An Open Letter to the libertarian movement
By Perry Willis
I’ve heard it for forty years: “Libertarians have a marketing problem.” Never mind that…
- 30-million Americans now self-identify as libertarian.
- Another 30-million hold mostly libertarian views.
- Opinion polls routinely show majority support for libertarian stances on most issues.
Even more incredible — all of this was achieved with little visibility and despite outright hostility from the media and academia. Yet somehow libertarians still think their ideas aren’t being accepted. That’s because…
- The media tells us so.
- Libertarian Party candidates continue to score single-digit vote percentages.
- Congress continues to pass one horrible law after another.
But that third thing is a consequence of the second thing which is a result of the first thing!
The media only covers the Left and the Right. People then vote defensively between those two choices — for the “lesser of two evils.” Even most libertarians vote this way! It’s a natural “game theory” consequence of “media agenda setting” and “winner-takes-all” elections.
So we libertarians are judging our progress by what our enemies say about us. That’s like the Boston Red Sox deciding they’re no good because the New York Yankees say so. Meanwhile…
The entire country has actually moved in our direction!
It bears repeating…
- Many millions self-identify as libertarian.
- Many millions more hold mostly libertarian views.
- Majorities agree with the general libertarian approach on most issues.
We libertarians are winning the intellectual war without even realizing it.
Then, having misdiagnosed the disease we apply the wrong cure. Every libertarian “doctor” has the same basic idea: better marketing. This means different things to different libertarians, but a few ideas are evergreen…
- Ditch our most unpopular positions
- Drop electoral politics
- Get more serious about electoral politics
- Run in the major parties
- Don’t run in the major parties
- Use only utilitarian arguments
- Use only moral arguments
- Use both utilitarian and moral arguments
- Use less logic and more emotion
- Adopt a new name
- Be more positive
- Use simpler language
Taking them one-by-one…
Ditch our most unpopular positions
Drug legalization used to be the main position we were supposed to drop. We emphasized it instead. And opinion moved in our direction!
Now we’re supposed to abandon open borders. Wrong. Learn from history. We should emphasize open borders!
Tom Paine was right, “Time makes more converts than reason.” Fifty years of being consistent and persistent has led to 30-60 million libertarians, plus movement toward the libertarian position on most issues, including drugs. The same thing can happen with open borders and our overall philosophy, if we realize that….
Consistent persistence is the best marketing stance we have!
Don’t run in the major parties
Give-up on the Libertarian Party
But the LP is a huge entry point for many new libertarians. It gave a powerful platform to people like Harry Browne. It’s attracted people like Gary Johnson, William Weld, and Laura Ebke away from the establishment parties. Why throw that away?
Only use moral arguments
Well, the movement has mostly used utilitarian arguments for the past half-century, during which time the entire culture has slowly moved our direction. Why should we stop doing something that works?
Most people who accept our moral argument will still want to test the practical consequences. This means utilitarian arguments can’t be avoided.
Use less logic and more emotion
This is another popular idea. When I hear libertarians propose it, I ask for examples. They usually respond with some logical argument that provokes an emotion. Sorry, but that doesn’t meet the claim. The proposal was to use emotion more and logic less. Wedding logic and emotion together is something different! Here’s what I think…
Libertarianism joins thinking and feeling together in a unified whole.
Things like the Golden Rule, the Zero Aggression Principle, the self-ownership principle, and the equal liberty rule are all logical constructs. But violating them provokes emotion. This intellectual-emotional holism differentiates us from doctrines like Fascism and Communism, where logic and emotion are divorced from each other.
But there’s no new marketing scheme to try here. Libertarians already excel at deploying logic, emotion, and humor in a potent blend. If you don’t think so, spend a few hours reviewing the clever memes libertarians post on Facebook. No one does it better. No one!
We need a new name!
Does it help to close the barn after the cow escapes? Surveys and studies show that 30-million people have already embraced the word libertarian. Should we really use scarce resources to persuade them they made a mistake?
And will it really help us persuade statists if we keep having to admit that our new coolitarian label is what they used to call libertarian?
