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“Soft power” thrives despite, not because, of the State

Browsing one of those coffee-table sort of magazines you get in the flashier reception rooms in City offices, I flicked through the magazine called Monocle, which has lots of travel articles and advertisements for things I cannot afford, such as IWC watches, Maserati sports cars and holidays to “eco-resorts” in the Indian Ocean, etc. Laced with all this are earnest, remorselessly trendy essays on politics and culture. The undertone is progressive-lefty globalist, with a bit of concession, to be fair, to entrepreneurial vigour and technology. (Some of its items are excellent.) There is a sort of default setting on issues such as Man-made global warming, but the level of preaching is soft. It is a magazine, I imagine, that is pitched at affluent people who want the good things of life but want to feel they are still being “cool”.

I sometimes think that those on the libertarian/classical liberal/conservative end of the spectrum are missing a bit of a trick here by not producing things such as this. Ideas often spread not simply through big books full of Important Ideas (crucial though they are) or from having lots of university professors who espouse such notions (these are crucial of course) but also through aspects of popular and more rarified culture. I mean things such as art galleries, travel magazines and novels. It appears to me – though I have no scientific way of measuring this – that travel mags and books, for example (think National Geographic, Rough Guide books) seem to be edited by people who just trot out the bromides of the progressive, Tranzi mindset without really thinking about their premises. Here is a classic example from the Monocle issue 49 that came out in the end of 2011, on page 43. It is an article about so-called “soft power” and what countries must do to project it. Needless to say, its assumptions are that governments (ie, the taxpayer) should do it:

 “The term for soft power may have been coined in America, but Washington has always seemed more focused on demonstrating heavy-handed military power or confrontational commercial tactics than investing in soft power symbols such as an official tourist board.”

America needs a tourist board, otherwise who knows? People might not be aware that the world’s largest economy exists. What an oversight.

Or this nugget:

 “Despite the absence of a national tourism board – or a modern, well-run national airline – the US still attracts millions of visitors every year.”

Let’s think about this for a bit. The Monocle author says it is a bit odd that so many people go on vacation to the US despite that country not having a bunch of bureaucrats and marketing folk (paid for by taxes) saying what a terrific place the US is. (Surely states and cities do promote themselves, though. California puts up adverts in the UK.)

People just seem to be able to figure out that visiting the US can be done and is a nice idea without a national cheerleader organisation. Further, it appears to be a surprise to the author of that piece that this can happen when the US does not appear to have a major, national airline that has some sort of official status. Wow.

The author does recognise that given the sheer size of the country in geographic terms, and the size of its economy, that may be it can get by without such things. But does it not cross the mind of the author that the reason why some nations (it mentions a whole cluster of them) have a positive image for travellers has nothing to do with state-financed marketing moves or state-backed broadcasters such as the BBC, but because of the bottom-up, free market nature of activity in some of these places that creates things people want to have and which therefore are good for a country’s image? Ironically, Monocle is stuffed with glossy adverts for all manner of brands that speak of the triumph of capitalism, and an admiration for the people who make it work.

I think that if governments really do want to influence opinions in the wider world about what, say, the UK or US is about, the best way to do this is to get out of the way and let the actions and words of people, uninfluenced by government, do the job. Cultural outreach works best when governments have nothing to do with it, since otherwise it reeks of propaganda. Whether you like or dislie these effusions of the market, I’d say that the manufacturers of Rolex watches, BMW cars or pop music do more for the respective images of their countries than anything likely to come out of a government-backed broadcaster or tourism board.

41 comments to “Soft power” thrives despite, not because, of the State

  • We do have a very active assortment of state tourist boards on this side of the Pond. I regularly see ads for Montana and North Dakota tourism where I live.

    A few years ago, there was a Montana tourism ad aimed at people in my state for skiing vacations, featuring the Governor of that state.

  • I bought the magazine once and it had a similar impact on me… it was full of unthinking statist meta-contextual crap telling me why Copenhagen was a better place to live than London.

  • Kevin B

    To slightly rephrase the Monocle author’s point: “Every country needs a large, taxpayer funded tourist board and airline to spend oodles of tax-payer dollars on glossy adverts in magazines like this and to pay writers like me squillions of tax-payer dollars to write the copy.”

    And to rephrase Johnathan’s point: “What we need is a libertarian/classical liberal/conservative march through the institutions to replace the progressive leftist one now that they, (the progressive leftists), have so destroyed the credibility of those institutions that they’ve marched through.”

  • Sigivald

    I know that when I’m thinking of places to visit, the two prime factors are “national airline” and “tourist board”.

