Handbook to Grow Libertarianism, Part 3

Julian Adorney
Sep 5, 2013 at 11:27 AM

Baffled by why statists think the way they do, and why they still brush off libertarianism?  It’s all about psychology, and how people view government.  In this three-part series, I explain the three central arguments libertarians need to make to win over progressives and other statists.

 Most non-libertarians, especially progressives, make three inherent assumptions about the United States government.  They assume that our government has our best interests at heart, is inherently transparent, and is fundamentally representative.  Those core beliefs explain why they can see government behaving badly, see the NSA and wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and a thousand other messes, and still vote for more government. 

They see those actions as the exception, occasional mistakes by our otherwise benevolent elected officials.

Want to convert a statist?  Tackle these three assumptions.  My first two blogs argued that government is selfish and non-transparent. On to assumption three: government represents us.

This is often the anchor of the statist belief in government: the idea that our government works for us.  That we vote officials into office in order to serve our needs, and if and when they stop doing so, we can replace them.  However, the majority of those wielding power in Washington are unelected and often unknown. We as citizens don’t get to vote for the head of the FBI or the EPA.  We have no control over which lobbyists help write which laws or entertain which Congressmen.  Any list of the top 10 most powerful officials in Washington would have to include the president’s chief of staff, but most Americans have no idea who Denis McDonough even is.

In 2010, there were 2.65 million federal employees. We elected 537 of them. 100 Senators, 435 Congressmen, the President, and the Vice President.  That’s 0.02% of federal employees. Nor are elected men and women the most powerful in Washington.  The heads of various administrative agencies — the FBI, the NSA, the EPA — and the head of the Federal Reserve, to name only a few, both have more power than the average Congressmen. Yet Americans have no control over them.

The nature of a republic is that we elect leaders who make the decisions. That’s a fine model. But it breaks down when the nexus of power shifts from elected officials to unelected department heads.  In the 21st century, the vast majority of decision-makers are unelected, not voted for, and usually unknown. That’s not a democratic government.

And that’s part 3 of the 3-part series on defeating assumptions about government in order to build libertarianism. 

Addendum: These points is not intended as the final word.  Rather, they a starting point.  Too many Americans make basic assumptions about our government that, while sometimes true (government has, believe it or not, done some good), are often false.  If libertarians want to become a force in politics, we need to recognize these assumptions.  And then, using clear logic, powerful arguments, and honest facts, we need to rebut them (if you subscribe to this blog, by the way, my weekly articles will help you do that). 

If we can combat the mindset of statism, the future of libertarianism looks very bright indeed.

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Content published on the Young Americans for Liberty blog is only representative of the opinions and research of the individual authors. It does not necessarily reflect the views, goals, or membership of YAL. 


Very cogent article Julian! I would suggest that the underlying problem is that by the time you discuss an issue with someone who identifies within an ideology, they are emotionally invested in defending that ideology rather than in maximizing the accuracy of their conclusions.

The overwhelming majority of Americans today simply adopt a political ideology out of purely emotional reasons and then regurgitate what they are told by talking heads on television. However, every member of a Republic should arrive at their conclusions regarding important issues through a process of thoroughly analyzing opposing points of view on individual issues. That is, rather than simply adopting one's views on a number of economic, foreign policy, criminal justice, immigration, environmental, national security, and civil liberty issues based solely on parroting the views of a Bill O'Reilly or Rachel Maddow, people should arrive at opinions based on a continuous process of research, discussion, and reflection.

Even those who are generally highly intelligent seems to easily fall prey to the confirmation bias. Again, this is because they become emotionally invested in an ideology, rather than emotionally invested in maximizing the accuracy of their conclusions. This is understandable given that once a political ideology is adopted, it tends to become a central part of one's identity. For example, people self-identify as "liberals", "conservatives", "libertarians", and "socialists." Arriving at conclusions that contradict any of the tenets of one's ideology tends to elicit an identity crisis.

I myself identify mostly closely with the libertarian political philosophy but I am never afraid to question traditional libertarian assertions. For example, I am hesitant to advocate that we shut down all foreign U.S. military bases given the potential for a future Soviet Russia or Nazi Germany from rising up and beginning a worldwide military campaign. Also, if another Hitler, Stalin, or Mao came into power, should we really wait until he attacks our country before intervening military? I am unsure. I haven't studied the issue in enough depth to arrive at a firm conclusion. Even with subjects I have studied in great depth, such as economics, I continuously seek to challenge my current conclusions to see if they withstand a thorough critique. If not, I revise them accordingly.

I believe this sort of approach to public policy, on in which individuals think independently rather than rely on ideology, group think, and cults of personality, would be the best manner by which to maintain a healthy Republic. Further, I believe with the right type of course content, students can be taught a rational approach to the study of contentious issues and thereby learn to avoid the trappings of biased thinking.

What would your thoughts be on a high school English curriculum in which, rather than focus on the analysis of fictional literature, students were taught critical thinking skills and were tasked with applying them to the study of opposing viewpoints on contentious domestic policy, foreign policy, and social issues? This would be quite easy to implement given that the opposing viewpoints books series provides conveniently edited position papers on contentious issues regarding every subject imaginable, from health care to human rights. In this way, students would cultivate the habit of applying the rules of logic to emotionally charged issues rather than regularly having their judgment clouded by cognitive biases. Ideally, they would also graduate actually knowing what is going on in the world today rather than having their academic studies confined solely to historical events.

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