The Art of Libertarian Persuasion

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November 30, 2006

One controversy that seems to have heated up lately among some libertarians is how much prospect there is for recruiting libertarians from among leftists. Though I'm not as optimistic as some on the matter, I do think there's some potential there, but only if we approach the left in the right way. This does not mean changing anything about our principles or philosophy. Instead, it means adapting our method of persuasion to new targets.

The example of conservatives who have become libertarians provides a model. In my experience, most former right wingers who have become libertarians made the shift because they saw that many conservative values--the right to bear arms, promoting personal responsibility, the integrity of the family, and the like--were better served by libertarianism than by conservatism. That was my own experience. I got frustrated with Republican squishiness on guns, and I decided that conservative ideals about personal responsibility and self-reliance were incompatible with drug prohibition. Once I left the Republicans, I gradually became more and more radically anti-statist, but my initial jump to libertarianism was made for basically conservative reasons.

A similar strategy must be pursued when approaching the left. The key is to hit them on issues that are dear to them, which may not always be the standard libertarian talking points. For instance, when I was younger, I convinced a strongly left-leaning friend to become a libertarian by talking about how government regulations and tariffs hurt the working class by forcing them to pay more for everything and stopping them from going into business for themselves. I didn't try to change his core values and desires; instead, I won him over by appealing to things he already believed.

Therein lies the key. Changing someone's fundamental beliefs is an arduous task; convincing him that his tactics do not serve his own goals is child's play by comparison. If you find yourself in a discussion with an environmentalist, talk about how governments tore down traditional common law (and libertarian) principles about nuisance and trespassing so that the politically connected could get away with polluting other people's property. Point out that it is unowned or government-owned resources that are despoiled and depleted the fastest. If he's a socialist or collectivist anarchist, talk about how state privilege allows big business to grow to gargantuan size and get away with things that it never could without state backing, and how the unrestricted working of the market would counteract this. If he's worried about the state of the working class and the poor, point out how protectionism places its heaviest burdens on people who have to spend a high percentage of their income on food and clothing, both items subject to considerable protectionist tariffs. (This could be a good one to use on paleoconservatives, too.) Talk about how government regulations and licensing laws stop people from using their skills to go into business for themselves. And so on.

Not everyone is worth the energy of trying to persuade. There are leftists who have progressive goals that they pursue in misguided ways, or who value freedom but have a mistaken conception of what constitutes "freedom" and "rights," and then there are leftists who are authoritarian in values as well as means. An environmentalist who's angry about big corporations despoiling forests and damaging people's health with smoke is potentially a good candidate for persuasion; an environmentalist who hates humanity and wants us reduced to hunter-gatherer status probably isn't. A collectivist anarchist with some questionable ideas about economic organization is a better prospect than someone who admires the Soviet Union and considers the Ukrainian famine a heroic anti-terrorist action. (Though I have met some people who fit both categories, strangely. You'd think an anarcho-socialist would have read some Bakunin . . . .) Left-wing opponents of drug laws usually already have some libertarian values, whereas left-wing nanny-statist types are pretty much antithetical to us. "Anti-consumerist" types seem to be a mix, consisting partly of people who dislike the power of big business but fail to recognize how abuses committed by business have their origins in statism, and partly of people who just think they ought to decide how everyone else should live. (With some overlap between the categories, of course.) The former type is at least potentially libertarian, whereas the latter is authoritarian in values as well as means.

I think that only a minority of leftists are good prospects to become libertarian. Liberty needs every supporter it can get, however, and the left represents a resource that has gone largely untapped thus far. Even more importantly, creating libertarian arguments that appeal to the sentiments and ideals of those who lean left can help us appeal to younger people whose political opinions are still forming, before they conclude that statism is the only way to achieve their values. There lies our hope for the future.

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John Markley's picture
Columns on STR: 13

John Markley is a freelance writer and newspaper reporter from Illinois .  He is the author of the political blog The Superfluous Man and has written for sites such as,, and The Libertarian Enterprise.  In his spare time, he also blogs about science fiction and video games.