    I mean, without those, who knows what kind of horrors await?

  • Regional

    It’s all soft power; the Muslim immigrants don’t want to tear down what sustains them while Vlad Foot Putin Mouth is just a poseur with no goals.
    Europe is a Ponzi shambles under Fascist governments with rapidly aging populations to whom debt is no problem.

  • Snorri Godhi

    America does have a lot of soft power, if i understand the concept. Is there anybody here who did not read American comics, soon after learning to read?
    Is there anybody who sees fewer American movies than movies from any other country?
    Is there anybody here working in the hard sciences, who did not study American textbooks?

    I suspect that most “Europeans”, if they are honest about it, will mention American culture as the 2nd culture that most influenced them.

  • Hmmm, what would a Libertarian Material Envy magazine look like? A political Sharper Image? A National Review with a much softer hand?

    I have worked for a magazine as a photographer and a writer. Print is hard. You need one of two things to keep a magazine going: either a backer with infinite money who doesnt care about profits, or content which is compelling to a large enough audience that it justifies the hideous cost of print, and attracts advertisers who want to sell to that audience. In the case of National Review, they place a premium on the writing, and hope to God that their advertising and subscriptions allow them to put out one more issue. The content of the Sharper Image (and presumably Monocle) is the advertising; articles are written to fill up space that tragically could have been filled by another vendor, or, at most, to set a ‘tone’ for the advertisements around it.

    What would an upscale soft Libertarian rag sell? Guns? Cruises? Seasteads? Hmmm, that does seem worth a year’s subscription…

  • What would an upscale soft Libertarian rag sell?

    Dunno about the soft bit but how about ‘hunting’ trips to Northern Syria and Iraq?

  • If such a publication wants to hire a correspondent to hunt stories in some of the world’s stranger places, I shall be happy to take that position. My interest in weaponry is limited, however.

    To Darryl’s comment about print being hard, travel writing can be self-funding too. Airlines, tourist boards, travel resorts, hotel chains etc pay travel journalists to visit and write about destinations, sometimes in the form of providing everything for free and on other occasions through outright (fairly small) bribes. It doesn’t do much for journalistic integrity – only in the sports section is what is written less connected to what is true – but it does provide copy. (An “honest” travel journalist is one who at least clearly states who paid). Tyler Brûlé at Monocle – he also writes for the FT – has managed the art of getting really high end organisations to pay or at least comp him. Good luck to him. He manages a form of “I was able to compare [blah] in seven cities on four continents over the last couple of days” travel that I can only dream of.

  • Also, the US introduced a tax on tourists in 2010 which was to fund a national tourist board. I wrote about it at the time. I have no idea whether they then actually founded a national tourist board, but the tax remains (of course).

  • Paul Marks

    University people writing for other university people – and they are not just university people they are people who successful in business.

    To be successful in a society it helps if you are in line with its dominate ideas.

    If you are not you can be looked on as a weirdo – a freak.

    They are well groomed, they are successful and they are leftists – of course they leftists.

    So are Bill Gates and Warren Buffett.

    Their ideas do not work for society generally – but they work very well for them personally.

    It is a sort of reverse invisible hand.

    What works for people as individuals – being leftists and saying the state should impose more regulations and tax and spend more (this works especially well if you are rich – as people say “he is rich but he supports paying his fair share and Social Justice”) does not work for society as a whole.

    In fact it is a total disaster for society.

  • Jake Haye

    I suspect that most people don’t see the sorts of opinions expressed in that magazine as at all political, in the same way that a fish doesn’t know it’s wet.

    A few classical liberal home truths would strike a jarring note in contrast and be seen as ‘ideologically motivated’.

    Unfortunately, a worldview based on a childish anthropomorphisation of states and other organisations is a lot easier for most people to arrive at than something resembling reality, and always will be.

  • llamas

    What a maroon. Anyone who had done even the slightest amount of research would have figured out that the US is chock-full of ‘tourist boards’ – but at the state and city level, where they provide local information and press local needs. Just Google ‘convention and visitor’s bureau’ to see what I mean.

    As others have observed, a tourist board for the whole US would just be unimaginably unwieldy. And we might note that the UK has many regional tourist broads, some for areas smaller than many US counties.

    I really get tired of reading these lofty opinion pieces about the US that are obviously written by people who not only don’t know what they’re talking about, but can’t be bothered to find out. After all, it’s only America – the mere fact of being British automatically imbues you with everything you need to know about the place. No further effort required.



