Know Your Enemy and Know Yourself – Misconceptions

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Anyone with a serious interest in politics (or philosophy, history, economics, etc.) should know the importance of becoming deeply familiar with not only the ideological perspective that one aligns with, but related and opposing ideological perspectives. My understanding of libertarianism has refined over the years as I continue to talk to more libertarians and read more libertarian thinkers. Within libertarianism alone, there is enough important literature to keep one busy for decades.

Most people don’t go that far. They barely make it through one or two books, or they might listen to a political podcast regularly. And there’s nothing inherently wrong with that, so long as they remain humble. There are far too many other things to do to expect everyone to become thoroughly familiar with your worldview.

The trouble is, if you fall down the libertarian rabbit hole and devote your time to fully understanding libertarianism and all the arguments advanced in favor of liberty and against other worldviews, then congratulations: After all that time and effort, you now understand only one of numerous different ideologies and worldviews.

How do you know if the worldview you adopted and worked to understand is the right one? You’ve heard the arguments for liberty, and at this point it seems obvious that libertarians are right on at least most issues. How could any reasonable person be a socialist, or a conservative, or even an ethnonationalist?

But then again, there are other people that have gone through a similar situation, but from a different perspective. They’re performed a deep dive into one specific ideology, they’ve read its self-defenses and its critiques of opposing ideologies. And they’re wondering how any reasonable person could possibly be a libertarian.

If you consider yourself a libertarian, you’ve likely come across conservatives or socialists criticizing your position very poorly. They clearly haven’t tried to understand what you believe, and why you believe it. I’ve seen this in the reverse as well, with some libertarians criticizing their opponents while clearly lacking any understanding of the views they’re trying to criticize.

Sure, Marxists are wrong. But how do you know this? Is it because you’ve read Marx or listened to Marxists explain their perspective, and you see errors in their thinking, or is it because you read or listened to an opponent of Marxism criticize the Marxist worldview?

I won’t deny that it is incredibly worthwhile to read the many great libertarian thinkers. But it can be even more fulfilling to read at least a bit of everything. Pick a few Marxists and follow what they have to say. If you find they are wrong, you will at least have a better understanding of their views, and will have a stronger foundation for your criticism. But if you find out, somehow, that they’re right, you can now congratulate yourself for being open-minded and advancing your worldview rather than remaining in a bubble.

Needless to say, this can certainly happen in other directions as well. Many of us begin with one understanding of the world, and, realizing the error of our ways, adopt another worldview. Many times, different worldviews have things to teach one another. It is not a contradiction to be a libertarian and believe certain nonlibertarian thinkers are brilliant.

In recent years, I’ve tried to expand my political horizons by subscribing to various different political journals and magazines and reading them when I have extra time. These include Modern Age (conservative), Chronicles (paleoconservative), Reason (libertarian), The Independent Review (classical liberal), Jacobin (socialist), and Monthly Review (socialist), among others. Each of these include essays that I agree with, and essays that I disagree with. But they have all strengthened my views in different ways, some more than others.

If you are to know what you believe, you must expose yourself to as many different views as you can, and see which worldviews hold the truth and which are mired in falsehood. Once you know what you understand to be true, you will naturally be in opposition to what you understand to be false. And as you are looking into all the different worldviews, you will come to understand the perspectives of opposing ideologies by understanding them directly. And this is better for everyone searching for the truth.

Given the option, would you agree to read one book offered by a socialist if they agreed to read a book you recommended? This is the exchange of ideas we need! 

This need not entirely rely on consequentialism either. Thus far, I’ve primarily argued that immersing yourself in different viewpoints will lead to the consequence of better understanding your own worldview and the worldviews of your ideological opponents.

But there is also the argument for charity. Among all the sophistry and word salads of political literature, there are many genuine advocates of their own worldview. We should make a legitimate attempt at discovering them and determining whether such perspectives have some validity or are quite wrong. 

Imagine how much quieter social media would be if political arguments were limited to people who made a decent attempt to understand their opponents?

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Nathan A. Kreider is author of the Misconceptions column for Being Libertarian, and has written for the Austrian Economics Center, the Foundation for Economic Education, and the Liberalists. He also occasionally publishes a blog and video content, including short book reviews, which can be found on his website, nkreider.com. He can be contacted by email via [email protected]