The Art of Persuasion

The newest posting at Libertarianism.org is a 1979 speech by Nathaniel Branden, from the largest-ever convention of the Libertarian Party, titled “What Happens When the Libertarian Movement Begins to Succeed?” Alas, it’s audio-only, unlike all the classic videos at Libertarianism.org. But it’s still vintage Branden, and quite interesting. The site’s multimedia editor, Evan Banks, drew my attention to this part of the speech (starting around 22:22) that I think has a lot of relevance to the work we do at Cato and the attempts at persuasion by libertarians generally:

So it becomes very interesting to ask ourselves – and obviously I don’t wish to imply this applies to all of us, it doesn’t – but these are trends to watch for in ourselves and in our colleagues. So it becomes interesting to ask ourselves: Okay, suppose that I or my friends or my colleagues, while genuinely believing in these ideals, at the same time have this unrecognized negative self-concept of which Branden speaks. That means that my self-sabotaging behavior wouldn’t happen on a conscious level, but it would happen. How would it happen? What kinds of mistakes might we make?
 
Well, for example, suppose that you’re talking with people that don’t already share your views, and yet you believe your views have evidence and reason to support them. Now, if you really believe that you’re in this to win; to see your ideas prevail, then you give a lot of thought to how to become a good communicator, how to reach human minds, how to appeal to human intelligence. What do you do if you’re really in it to keep proving that you’re a heroic–but doomed–martyr? What do you do if your deepest belief [about people that don’t already share your views] is, “You’re never going to get it. You’re hopelessly corrupt. I may be one of the two or three last moral people on Earth. What am I doing at this party anyway?”
[laughter]
 
You engage in a lot of flaming rhetoric – you talk about statists, you talk about looters, you talk about parasites in contexts where you KNOW this language is Greek to your listener. Why should you care, your dialogue isn’t directed to him anyway – it’s directed to the spectator – you watching you being a hero. HE knows what you mean – don’t get confused over the fact that your listeners don’t, the show isn’t for them anyway.

 

So, one of the signs that we want to look out for, and one of the most important signs, happens in how we approach communication. Are we really out to reach human beings? Are we really out to build a bridge to somebody whose context may be very different from our own? Do we still remember that a lot of what we now regard as self-evident once upon a time wasn’t self-evident? Or do we walk into a conversation on the premise: I’ll give you one chance, after which you’re irredeemably evil?
[laughter]
 
You see, that could be called a communication problem, but I think it would be too superficial to describe it in that manner. I would call it a “phony image” problem: you’re not in it to win, you’re not in it to persuade, you’re not in it to convince, you’re not in it to reach out and touch another human mind; you’re out to make yourself out as the lowly unappreciated misunderstood heroic martyr you always knew you were, ever since your mother gave more attention to your brother.
[laughter]
 
Perhaps communication is one of the chief areas where this problem manifests. Another example in the area of communication, it occurs to me, is libertarians who cannot seem to come off the level of extreme generality. Once they have made up their mind that – for example – welfare programs are inappropriate or improper, and ultimately immoral, that’s the end of the conversation. They’re not interested in dealing with the perfectly natural questions that perfectly civilized decent people are going to ask next about the very real problems of people in our particular world. They don’t think in terms of responsible answers, they don’t think in terms of voluntary solutions, they don’t think in terms of developing highly concrete, highly specific libertarian alternatives. 
 
Why don’t they? Because they never believed they could persuade anyway. To invest that much thinking you have to really think you could make a difference. To do your homework, to master the subject, to know how to argue beyond the very general level you have to really believe you can make a difference.
 
What if you don’t, BUT you want to play in the game? You climb up on your white horse, confine [yourself] to generalities, and curse those who aren’t convinced. 
Good advice! Meanwhile, find plenty of videos – from Hayek, Friedman, Rand, Rothbard, and more – at Libertarianism.org, along with George Smith’s weekly column on libertarian thought, the Free Thoughts blog, and four impressive reading lists – at the ever-expanding Libertarianism.org.