We are developing the social individualist meta-context for the future. From the very serious to the extremely frivolous... lets see what is on the mind of the Samizdata people.

Samizdata, derived from Samizdat /n. - a system of clandestine publication of banned literature in the USSR [Russ.,= self-publishing house]

Sean II on not spouting libertarianism to friends-and-family

Here is a comment, from someone called “Sean II”, on a posting done just over a year ago at Bleeding Heart Libertarians entitled Freedom and Feminism. I think (but am not sure) that I got to this via one of the links here. He attached a ping to this posting about JK Rowling, which I got an email about.

Whatever, I think that the following comment is interesting, and entertaining, and just all round deserving of a little bit more attention than however much attention if got a year ago:

Interesting you should mention the friends and family dimension.

Of the people close to me, I’ve only ever put forth a serious effort to share libertarianism with my wife. And even that mostly took the form of me saying casually “these ideas can be found lying around the house, if you should ever happen to develop an interest in them. Obviously, I’d like it very much if you did, but please feel no more pressure than that.”

Everyone else in my private life gets sorted into the category of “Don’t argue. Not worth the risk of hostility, alienation, and rancor.”

As you might guess from that, I spent the holidays holding my tongue while some people praised Chris Christie’s “handling” of the weather, others spoke (in a convincing mimicry of informed discussion) about the urgent need to hold magazine capacity below 30 rounds, and one dear in-law rhapsodized about the perfectly obvious necessity of federally funded light rail NOW!

My wife asked me why I never say anything. I told her: “The same reason why Doctor Who doesn’t give everyone a physics lecture when he visits the 16th century. He’s too far ahead, they’re too far behind, any dialogue that arose between them on the subject would be little better than a session of verbal abuse. All the information and all the practiced arguments would be on my side. They’d have no choice but to fight back against me with maximum nastiness.”

The odd thing is … they’ve all seen my library. Floor to ceiling, it’s politics, philosophy, and history. You’d think, at some point, one of them would get suspicious of my silent partner act, and wonder why I grow quiet whenever my own favorite subjects come up for discussion.

That’s pretty much how I feel about my family. My friends not so much, because the majority of them are libertarians, or at least libertarian-sympatico. But I also have plenty of friends whom I do treat in exactly this silent way, although not with the Doctor Who-ish sense of silent superiority that Sean II says he feels. After all, if I’m so clever, why ain’t I winning them over?

An interesting bit of the libertarian movement is the bit that consists of people – like Sean II? – who behave like and feel like and have similar personal and consumer tastes to “liberals”, and who actually get along very well with liberals and who often marry liberals, but who are, actually, on the quiet, libertarians. These are the double life libertarians, the libertarians in the closet.

And an interesting moment in intellectual and political history may one day happen when such libertarians feel more free to tell it like it is to their friends and families. Will this moment ever happen? Has it already, for some? Discuss.

25 comments to Sean II on not spouting libertarianism to friends-and-family

  • Jim

    Simple. As a wise man once wrote “Men, it has been well said, think in herds; it will be seen that they go mad in herds, while they only recover their senses slowly, and one by one”

    Thus there can be no mass proselytising of freedom and responsibility of the individual for themselves towards those who have the alternative view. It will as the commenter states, only cause rancour. Better to keep one’s powder dry, for the odd occasion where someone lets slip that their thoughts may be running along the same lines, or that their old paradigm appears to be failing. Then perhaps the subject can be broached.

    Men and women cannot be argued into libertarianism, they have to come to that way of thinking predominantly by themselves.

  • Gene

    I do the same thing as Sean II for the most part, and my reasons are, first, that I get angry about these things too easily and I don’t want to ruin an otherwise pleasant gathering. I also don’t have any politicians, titans of industry, journalists or other movers and shakers in my gatherings (though there is one minor bureaucrat in the family), so even if I changed all their minds what the hell difference would it make? Also, there are a few people around me who I understand well enough to know that, on political/economic matters, they are beyond help.

    The interesting thing, however, on those occasions when I do join the fray, is that if I avoid grand, “big picture” philosophical statements and complain instead about smaller, particular outrages, I quite often get easy agreement from people who otherwise would never call themselves libertarians. I have yet to find a way to translate the lessons of multiple small outrages into permanent ideological changes, however.

  • SC

    >when I do join the fray, is that if I avoid grand, “big picture” philosophical statements and complain instead about smaller, particular outrages, I quite often get easy agreement from people who otherwise would never call themselves libertarians. I have yet to find a way to translate the lessons of multiple small outrages into permanent ideological changes, however.

    Same here. You can undermine statism in subtle ways and get agreement from many people, even left-wingers, but things do turn abusive in the presence of a leftie if you even suggest in the mildest way that we’d be better off without so much government.