  • Very retired

    Soft power, in very real ways, directly contributed to the fall of the soviet empire, and the de-marxing of much of Asia, even though neither situation brought about anything even close to optimal results.

    I can remember reading articles back in the 1970’s about the popularity of western clothes, esp. Jeans, and how wildly popular rock and roll was with soviet youth, with smuggled albums bringing enormous prices.

    I knew even then that it was only a matter of time.

    However, these soft power cultural influences, esp. In the media, are now actively undermining the west in every possible way, and their destructive power is every bit as potent when turned against us as when aimed at our enemies. The unravelling of western civil society into tribes of victims competing for primacy in the pc-multi-culti soup our cultural life has become is only the most blatant example of the damage that has already been done.

    As I have said many times, repairing this damage, and reconstructing a truly free and individualistic cultural outlook, are the intellectual and moral imperatives we must accomplish now, and in the future, if we are to successfully rejuvenate the concepts of limited representative government and individual freedom.

    These thoughtless cultural defaults you refer to in this post are merely symptoms, however troubling, of much wider and deeper problems.

  • “regional tourist broads”

    I’d like to meet ’em 😉

  • But yeah a US national tourist board is meaningless. There’s what 305-310m Americans in a space larger than the EU. What do you say about it. I mean I’ve been to Florida for example. I always thought of it as going to Florida not “Going to America”. I felt the same about New York and Georgia (yes, I have sat on the “Gump bench” in Savannah) and a few other states. Did a 2,500 mile road trip round the SE USA once. Very fun it was too. Nobody needed to tell me the USA existed or was worth seeing or indeed worth going to see because that is a former NUFC goalie. It’s a Shay Given. I really liked the USA before and I loved it from the moment I cleared immigration the first time.

    Tip: if in NYC do go up the Empire State Building. Do it to get the best view of the Chrysler Building. Do it very early to beat the crowds. The view is awesome. Unfortunately for me this was the point my Pentax decided to chew-up film. Bugger. This was a while back. My Sony Alpha 55 (great camera, could be more ergonomic) won’t and I’m sure NYC is on the list for doing again. But then so is Budapest. And Croatia and… Israel sometime. I’ve had to cross off some places for the foreseeable such as Egypt. Glad I went to Turkey pre-Erdogan.

    Arguably the greatest “soft power” thing is cheap-ish flights. I would argue that Europe, say, is more integrated due to those (and Skype and the net in general) than anything the EU (in it’s infinitesimal wisdom) does or could do. Of course there is the truly evil air-passenger duty and the security Commedia dell’arte to contend with. Ye Gods do they not hate it that we can do it without a parasitic superstructure that exists purely so it can “allow” what would happen anyway.

  • That is all nice and good, Nick – but how many paper-pushers does this American way of doing things employ? Not nearly enough, I’d say – although obviously less than zero.

    And you+missus are always welcome here, you know 🙂

  • Ahem, I meant ‘more than zero’ – got all excited about potential visitors and all that 🙂

  • NickM

    Why thanks Alisa!

    As I hinted Israel has the culture and historical stuff and the beaches and it isn’t too far away and as long as the rest of the near/mid-east is in skirling chaos it looks like the only game in town. I suppose in a sense I did see the Pyramids of Giza but I was in utero at the time so that doesn’t really count does it? Anyway, I’m not into “came for the meze, stayed for the decapitation” tour of the ME. Maybe it shall settle sometime but until then Israel would appear to be the calm eye of the hurricane.

    My thoughts today are with the Jordanian F-16 pilot who was caught by ISIS. They’re going to put him through the mill.

  • Mary Contrary

    I sometimes think that those on the libertarian/classical liberal/conservative end of the spectrum are missing a bit of a trick here by not producing things such as this.

    Wired magazine used to be like that, when it first started. Not for years now though.

    I agree with Jake Haye, how these things are perceived depends on where you’re starting from. Back when Wired first launched an edition in the UK, I knew some of the people who worked there. They considered the US edition to be “dreadfully” politically motivated, full of “West Coast techno-libertarian evangelism”, and were pretty deliberate about making sure the UK edition had a different flavour, “more in keeping with our culture”. Of course, this missed the whole point of there being a Wired magazine at all, and it soon went bust. What’s on sale now isn’t the same corporate heritage at all, just Conde Nast licensing the property.

  • Tedd

    Those opinions also reflect a general ignorance about why the U.S. is different from Europe (and the UK). For example, national airlines came about in the first place because Europe was war-like and mistrustful of its neighbours in the early days of aviation. If you wanted to establish commercial air service from your country to another country you could only do it by getting agreement in advance from that country to recognize your aircraft, which quickly evolved into a system of national airlines. This was never needed in the U.S. (or in Canada, although we succumbed to the European disease for a while, anyway). Such are the workings of statist culture that a necessary compromise eventually becomes a symbol of progress.

