precisely why I got into the line of work I'm in.

I saw the presentation of libertarian ideas, and how abysmally poor it is at reaching anyone who doesn't innately want to view the world as a logic problem to be solved and of that small subset of people who are exceptionally rational, even only a few reason through with premises that lead them to libertarianism anyway. The overwhelming majority of people in this world are people who think emotionally and empathetically, and are not very analytical or critical in the way they approach their decision-making.

Instead of throwing your hands up in the air and say that those people just aren't capable or "suited" to being libertarians, perhaps you might consider that the reason those people don't automatically gravitate towards supporting freedom is because people - like you in this case, unfortunately - act in ways that completely turn them away."
The always brilliant John Papola (co-creator, with Russ Roberts, of EconStories "Fear the Boom & Bust: A Hayek vs. Keynes Rap Athem"), echoed my comments:
"The art of communication is crafting your message so that it is understood by the listener and the art of persuasion is making it compelling. Story is overwhelmingly about humanizing parable and is the single best engine for communication AND persuasion. We may wish to spend more time actually TRYING these techniques before dismissing people for the softness of their heads. It is the great challenge of humanity to translate emergent order and the abstract beauty of the market ecosystem (the "macrocosm") to our fellow creatures whose natural inclinations are to project their personal experiences at the family level (the "microcosm") to the broader society. Ours is the harder task. It's easy to say "let's all act like one big earth family". It FEELS great. On a spiritual level it can even be true. But in the material world, it's a path to deception and despair. Our challenge is to make our case in the context of people's natural biases. It IS about marketing. And it's crazy to dismiss the power of great marketing when our kin have barely tried it while others have demonstrated its effectiveness so clearly."
This - unsurprisingly - sparked a whole other discussion on Steve Horwitz' page, and eventually Bryan Caplan added to that debate as well... Among other things directed specifically to me, Prof. Caplan wrote:
"I wish you were right, Sean. But the evidence is against you. Personality predicts opinions fairly well on a very wide variety of issues, most with nothing to do with libertarianism. While we can *imagine* great emotional appeals in favor of liberty, that's no reason to think they will actually convert lots of Feeling people.

To repeat, I wouldn't be surprised if better marketing had a substantial effect. But high confidence that better marketing is a full solution is not warranted."
As I said in my reply, I think Caplan misreads "the evidence".

People learn in different ways, and they respond differently to different types of arguments and presentations of ideas. Building somewhat on Howard Gardner's theory of "Multiple Intelligences", even on a basic level, teacher education all over the world now recognizes that different students need different teaching approaches.

None of this means a person is more or less likely to accept specific conclusions, it just means they're more or less likely to respond well to certain approaches. A person who learns visually will be better able to learn accurate conclusions and attain competency in science or mathematics if the subjects are taught visually instead of analytically through a textbook or lecture.

We know all this. Conceivably, Caplan is aware of this as well.

Libertarians who may be naturally inclined to become economists and think like economists have, unfortunately, spent all of their energies on outreach ignoring anybody who doesn't naturally think the way they think and have mostly just cultivated the people they know how to easily talk to. This has been to the overall detriment of the libertarian community, which is now much less diverse in personality (and in choice of profession) than it otherwise could have been.

But. Caplan still disagrees. So he posed what he calls a "simple challenge":
"Several critics replied that this is just a failure of imagination on my part.  If you can make an idea appealing to Thinking people, you can make it appealing to Feeling people.  Just skillfully repackage the product, and you're done.

I'm skeptical, but I'd love to be proven wrong.  So I propose a simple challenge to pave the way to my refutation: Tell me how to sell the abolition of the minimum wage to the typical Feeling American.

Please don't give me any "hard heads, soft hearts" answers.  Give me "soft heads, soft hearts" answers.  You're trying to persuade Oprah Winfrey, not Data from Star Trek after he gets his emotion chip."
The thing is, though... This isn't a "simple challenge", at all!

Part of the issue with presentation - especially to those with "soft heads" and "soft hearts" as Caplan put it - is that it's not really about rhetorical argumentation. It's not a single re-brand or advertisement that influences the way people think about these ideas - and especially in the face of literally decades of great marketing for non-libertarian positions.

As my friend Jeff likes to say, this is about "drops on a rock".

Watch this movie. Now.
One of my most well-supported arguments is that people have been influenced somewhat slowly over time through consistent and frequent exposure to persuasive, narrative, stories that offer a perspective negative to markets and positive to government. This has come from "consumer reports" on nightly news, writers of film & television, college professors and other cultural influencers.

Further, I would argue that people in the US didn't just wake up one day and have a split between economists and artists. In fact, one of my favorite pro-business/market scenes of any film ever comes from Billy Wilder's romantic comedy, "Sabrina" from 1954.