  • Barry Sheridan

    This raises some interesting issues, especially for me with my enduring beliefs in those traits which are essential for the development and sustenance of a free civil society. Unfortunately as I have long realised I lack the ability to quickly construct those responses which would perhaps counter the conventionally accepted wisdoms seen in day to day life. None of this emanates from some misplaced feeling of superiority anymore than it has to do with being reticent, instead it reflects the severe challenges of overturning what is widely held, ideas and views all too often expertly pedalled by politicians, academics, journalists and other high profile folk whose situation allows them to have their views heard and accepted whether they are right or wrong. The world looses even more because these formidable foes often have agendas mixed in with the incentives of personal gains rather than altruistic intent. Worst of all when I do occasionally think of some gem that might win the day it is too late for the moment is gone.

  • I often play the generally silent strategy in these sorts of discussions too. The trouble comes when someone decides that they want to know why I have spent the conversation remaining silent, and wants to know what I think. Or possibly they aggressively demand that I agree with them. Once in a while this leads me to aggressively let rip.

  • Stuck-Record

    He describes perfectly my own feelings around family and friends. I don’t, however, agree with his Doctor Who analogy. I am not more advanced or knowledgeable than my family and friends. My friends, however deluded, are just that: deluded. I only know that they are wrong, not necessarily what the answer is. I just know that their answer is ludicrous. Often the delusion is simply that they do not even recognise the terms of the debate, the known unknowns and the unknown unknowns.

    Only tactics in the social situations are complete silence or a naive Socratic style questioning. Questioning only works with people who are capable of self-doubt. Arrogant people will always turn to bluster and rage if they feel their opinions/facts being questioned or undercut.

  • AWM

    I also try the small examples, presented in an indirect way, and usually with some success. I occasionally do the bigger picture thing but it only ever ends well with ‘non-political’ types, anyone even slightly on the left nearly always goes mental. However, I think that the biggest problem facing libertarian proselytizing is too often the refusal by libertarians to accept anything but pure libertarianism (whatever that is). Surely it’s OK and worthwhile to promote small examples, or to compromise over bigger things just as long as they are moving in the right direction. Otherwise we become part of this ‘he’s not a real libertarian’ thing that’s always going on, and which means nothing good happens in the real world because we take a peverse pride in our all or nothing approach.

  • Paul Marks

    I do not hide what I am and what I believe – even when it would be to my advantage to do so (as in my decades in politics).

    Perhaps I am just too lazy to hide.

    As for not saying silent when other people say things that are wrong and evil – well although born and bred in England (and English in very many ways) I am an Irish-Jewish cross breed. “Jewish intellectualism” and “Irish stubborn” both sterotypes have a grain of truth in them.

    After all where I currently am people will not change lanes (when driving) if they believe they are in the correct lane – even if they are in a small car and a large truck is heading straight at them.

    Being prepared to die (quite literally – get killed) rather than give way – as to give way (when in the right) is seen as moral weakness. I believe this form of stubborn (and sometimes suicidal) pride is called “thran”. It is applied to just about everything.

  • Ljh

    When my daughters stop rolling their eyes at my philosophical moments I might venture into frankness away from family but until then people think I’m harmless.

  • Richard Thomas

    I’ve found that “I prefer freedom” without much further explanation seems to get the job done in most cases. Most people think they do so it short-circuits right to the heart of the matter without getting lost in the weeds.

  • Snorri Godhi

    That’s why i have become enthusiastic about class analysis: once you internalize the basic principles, you can frame one of two standard replies:
    You’re just being a tool of the ruling class;
    or: Of course, you’re just rationalizing your class interests.

    (The wording can be more diplomatic, depending on context.)
    The reason you have to know a bit of the theory is that you should be able to argue for whatever reply you think most appropriate.
    Adopting a superior, smirking attitude, however, is more important than your actual capacity to argue.

    Having said that, i must admit that i didn’t have much of a chance to practice this strategy. I got started in class analysis only a couple of years ago, and arguing about politics is not something i do full time.

  • j.arimathea

    I am a double life person like Sean II. Because I was once a ‘liberal’, spent years at university with such people, and married one. I have three daughters and three SILs who are the same. But over the years I have become ‘mugged by reality’, and have changed tack. But I am still married to a woman I love and ditto my daughters. So rather than risk relationship that matter to me I just stay as quiet as I can. I use the post name ‘j.arimathea’ in honour of that Joseph who was a disciple but in secret for fear of the Jews. I keep my opinions to myself. It leads to an intellectually poorer life but it seems the best I can do.

  • The Fyrdman

    I only moderate my opinions around the in-laws, their wine is not worth losing.

    Otherwise, I always speak up, and the more I do the more like minded people I find. Too often people don’t talk politics because their views are not what the bbc suggest are mainstream, so it takes someone to stand out for them to realise they’re not alone.