    A lot of people — even a lot of Americans — don’t understand that the U.S. being historically a union of states (rather than a single state) is at the root of many of the things that distinguish it from Europe. Same for Canada. Most Canadians think of Canada as more progressive than the U.S., but history doesn’t support that thesis. Virtually every aspect of what is considered progressive policy existed in the U.S. before it existed in Canada (including government-run or government-funded health care). But it existed mainly at the state level. Starting in the 30s, the federal government in the U.S. began to act a lot more like a European government, and part of the reason government has become so burdensome in the U.S. now is that this federal leviathan was built on top of existing state leviathans.

    The corresponding mistake made by many Americans is to believe that differences between the U.S. and Europe are cultural. If you make certain fine-grained comparisons — Nevada to Belgium, for example — that would seem true. But, for at least the last 100-odd years, support for state intervention in the economy and other manifestations of the progressive/social-democrat mindset have been just as popular in the U.S., at the state and municipal levels, as they have in Europe.

  • Very retired

    Here’s a nice soft Merry Christmas to all the friends of liberty that frequent this marvelous place, and wishes for a happy and peaceful new year.

  • Merry Christmas, and a happy and prosperous New Year to you VR, and to all the excellent people here.

  • Julie near Chicago

    Yes indeed: Merry Christmas, every one!

  • Snorri Godhi

    Merry Christmas from me too!
    … And in response to Tedd, yes indeed, i didn’t know about the national airlines, but the differences between the US and a far from homogeneous “Europe”, are to a large extent the differences between different stages of the growth of the (welfare) State, something that the Founding Fathers seemed to expect btw.

  • Shadeburst

    Dear Sam, you are overthinking this (the “soft” way to say you’re taking it too seriously). The average glossy magazine is edited by a early-twenties chicklet who has recently discovered that with one of these (point down at the crotch) she can get as many of those as she wants. Now for the crunch: the early-twenties chicklet has learned what many editors more earnest, with more integrity and a philosophy more internally consistent, never discover, namely, that the purpose of a magazine is to make money, and the best way to make money is to pull in the advertisers. Unfortunately no devil has ever been sufficiently cooperative to persuade me to sell my soul for a crack at the big time or I would gladly be there too. As editor she probably gets to sample some of those desirable brands too. Life’s a bitch innit.

  • Tedd


    I had a growing suspicion that the beacon-of-free-enterprise narrative about the U.S. was not so true as some believed, but it really started to jell for me a few years ago when I began reading Sandefur’s blog and discovered how old, common, and radical some of the state and municipal anti-competition laws in the U.S. are. I began to realize that by that measure Canada has been a more free-enterprise culture than the U.S. for many years. It’s old news that the U.S. has never really been a free market economy. But it was a bit of a surprise to me to discover that it’s never really been a culture that respects free enterprise, either. (Not for well over a century, anyway.)

    There are other measures by which the U.S. comes out ahead of Canada, of course. For example, going all the way back to 1670 and the founding of the Hudson’s Bay Company, Canada has been the poster child for crony capitalism. Heck, our most iconic national legend, the national railway, is probably one of the purest examples of crony capitalism anywhere. So we’re far from lily white and, weirdly, crony capitalism is commonly regarded as a national strength here (though it is never named as such in public). But I’m pretty sure there has never been a case in Canada where established companies were given formal veto power over new competition, under the law, which turns out to be pretty common in the U.S. going back over a hundred years.

  • Larid

    Tedd, I’m certainly not going to argue that the US is a bastion of free enterprise, but I don’t understand your comment that “established companies were given formal veto power over new competition, under the law”. We do have antitrust laws which, in my opinion, are lingering vestiges of economic ignorance, and of course various licensing schemes which serve the purpose of limiting competition, but those all require governmental action. I don’t know of any “law” which gives private companies a veto power over their competitors. Can you please provide a citation?

  • Laird

    Wow. Looking at my last post I see that I spelled my own name wrong. Brilliant!

  • Snorri Godhi

    Laird: i assumed that all browsers automatically inserted one’s name + e-address.
    Your misspelling disabused me of that notion.

    Tedd: i thought that parts of the US (i.e. the parts free from slavery and segregation) used to be much more market-liberal, before the New Deal!
    The name Sandefur sounds familiar, i am sure i read some of his posts but i don’t remember.
    Burton Folsom’s The Myth of the Robber Barons might also be relevant, i didn’t read it but i watched a video of Folsom giving a talk about it.

