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Thursday, August 22, 2013

On Selling Classical Liberalism

Some say we classical liberals should do a better job of “selling ideas.” And maybe we should, but I have my doubts. Indeed, transmitting ideas is a different process altogether. And I base my own conclusions in the wisdom of Leonard Read.

When a consumer buys a product, he has to understand what kind of service the good in question will provide. But it is not at all necessary for him to be aware of the production process involved. (For example, when you buy toothpaste, you expect the product to clean your teeth.) On the other hand, when someone puts an idea forward—if the listener is neither a fanatic nor a fundamentalist—it often will be necessary for her to grasp the causal chain involved in its production, so she can fully understand the idea. It would be difficult for someone, say, to understand how DNA works without first understanding something about genes, as well as something about molecules.

Further, the selling process does not apply to ideas—especially in relation to classical liberalism—because our worldview does not specify (nor could it) what will result from the adoption of a truly open society. And yet a salesman incapable of explaining the result of buying and using the product he intends to sell would not be in business for very long.

In other words, selling a good or a service is generally not the same as transmitting an idea. 

Of course, such does not contradict any criticism by those who think we classical liberals fail to transmit our ideas skillfully. In fact, I think we often do a poor job, and because we tend to be easier on ourselves than on others, we should reconsider our communication defaults. Instead of complaining about others’ inability to understand what freedom really means, we certainly ought to work on our modes of presentation and polish our messages. And of course we should do more homework—both about how people receive messages and how best to craft them.

An Open Adventure of Thought

Having said all this, I want to return to another reason the selling process is not adequate for the marketplace of ideas. I am inspired to do so by Leonard Read’s The Coming Aristocracy, although in some respects I will give a different turn to what he expressed. 

When freedom is adopted, the adventure of thought remains open. Karl Popper writes in The Poverty of Historicisim that “future knowledge is not possible in the present.” This will never be understood by authoritarians who act as if they know what will happen in their own lives, not to mention in the lives of the billons of other people, with innumerable relations among them. 

The almost infinite unforeseen consequences of their actions, in the context of ever-changing conditions, are unknowable. Only the monumental presumption of knowledge by statists allows them to move with such confidence, as if information were pulled from a shimmering well in the temple of State (instead of dispersed among billions). But knowledge cannot be concentrated in the hands of bureaucrats, however arrogant. And their power is really just concentrated ignorance.

Thomas Sowell, in Knowledge and Decisions, explains that the matter would not be in any way solved if there were available computers with gigantic memories, because the data simply do not exist before these uncountable actions take place. This is also why Ludwig von Mises has demonstrated that without private property and prices, economic calculation is impossible. It’s why price interference by planners distorts the allocation of resources, which in turn means we are unable to read market signals correctly. And this leads to misinformation, malinvestment, capital overconsumption, and, finally, reduced wages and incomes in real terms.

Of course, all of this isn’t easy to “sell,” even in an overview. Neither, of course, is suggesting to the uninitiated that they read Sowell’s Knowledge and Decisions or Mises’ “Economic Calculation in the Socialist Commonwealth.”


Still, Warren Nutter helps to clarify some of the semantics in this debate in one of the pieces collected in Political Economy and Freedom. Specifically, Nutter distinguishes between “development” and “progress.” 

In the first case, “development” is more of the same (a tumor has developed, for example, which can be forecasted) and that is why planners often use this expression; in the second case, however—despite contemporary socialist buzzwords—the future, real “progress,” is open and unknown, and thus cannot be planned.

The trust of classical liberals in freedom is based not only on iterative experiences of success, but in the need for each person to decide how his or her own life is to be lived. Instead of being domesticated by governments, people can govern themselves and determine their own destinies, which amounts in any case to an unplanned harmony. 

In the final analysis, can we seriously suggest an idea whose results we cannot predict? But this is precisely the advantage of freedom: We can trust in people to manage their own lives. If there are those who prefer to delegate decision-making powers to others—instead of supporting socialist political trends that extend this delegation to everyone, with or without their consent—they can appoint tutors, consultants and counselors who cannot so easily rob people of their dignity. 

It is as if those that appreciate and love freedom were to cry as loud as they possibly could, “Let me be human! Let me manage my own affairs!”

As the Adams—Smith and Ferguson—taught, each individual pursues his own particular interest, but if they are to become successful they must satisfy others’ needs. In this way they participate in the creation of an order that was not in their initial purposes (nor in their faculties) to create. 

Government, in this stage of cultural evolution—despite the fertile, continuing debates on externalities, public goods, and prisoners’ dilemmas—is to protect justice. That means, as Roman Ulpiano famously put it, “to give each one what belongs to each one.” Such is a tribute to the sanctity of the institution of property rights.

As Hayek explains, ideas are a complex phenomenon that require a difficult and long chain of reasoning—especially in the field of social sciences where there are no laboratory experiments. On the other hand, as we said, for the selling process the marketer need only concentrate on the benefits of the final product. This is the reason the teaching process demands so much reading and time with instructors.

This is the long way. But it may be the only way.

Sales Redux

By the same token, it is not acceptable to connect liberal ideas to marketing, because such normally requires the ability to detect (and in rarer cases inspire) what people want so as to provide it. In our case, on the contrary—although it may be paradoxical—to a great extent liberals must work against the trends of the ideas market (since people can want socialist redistribution—or at least can be inspired to believe they do) in order to protect the market process itself. If statist ideas should prevail, the market would largely disappear. 

Finally, in another sense, ideas are not subject to being sold in another way. That is, a person who maintains the virtues of integrity and decency will not sell his or her principles. As Al Pacino said in Scent of a Woman, “There isn't nothin' like the sight of an amputated spirit. There is no prosthetic for that.”

  • Alberto Benegas-Lynch, Jr. holds two doctorate degrees, one in Economics and one in Business Administration, is president of the Economic Science Section of Argentina's National Academy of Sciences, author of 17 books and a former member of the Board of the Mont Pelerin Society.