We should be more positive
I’ve heard this one a thousand times: How come libertarians are always against stuff? Why do we use negative terms like aggression and abolish? Well…
- How did the anti-slavery movement ever triumph using downer terms like “anti-slavery” and “abolition?”
- How did Volkswagen gain market share for the Beetle with ads that asked “Lemon?”
- How did Avis succeed by admitting they were only number two?
- Why did 7-Up spend millions calling itself the “un-cola?”
- Why are political ads so harsh? Don’t campaign consultants know negativity doesn’t work?
In reality, the negative position can be smart marketing. And being against bad things is often the most positive thing you can do. The intuition to use only positive words sounds right, but it fails the market test.
Use simpler language
This has been the marketing Holy Grail for libertarians since I joined the movement. But after four decades I’ve yet to see any “simple explanation” achieve special results. I’ve personally gained some traction with my own “simple pitch”…
Don’t use state aggression to impose your personal preferences on others.
But it’s not a magic bullet that ends the need for further conversation, let alone lengthy utilitarian debates.
Statists have many reasons for being statists, and they want those reasons addressed, one-by-one. There’s no way to shortcut this process. It’s inherently complex and time-consuming.
It’s also possible to make our language too simple. Consider the current most popular super-simple libertarian explanation…
Don’t hurt people or take their stuff.
Any child can understand it, and everyone agrees with it. But that’s precisely why it fails. Because any statist can accept it without changing a single position. They can even claim that the statement perfectly describes their own politics. They want to protect people and give them stuff! To counter this you must then show them all the ways that they don’t protect people, and the hidden costs of the things they give. Insto-presto, your super-simple libertarian presentation is no longer simple.
The idea that we can use words that everyone likes to better persuade people is attractive but wrong! New ideas often require new formulations to make them memorable. A phrase like “initiated force” can impart a new idea in a way that “don’t hurt people” simply can’t. Indeed, we must use words that a statist would not use, so as to clearly differentiate our product. In short…
Words that will conquer must first divide!
So, given all of the above…
Are there no new trails to blaze for libertarian marketing?
Yes, there are new trails to blaze.
Step one — Learn to take “Yes” for an answer.
Realize that more than half-a-century of consistent, persistent effort, using multiple tactics and strategies, has brought us to the following situation…
- 30 million Americans self-identify as libertarian.
- 30 million more hold mostly libertarian views.
- Huge portions of the statist population agree with us on enough things to make our position the majority stance on most issues.
All of these people are saying yes to us in a variety of ways. We need to accept, embrace, and celebrate this. It represents incredible progress! We should feel good about it. And we need to stop judging our progress based on…
- How the media treats us.
- How LP candidates fare in a system designed to punish third parties.
- All the bad laws being passed in Congress (change on the political front will be the lagging indicator).
Step two — locate every person who agrees with us.
Create a database of the 30 million who self-identify as libertarian, and the other 30 million who hold mostly libertarian positions.
Better yet, create a database of the entire country! Take note of each person who holds any view that would move things in a libertarian direction. It’s a big project, of course. But the major parties have already done this. They have massive “get out the vote” databases. We must do the same.
Step three — activate as many of these people as we can.
Use every tactic we can think of to cause action — jury nullification, grassroots lobbying, initiatives, running in major party primaries, or supporting Libertarian Party campaigns. Every tactic and marketing approach should be deployed because they all have something to contribute.
Step four — gain visibility parity with the Left and Right.
We won’t start to persuade statists to any significant degree until we achieve this goal. Our ideas must be heard at the same volume as statist ideas.
Step five — keep pushing the moral argument.
This will move our libertarian recruits in a more voluntaryist direction, and American culture will eventually follow.
So the libertarian market myth boils down to this — there is no magic bullet.
There is no one best way. We will succeed in the future the same way we have in the past. We gained the agreement (total or partial) of 30-60 million Americans through strategic and tactical pluralism, using marketing diversity and principled consistency wedded to persistence. As it was in the past, so shall it be in the future. Now go forth and conquer.
Note: Why is Perry Willis uniquely qualified to write this article? See Jim Babka’s blog post, “An Open Letter to the libertarian movement“