Consider the following exchange between William Holden and Humphrey Bogart:
Holden: "You've got all the money in the world."
Bogart: "Making money isn't the main point of business. Money is a by-product."
Holden: "What's the main objective? Power?"
Bogart: "Ah! That's become a dirty word."
Holden: "What's the urge? You're going into plastics. What will that prove?"
Bogart: "Prove? Nothing much.
A new product has been found, something of use to the world. A new industry moves into an undeveloped area. Factories go up, machines go in and you're in business. It's coincidental that people who've never seen a dime now have a dollar and barefooted kids wear shoes and have their faces washed.
What's wrong with an urge that gives people libraries, hospitals, baseball diamonds and movies on a Saturday night?"
[Bogart calls in his secretary]
Holden: "You make me feel like a heel."
This wonderful moment of support for business & markets in popular media was in a successful film in 1954 starring Audrey Hepburn and two of the biggest male movie stars in the history of the business - written by one of the greatest play & screenwriters there ever was.

And the film was critically acclaimed, to boot!

Billy Wilder was nominated for an Academy Award that year both for Best Direction and Best Story & Screeenplay.

The male hero in Sabrina is a rich, successful businessman who spends too much time at the office, but is a moral, worthy man. The guy who doesn't wind up with the girl (one of the most beautiful in cinematic history, by the way!) was a trust-fund Lothario living off the wealth his brother created.

You won't find that in the films of today.

In the 60s and 70s, the ideas expressed in art and popular media started to change. I've got theories on why, but my real point is simply that when that changed, and when people started growing up with media that promoted the idea that business and markets were evil and government solutions were preferable, the culture began to seriously change. This exploded in the 80s - partially as a rejection to tough economic conditions.

In any case... By the time people grow up, they've often consumed thousands of hours of media that presents a negative view of the market. If you're a "hard-headed" individual - i.e. you use reason and analysis to come to your opinions about the world - then perhaps those hours of entertainment watched will have no effect on you, assuming you were interested in spending your time watching movies or going to plays and enjoying popular art at all. But if you're not "hard-headed" in that regard, it's my contention that those thousands of hours will influence you - and you're probably someone who spends more time consuming media than someone who wants to read philosophy textbooks.

So markets are vilified. Business is vilified. However... Plenty of non-economic, yet still libertarian, ideas are actually ascendant in popular culture... gay rights, drug legalization, etc.

Not coincidentally in my view, most popular media presents those ideas in a positive light, and not for any intellectual reason, tons of "soft-headed, soft-hearted" people now accept that marijuana is ok, gay marriage and homosexual relationships are ok, and more individual freedom to choose the life-style they want is usually good for people.

But... We all need to realize that it's thousands and thousands of hours, hundreds of separate pieces of media in film, television, radio, live performances & print, which influence people over the course of their lives.

So presenting a single story about minimum wage isn't exactly the "solution". This is a long-term issue.

As such, I find it incredibly different to really respond to Caplan's "simple challenge". I know there's no way for me to offer a single, catch-all, story that is a magic bullet for people who think empathetically and are "feeling" personality types.

I might even suggest that the reason Caplan seemed to believe that that might be possible is precisely because he is "hard headed". Those types of people (and I am in a lot of ways among them) often find a single, well-reasoned and expertly supported argument to be convincing enough. The idea that a single, exceptionally emotionally-compelling story would be conclusively convincing to "soft headed" people might seem normal to Caplan, but that's just not how it works.

I could - and frequently do - write and produce stories that I believe might be a step in the right direction. For example, here are a couple videos I've produced supporting entrepreneurial freedom based around sharing a business owner's personal experiences instead of just presenting a series of facts - as most of my economist friends would prefer.

I've got a very exciting project on the horizon which will be made public pretty soon that expands on this idea. I've also written narrative scripts and tons of other stories that offer arguments to what Caplan calls "soft-headed" people.

But... I know that I cannot offer any legitimate answer to Caplan's actual request, because there is no single story that works. Using emotional story-telling to reach people about libertarian ideas - or any ideas - is about touching the hearts of your audience members. Every audience member is going to respond to different stories based on how well they connect to their own experiences and beliefs. That's not a rational argument, or something that can be done in the abstract. A story has to resonate directly... and that's hard to do, and absolutely not even a little bit "one-size-fits-all".

And this is partly what interests me the most. As a rather explicitly libertarian media producer, I find myself caught between a rock and a hard place constantly.

On the one hand, I'm surrounded by people who seem to finally understand that they have a serious marketing problem and struggle to get most ordinary people to actually care about - and thus, buy into - better ideas about economics & political philosophy. On the other hand, it seems that virtually none of those people respond to the kinds of stories and arguments that actually move "normal" people, and thus they're typically unable to fully appreciate or understand exactly how things need to be changed in terms of our presentation.

...or they still don't even know why we should bother to change our presentation in the first place.

So it's turned out that even though I now have a position where I can make a lot of what I think is best, it's still an uphill battle to get anybody to put the resources and support behind it to actually have those products be produced at a high level, or get seen by anybody - which really inhibits their effectiveness.

All Caplan's post and the surrounding arguments did for me was remind me that my crusade is far from over. There's a lot of work yet to be done - not just in reaching out to non-libertarians, but also to get more of our own community to actually understand why they're so bad at this stuff.

Don't worry though. I'll win eventually!

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