14 Dos and Don’ts for Communicating Libertarian Ideas

My friend Libertarian Girl asked me what I thought libertarians should be doing more of when it comes to communicating with the public. This is a quick list of things that I’ve noticed to be either effective or counterproductive. It isn’t exhaustive or perfectly phrased, and shouldn’t be taken to be an indictment of all libertarians–in reality, it’s mostly a list of mistakes I’ve made, and effective strategies I’ve seen others employ–but it may be helpful for some.

  1. Don’t make references to libertarian philosophy when you’re talking policy to the general public, unless it is absolutely necessary.
  2. Make appeals based on the common values you share with the audience you’re trying to convince.
  3. Argue in good faith: assume the other side believes what they’re saying and genuinely wants what’s best for society. Give people the benefit of the doubt: attacking someone’s motives is good for riling up your base, but not for convincing other people.
  4. Don’t expect to convert someone to a different ideology or worldview in the course of a conversation. This never happens. Speak about specific issues and why more freedom, rather than less, is the answer.
  5. Know who your audience is. Are you trying to convince the person you’re debating, or are you trying to convince third parties listening to you?
  6. Know what you want to accomplish, and think realistically about how you can achieve it.
  7. Talk about things the audience cares about, in terms they can relate to. If you’re trying to convince people to care about something they just don’t, justify it by its relationship to the things they do care about. (See point #2.)
  8. Don’t be condescending and don’t pander. Tailor your message to the audience you’re speaking to, but treat them like rational, responsible adults.
    • Be honest and be passionate. People who may be inclined to disagree with you will at least respect your sincerity.
  9. When speaking to particular groups, be aware of the issues that may be most important to them (see point #7) , but make arguments for why X position is good for everyone, not just why “as a [blank],” it is in their narrow self-interest. The Self-Interested Voter Hypothesis is false.
  10. Make it personal: help people identify with your position or your complaint on a human level. Institute for Justice is great at this.
  11. Don’t be self-pitying or portray libertarians as persecuted. It’s unattractive, unconvincing, and simply not true.
  12. Don’t blame some nefarious external force if we lose the debate–the Council on Foreign Relations, “liberal media,” etc. Sometimes we lose because we just weren’t convincing enough.
  13. Reality matters. Don’t use axioms to machete your way through complex issues to a predetermined conclusion. Empirical evidence (data as well as micro-level stories) matters. Use it to guide the application of libertarian principles on specific issues. As Trevor Burrus put it, set down the machete and pick up a scalpel.
  14. Have a sense of humor. Try not to take differences of opinion personally. If the person you’re arguing with can make you mad, you will lose the chance to connect either with them or with the audience.

Update: Some have commented that most of this is common sense. I agree. Common sense is the name we give to the obvious but difficult.