  • PeterT

    On Christmas day my sister, a member of a (european) socialist party, thought it was a good idea to mention that she wants the government to ban cigarettes, as she cannot find the strength to quit on her own accord. She still thinks I was joking when I took her wine away and told her she could shut up or sleep outside. It is beyond me where these people find the gall to come into our homes, eat our food and drink our wine, then tell us about their plans for us. It is up to them to keep quiet if they want to keep the peace, not us. Thankfully my wife is ‘right of centre’ at least.

  • Sean

    My wife (who shares my beliefs) usually asks me to hold my tongue if we are going to an event she suspects will be attended by people of the left/evil persuasion. I’m finding that easier to do as I get older and see ever more evidence that we are all profoundly and comprehensively ignorant as to how the world really works…

  • TDK

    It depends more on numbers than anything else. One on one you can have a civil discussion with most people but when they are backed up by others they will switch to bluster and rage more easily. I think it’s connected to their desire to appear good to others. There are certain attitudes that a middle class person in Britain is expect to hold, and they will differ in private but not in public.

  • Paul Marks

    The trouble with Class Analysis is that it is wrong.

    Most government spending (in all major Western nations) is on the Welfare State – and people vote to support it because they believe it is morally right (not out of “class interests”).

    The same is true of regulations.

    Most people believe that (to take the chapter titles from Milton Friedman’s “Free To Choose”) the answer to the questions “Who Protects The Worker?” and “Who Protects The Consumer?” is “the government”.

    Again naught to do with Class Analysis – other than a vague “the rich are to blame”, “the corporations are to blame” legend that is even spread by some American “libertarians” as well as by the education system and the media (including the entertainment media).

  • I have learned over the years to keep quiet. Mainly this is because I am not very good at fighting my corner. I think the most powerful argument for libertarianism is the moral one: that it doesn’t involve violence. I would love to be able to use it sometime.

  • Snorri Godhi

    Most government spending (in all major Western nations) is on the Welfare State – and people vote to support it because they believe it is morally right (not out of “class interests”).

    Yeah, well, those people are just tools of the Ruling Class.

    Most people believe that (to take the chapter titles from Milton Friedman’s “Free To Choose”) the answer to the questions “Who Protects The Worker?” and “Who Protects The Consumer?” is “the government”.

    Same answer as above.

    NB: the Ruling Class is, of course, defined by its power of coercion; eg the Koch brothers are part of the Ruling Class, but a vast number of top government bureaucrats each have more power of coercion than they have, in spite of having much less money.

    The welfare state and regulations increase the power of the Ruling Class, including the power of the Koch brothers. The latter have rationally decided that they are better off with less power of coercion, if that means less power of others over them. Pretty much the same could be said of Ronald Reagan (who was not going to remain in the ruling class for the rest of his life, anyway).

    This is not to say that Reagan and the Koch brothers cannot also have unselfish motivations btw.

  • Paul, unfortunately, government spending as such is only one part of it – there’s a lot of money government is “printing” and funneling directly to a certain segment of the population.

  • Rich Rostrom

    A few comments.

    1) You don’t want to be the person who lectures everyone else about the Truth.

    2) It may nonetheless be useful to challenge some particular folly in a polite way. This could be especially effective when there is clear factual evidence against that folly. However it is important to be “armed and dangerous” with one’s facts. And that means knowing more than a few talking points or “gotchas”.

    3) Eventually, someone has to point out the Emperor is stark naked.

    4) One may find one is starting a preference cascade. It may be that no one actually believes in the alleged consensus; everyone is afraid to be the first to admit it.

  • Nick Davis

    Libertarians aren’t bible-bashers.

    There is no need to challenge every falsehood and take every issue. Live and let live. If people are happy in their misconceptions, sometimes it is politic to let them be.

    Having said that, I’m impressed by Richard Thomas’s approach (above).

  • That said, in my experience the ‘I prefer freedom’ approach only works at a very superficial level. When you get down to actual issues though, people quite rightly realize that living in a society means that there are limits to one’s freedom. Then the real argument begins: what exactly should those limits be.

  • Dale Amon

    I try to read my surroundings and act appropriately. There is almost always the possibility of a good meme-hack; pointing out particular recent events that are specific and whose results are clearly counter to what any of my friends really want is a good way to inject an idea that may grow into a realization. And on occasion I’m just in the mood for a full on, no holds barred argument, in full recognition that the fall backs of the other will be name calling, even if done politely. Since I know how people of the ‘other persuasion’ argue, I often just have fun with it. I don’t allow myself to become too serious because then it *can* get serious. A playful mindset can not only rip the others ideas to shreds, it can give them no real target to punch back at. And that makes it even more fun.

    Remain polite, be a bit whimsical, don’t get your ego too invested in the discussion, don’t descend with the other guy and just have fun. Be the Merry Old Court Jester if that suits you.

    Of course if the ‘other’ happens to be a customer or someone who can really screw you… keep your mouth shut and be purely professional.