"Legislators and revolutionaries who promise equality and liberty at the same time are either psychopaths or mountebanks." ~ Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
On the Utility of Bumper Stickers
It is no secret and no surprise that we live in an era of nearly-unlimited Statism. That, after all, is what Strike The Root is all about--providing philosophical and rhetorical resources for those who see this trend and wish to combat it. In this column, I will explore the "bumperstickerization" of key concepts to provoke thought or conversation so that the most can be made of these resources.
The methodology of the State has been well-explored, here and in other places (e.g., lewrockwell.com, mises.org, no-treason.com, and the pre-Web literature of their progenitors.) Often overlooked in the rush to refute the latest nonsensical and septic load of plant food to dribble forth from the collective anus of our anointed warders, however, is the underlying framework of ideas, beliefs and desires that supports it. It is on the level of this framework that these ideas can be best refuted, as the segment of the population capable of understanding the usual reason- or morality-based refutations is vanishingly small, and the percentage of those actually willing to entertain such refutations is practically nil. Most of those reading STR have probably had the experience of attempting to argue with a Statist, using arguments of sterling pedigree and relentlessly clear logic, only to find that the discussion ends 15 minutes later in a stalemate. Why? Because the framework underneath the Statist's position was not understood or even perceived until it was too late to use it.
This framework exists beneath the level of rational thought, below even the level of conscious thought, in the realm of dreams and reflexes. In this realm, the operation of the physical world is governed by magic, and things can be had for no more than one's wanting them. Here also are spun and enacted the fantasies of domination and control that we cannot act out in our daily life, ordering others' lives around to make our own life better and happier. Who among us has not wanted, at one time or another and in the grip of irrational anger, to "make that asshole pay"? Who has not secretly thought "You know, there oughta be a law"? Everybody has, for a multitude of reasons. Many who were raised to acquiesce to the State or were educated by the State were taught from an early age that they were entitled to have things and to do things that have no basis in any conception of natural law. Most of these beliefs exist as the product of mutually-reinforcing clusters of seemingly-unrelated but actually closely-related concepts, which for lack of a handier term I will refer to as "constellations." These constellations usually contain ideas like "The rich got that way by stealing," "I am entitled to others' property if I want it and/or need it bad enough, and especially if they have more than I do," and "Voting is the only acceptable and effective way to solve problems, no matter how large or small." Note that these are merely representative--there are many more related thoughts, and these may not necessarily be the pithiest or most succinct way of expressing these concepts. The reader is encouraged to find more underlying concepts and better methods of representation. Indeed, this is central to the task of refutation; the taxonomy and summary of these root concepts is the chief prerequisite of finding the most effective means of refuting them.
So what does this have to do with bumper stickers?
Bumper stickers are a form of advertising. Advertising, of course, is the art of audiovisual marketing, of using sight and sound to convince someone to buy your product. Bumper stickers are used to advertise everything, from consumer products to the driver's personality to political philosophy. Those who advocate an anarcho-capitalist, Misesian, Rothbardian, classical-liberal or other essentially anti-Statist political philosophy are essentially "selling" something to their fellow man--the promise that "life will be better if we both agree to do X and Y and Z," X, Y and Z usually being some variants of "Keep our hands out of each other's damned pockets." Bear in mind that the public has already bought the competing product--"Loot & Kill Your Way To A Better Life!", designed by a cast of thousands, including Marx, Hitler, Stalin, FDR, Keynes, Machiavelli, and better- and lesser-known Statists of every stripe--so this is a matter of convincing them to discard their previous "investment" and try something different. The competition--State functionaries and beneficiaries of State-coerced largesse--is obviously not keen on this idea, and reinforces the equivalent of "Brand Loyalty" every chance it gets. One of its chief means of accomplishing this goal is the creation and propagation of remarkably effective slogans that reinforce the pre-existing root concepts outlined above to prevent their successful challenge. (Side note: To see what it looks like when a successful challenge takes place, trawl through the Root Cellar and look for the "new Root Striker" introductions, of which there are a couple available. These read like a religious conversion--"I was a full-bore neoconservative cheerleader/Marxo-Statist/whatever, then I saw [something that had a particular resonance to me], then I started reading these funny anarchist websites which I didn't agree with at first, now I want to guillotine every political officeholder that ever existed for robbing me at gunpoint for my entire life, signed Root Striker Bob." In a way, these are religious conversions.)
Bumper stickers here are used as a sort of abbreviation, a contraction of the idea that "If you can't summarize your philosophy to the point where it can fit on a bumper sticker, you're going to have a hard time explaining it to Joe Sixpack." Obviously, the entire corpus of anti-Statist belief and philosophy is far too complicated to fit into ten words or less, just as its Statist counterpart is likewise too complicated to summarize thus. However, useful attacks on key institutions and practices of the State can be expressed in ten words or less. Ambiguity is a potent ally: "Schoolteachers touch their students." So is directness: "Pigs kill." Audacity and sheer bombast are never wasted. Humor, a skewed viewpoint, and wordplay are also valuable skills to bring to bear on this problem. Especially valuable are two remarkable time- and labor-savers: the use of things that "Everybody Knows," and its kissing cousin, the clever rewording of other popular bumperstickerized phrases, particularly those promoting Statist viewpoints. Although these are well-used to represent political philosophies, examples of which I won't cite here, anti-Statist slogans making use of these last two are not quite as prevalent as they perhaps should be. (Hence, this column.)
There are those who dislike resorting to such methods, preferring cool logic to gritty rhetoric. For them, I have the following observation: Statists have made use of hundreds of years of rhetoric and dirty tricks in securing their toehold in the human mind and dictating "The (Only) Way Things (Can) Work," without which system we would all of course be reduced to starving, leprosy-ridden mutants wandering around a nightmarish post-Apocalyptic hinterland of eternal night. At this point in time, this core Statist belief is Received Truth--"Everybody Knows" it--and the mere suggestion of any competing method of social organization that is not functionally a State evokes an automatic, reflexive false-equivalence chain: "anarchy" means "lawless" means "Mad Max." To overturn this belief in even one person, much less a town or nation--a belief which is more frequently than not ingrained on the same level and at the same intensity as toilet-training--will require unceasing assault using every method available.
So, using a little bit of creative brainpower to devise pithy bumper sticker phrases extolling the virtues of the free market and highlighting the depredations of the State is time well-spent, for it is plenty of fun, and saves time and trouble later. Indeed, using these verbal grappling-hooks to provoke thought or conversation is usually the fastest way to unearth Statist root-concepts and begin attacking them, even one-on-one. I have personally used these in discussions that, after 15 minutes, resulted in the other party's admission that he had no moral objection to having other people killed and robbed for what he determined to be a good reason. It is only when this level of honesty is reached that the pick-and-shovel work of the "sell" can commence in earnest.
However, observations about the next stages of the inevitable argument with/conversion of a Statist, die-hard or not, will be explored in another column. For now, spend a few minutes thinking about your favorite topic and see if you can fit the kernel of your position on a bumper sticker--you might be surprised what you come up with! And remember: "Schoolteachers touch their students"!