Libertarians Are Always Up Against the Odds – Opting Out


Libertarianism’s critics look at the world, which is largely non-libertarian, and correctly identify that something is amiss. If libertarianism is true, then why is it largely ignored by the general population? It’s then quite easy for non-libertarians to respond to that by saying that if it were a good idea, it would be more popular than it is. Libertarians concerned about this, the self-flagellaters in particular, point to themselves — we’re simply not doing a very good job! We need better marketing, we need to be nicer, more tolerant, more diverse, etc.

They’re both right in a sense, but take a narrow view.

The non-libertarians have a better understanding of the inherent disadvantage libertarians have in advancing their ideas, because they don’t find it intuitive. Johnathan Haidt’s work suggests that libertarianism is reflective of a distinct personality type that is not shared by the rest of the population. With that in mind, it’s not surprising at all that libertarianism is a worldview only shared on the margin.

Of course, we could always do better in marketing our ideas. There are likely many personalities out there that have libertarian values but are yet to have been exposed to the ideas that would help shape them into a coherent worldview, either through simple lack of proliferation or they’ve had a bad impression of libertarians. Libertarians can certainly play a part in improving this situation.

The mistake is in pointing to only this aspect as the reason that libertarianism is not more popular. The manner of the mistake is in taking one aspect of a multi-stranded web of influences and saying that is the sole causative factor. And again, it happens to be the one that’s self-serving and gives one an opportunity to be sanctimonious.

In many ways libertarianism is inherently counter-intuitive. We’re all born socialists, in a sense, because it’s not obvious how general social benefit can accrue by simply having no plan. It’s not immediately obvious that letting people generally do what they want is going to produce widespread order, social cohesion and bountiful wealth. That happens to be true, but it’s an extraordinary observation. It’s something that has to be taught to be believed.

You probably didn’t come from the womb having an intuitive understanding of the nuances of spontaneous order. What did you think of libertarianism when you first heard of the idea? You probably scoffed at the imbecility of it. We’re battling humanity’s inherently limited ability to understand complex systems here.

On top of that, we’re battling an education system that trains people from a very young age that, essentially, all good things come from the state. Every morning in the United States, children are compelled to stand and salute the regime’s anthem, and taught that every societal problem in history was resolved by the will of government. Only a minority of students are told that there exists a field of study called economics that might help explain certain things about the world.

Then once you’ve left school, you either go on to higher education to be informed on how to be an adult in the marketplace by people who most likely have never had to compete for a job to produce goods and services that people actually want, or not, and have to put up with the mainstream media anyway, who tell us that there are essentially two points of view to be had on politics: that of Barack Obama, or that of John McCain.

Given such overwhelmingly dire odds, shouldn’t we be glad that libertarianism has any life left in it? Instead, we lash ourselves on social media for not having spurred the Great Liberty Revolution yet.

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James Smith

Writer and film-maker from the United Kingdom. Digital nomad. Author of 'The Shy Guy's Guide to Travelling'.