  • Snorri: it depends on your cookies’ setting.

  • Darrell

    Twenty some-odd years ago I got to visit Germany for three weeks. I was a bit surprised how often I saw Arizona and the American desert SW used as a decorative theme–shop windows, peoples’ garden walls, etc. Most Germans I talked to said they wanted to visit the Grand Canyon. The B Western movies on German TV every night probably didn’t hurt, either.

  • Mr Ed


    West Germsn popular culture by the 1980s had American films as a staple, albeit dubbed (superbly). A cousin of mine lived in Germany for 15 years and told me that John Wayne’a voice over actor was a celebrity despite his total invisibility and on his own death he had obituaries in the German press etc. comparable to Marion’s own.

    As for the mullets, they seem to be autocthonuous.

  • Tedd


    To be clear, I’m talking about statues, but I believe there is significant case law supporting those statues, as well. If you spend a little time poking around Timothy Sandefur’s blog you’ll find all the citations you could want. He earns his living partly by representing people in such cases. Laws of that type exist at the state and municipal level all over the U.S., and have for more than a century.

    It seems to be most common in service industries such as furniture moving, taxi services, and personal services (hairdressing, massage, etc.).

  • Tedd


    Upon re-reading your post: Yes, licensing by a government agency is much more common than a licensing veto given to established companies. But government licensing is itself pretty hard to square with the image of a free-enterprise culture, especially when applied to such trivialities as hairdressing or manicure. From the perspective of the impact on the ability of individuals to freely engage in economic activity, licensing of hairdressers is much more egregious than licensing of doctors, for example.

  • Laird

    Tedd, I do check out Sandefur’s blog occasionally, and just now went there and scrolled down the entire first page. There is nothing there which is obviously about a specific statute which grants private companies a veto power over its competition. There are statutes which permit private action for enforcement, and even grant treble damages for proven violations, but even in such cases it requires proof of damage and, most especially, court (i.e., state) action and intervention. And I repeat that I have never heard of a statute which grants a private company a veto over new competition (and I have a law degree). So I’d appreciate a citation.

    I absolutely agree with you about licensing laws, though. I think they should all be abolished.

  • Darrell

    Mr. Ed,
    Perhaps the high point of my visit’s TV time, one night they ran William Shatner’s White Comanche, classic hilariously bad Western:

    “Drifter Johnny Moon (William Shatner) is frequently attacked as he is mistaken for his twin brother Notah who leads Comanche war parties in attacks on the white population whilst he is having visions on peyote. Johnny travels to a Comanche encampment where he challenges his brother to a fight to the death in the town of Rio Honcho.

    When Johnny rides into Rio Honcho he finds the town is at boiling point between two warring factions with only Sheriff Lomax (Joseph Cotten) keeping the peace. One of the factions discovers Johnny’s prowess with his six gun and tries to hire him. Johnny says he will give his answer in four days, after the climax with his brother.”



  • Tedd


    When I get a few minutes I’ll look back, find some of his posts, and link to them here.

    The most common situation seems to be in the furniture moving industry, weirdly. The way it works is each application for a new license to be a mover has to be approved by all existing licensed movers. Not surprisingly, once such legislation is introduced there are no new moving companies anymore. I believe the client Sandefur represented was in Oregon, and it was Oregon state law, but that’s just from memory. There are other examples. Sandefur has actually written a book about it, which I haven’t read yet.

  • Snorri Godhi

    Maybe it’s because i don’t speak German, but i found it hilarious to listen to cowboys speaking German. It certainly makes a stay in a German hotel more enjoyable!

    I am told that Italian speaking samurai are even funnier, but i never had the pleasure.

  • Tedd


    The specific case Sandefur plead was Sweet v. Meyers, which involved an Oregon state law requiring applications for a license to move furniture to be approved by all existing licensed movers. Here’s a YouTube video about the case, produced by the Pacific Legal Foundation (which Sandefur is associated with).

    Sandefur has mentioned similar cases in other states or cities over the years I’ve been reading his blog, but I wasn’t able to find the back posts. They’re probably discussed in his book, which is available here.

  • Tedd


    Here is another, similar case, this one linked to by Glenn Reynolds. It’s a problem in quite a few states and municipalities. I’m not sure if I was more shocked that courts would uphold such laws or that voters would support them. Either way, it has changed how I see U.S. culture with respect to free enterprise. There’s clearly a broad swath of the U.S. population who regards it as relatively unimportant.