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Values or Virtues?

Mr. Bidinotto, a Staff Writer for Reader’s Digest, is a long-time contributor to The Freeman and lecturer at FEE seminars. Criminal Justice? The Legal System Versus Individual Responsibility, edited by Mr. Bidinotto and published by FEE, is available at $29.95 in cloth and $19.95 in paperback.

As a young man, I wondered why the principles of freedom had failed to win more adherents. Despite the best efforts of freedom’s proponents—and after decades of philosophical refinement and practical demonstration-most people remained unswayed.

I became convinced that the public was both apathetic and unprincipled, concerned solely with indulging their most venal, narrow, and immediate interests. Most people, I figured, couldn’t care less about matters of moral principle-of distinctions between earned and unearned, just and unjust, “mine” and “yours.” I concluded that they preferred interventionism, because it let them to profit at the expense of others.

I became embittered, less and less motivated to promote the ideas of liberty. My sporadic writings acquired a combative tone that only further alienated readers—and editors. As a result, my writing career seemed headed for a Hobbesian end: solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.

Through it all, I clung to the comforting fantasy that I was being rejected solely due to my commitment to principle. In the years since, I’ve met other proponents of liberty who likewise revel in their own cultural marginality, as if their very unpopularity and ineffectuality confirmed their status as lone pillars of integrity in a corrupt world.

It’s a reassuring self-image … but a false one. Abandoning that illusion, in fact, is a precondition to succeeding in persuasion.

My own climb from the depths of cynicism began with the slow realization that most of those whom I’d been condemning were, as individuals, benevolent, productive people of considerable integrity. Yet I still couldn’t grasp how such good people could fail to appreciate principled arguments. Somehow, we seemed to be talking past each other.

My epiphany–and the turning point in my professional career—was in grasping the distinction between virtues and values.

Virtues, such as honesty and justice, are abstract moral principles. Properly understood, they serve as indispensable guides to our actions. However, they aren’t ends in themselves. Virtues are only abstract means to concrete ends. The ends are values: the things in life that we aim to gain or keep.

However, most ordinary people aren’t very abstract or theoretical: they’re focused on values, not virtues. It’s not that they’re unprincipled or immoral; they’re simply just not very proficient in linking abstract principles to life’s concretes. They don’t fully grasp the relationship between means and ends, principles and practice.

This also applies to their approach to politics. Most people are rightly concerned with the values a social system can bring them. But if they don’t see how certain principles will promote their values, they’ll jettison those principles as “impractical.”

Individual rights, limited government, and the free market are, after all, complex abstractions. If ordinary people don’t understand how they serve the ultimate values of human life and well-being, they’ll abandon those principles as unworkable.

In my persuasive efforts, I’d been focusing almost exclusively on promoting the virtues of a free society, rather than its values. I’d been dwelling on why liberty was a “moral” and “just” framework for social action, while neglecting to emphasize the personal values and benefits ordinary people could derive from living in a free society.

In short, it wasn’t their “immorality” that was causing my message to fall on deaf ears; it was my own deafness–to their very real and legitimate value concerns.

Once I realized this, I began to refocus my persuasive efforts with a sensitivity to the public’s value priorities. No, I didn’t “compromise” my principles or water down my philosophy. But I did become acutely aware of the need to tie my principles to their values, whenever possible. I also became cognizant of the need to address their highest-priority, concrete concerns.

For example, the polls show crime is consistently among the highest worries of the public. Yet though our philosophy of individual rights and individual responsibility has vast implications for this issue, I found virtually nothing in libertarian and free-market literature addressing the problem. Given the typical subject matter in such books and journals, it was as if we were confronting the concerns of inhabitants of some alien planet, rather than the real-world worries of ordinary folks right here.

But I discovered quickly that the public, far from being hostile to our philosophical premises, was warmly receptive to them–if they addressed their own value concerns. My Reader’s Digest crime articles, for instance, have garnered enormous popular responses. The national reaction to Criminal Justice? confirms that popular interest is neither superficial nor unprincipled.

On the contrary, far more than social scientists and “experts,” the typical American is passionately interested in restoring truth and justice to our legal system. Indeed, on most issues, I’ve found his value concerns to be quite rational–hence, fertile grounds for our persuasive efforts. But exactly how do we confront those concerns?

Take the drug issue. The typical freemarketer simply declares his principled commitment to free trade in drugs, and discusses the economics. But this utterly fails to relieve the worries of the typical American parent. “Arc you endorsing drugs?” he asks. “What about our kids?”

Those are rational value concerns. So why don’t we reply as follows:

“Personally, I hate drug abuse. Drug dealers are the scum of the earth, and I want to put them out of business. And as a parent, I want to protect kids. But too many kids are getting seduced into the drug trade as suppliers, all because of the high profits.

“There are two things we should do. First, to protect children, there should be much higher criminal penalties for any adult who involves kids with drugs in any way. The second thing we can do is take the profits out of the drug trade. Drug laws unintentionally create higher-than-market profit margins. That entices criminal dealers. Legalizing drugs–for adults only–would end the excessive profits in drug sales. That would take away the drug dealer’s fancy cars, jewelry, homes. Making drugs available through legal channels would also get criminals out of the trade, and end street violence by competing gangs.”

Such an argument, based on shared values, will persuade far more ordinary people than any mere declaration of moral principle.

People aren’t stupid or corrupt; they simply aren’t very theoretically minded. If we wish to reach them, we have to learn that the doorway to minds and hearts is formed by their deepest values. Appealing to those shared values has brought my messages from obscurity to national attention. The same approach can work for anyone else. []

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