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Thursday, July 21, 2016

Virtue Signaling: Why Political Debates on the Internet Are So Often Pointless

Our political discourse is mostly schoolyard tattling.

Have you ever noticed how frustrating it is to argue with people about politics on the Internet: like trying to use your head to knock down a brick wall? Well, keep in mind that the feeling is probably mutual.

But also consider the practical utility of that brick wall: the rational interest many people have in being close-minded and wedded to false beliefs. As economist Bryan Caplan has written:

“…irrationality, like ignorance, is sensitive to price, and false beliefs about politics and religion are cheap. If you underestimate the costs of excessive drinking, you can ruin your life. In contrast, if you underestimate the benefits of immigration, or the evidence in favor of the theory of evolution, what happens to you? In all probability, the same thing that would have happened to you if you knew the whole truth.”

Just as holding a comforting false belief is rock-bottom cheap, so is expressing a socially-advantageous false belief.

False beliefs about economics and political philosophy may be devastating in aggregate, but for the individual the cost of choosing to embrace fallacy is negligible. So, as Caplan argues, it is perfectly rational for many to stubbornly cling to false but “emotionally appealing” beliefs. There are no individual, internalized costs that could possibly outweigh whatever emotional benefit the false belief might have.

Caplan wrote the passage quoted above in 2006. Last year, British writer James Bartholomew coined a term and crystallized a concept that is highly complementary to Caplan’s analysis: virtue signaling.

Virtue and Vanity

Most of what passes for political discourse on the Internet does not consist of actual attempts to persuade. Rather, the opiners are like preening birds, chirping for anyone within earshot to signal that, “I am a decent, virtuous person,” usually adding, “unlike the troglodyte rightwingers or degenerate leftists I’m denouncing.”

Such virtue signalling is socially profitable. When others in your social set detect that you faithfully subscribe to that set’s orthodoxy, they become better disposed toward you. This can result in professional, social, even romantic opportunities.

And just as holding a comforting false belief is rock-bottom cheap, so is expressing a socially-advantageous false belief.

But in addition to this rational interest, there is a compulsive, pathological component to virtue signaling as well. That part is baggage from the way we are all raised as kids.

Political Tattling

When children are free to learn from undirected experiences, they learn to conceive of truth as something that guides the successful pursuit of their own goals. But in the domineering, tightly-directed environments of school and the modern household, we condition our children to conceive of truth as received wisdom handed down by authority.

Thanks to this conditioning, we have all become approval-junkies, always on the lookout for our next fix of external validation.

Children are largely deprived of the noble joy of discovering truths as revealed by successful action. Instead they are left with the ignoble gratification of pleasing a taskmaster by reciting an answer that is marked “correct.” And this goes far beyond academics. For the modern child, learning “good behavior” is not about discovering through trial and error what kinds of behaviors are conducive to thriving socially. Instead, it’s about winning praise and avoiding censure from authority figures.

Thanks to this conditioning, we have all become approval-junkies, always on the lookout for our next fix of external validation: for the next little rush of dopamine we get whenever we are patted on the head by others for being a “good boy” or a “good girl,” for exhibiting the right behavior, for giving the right answer, for expressing the right opinion.

This is why the mania for virtue signalling is so ubiquitous, and why orthodoxies are so impervious. Expressing political opinions is not about hammering out useful truths through the crucible of debate, but about signaling one’s own virtue by “tattling” on others for being unvirtuous: for being crypto-commies or crypto-fascists; for being closet racists or race-traitor “cucks;” for being enemies of the poor or apologists for criminals.

Much of our political debate consists of our abused inner children basically calling out, “Teacher, teacher, look at me. I followed the rules, but Johnny didn’t. Johnny is a bad boy, and he said a mean word, too. Teacher look what Trump said. He should say sorry. Teacher look what Hillary did. You should give her detention.”

You can’t expect much enlightenment to emerge from this level of discourse.

An Alternative Approach to Advancing Liberty

This may make the situation seem hopeless for advocates of the freedom philosophy. How can we convince the public about the virtues of freedom, when they are only concerned with signaling their own virtue and are so heedless of argument and reason?

One solution might be to focus on how the freedom philosophy can benefit people in their own lives individually.

For example, children thrive and develop wonderfully under freedom: when their parents adopt unschooling and peaceful parenting. Parents can deny this; they can cling to their false authoritarian beliefs about child rearing. But, unlike with public policy questions, being wrong on the question of parenting is extremely expensive on the individual level. Parents can choose to virtue signal that they, like all “decent” people, support public schools and condemn their kids to a decade-plus sentence of forced desk labor, but only if they pay the cost: ending up with alienated, stressed-out, frivolous kids with no spirit of enterprise.

The seeker of self-improvement actually has skin in the game.

Unlike with policy debates, parents actually have a direct, internalized stake in arriving at the right answer to the parenting question. Once parents accept that the freedom philosophy is true when it comes to their children, it will be easier for them to see how it is true for society in general. And children raised in freedom are more apt to recognize its virtues across the board as well. It’s hard to imagine an unschooled kid growing up to be an authoritarian adult.

Also, adults who have already been institutionalized by schools and made neurotic by domineering parents often imbibe a docile, dependent, permission-based mindset that holds them back in their career and in life in general. And they often find themselves gravitating toward unfree environments, routines, and relationships that compound the damage done in their childhoods.

Understanding the freedom philosophy (especially the character-building nature of liberty and the character-corroding natures of both power and servitude) can be an individual’s first step toward breaking free from these destructive mindsets and environments. (Indeed, even many libertarians have not deinstitutionalized themselves in this way.) And again, concerning this question, the seeker of self-improvement actually has skin in the game, and so has every interest in being open to a philosophy that can turn his/her life around.

This is the kind of approach that the exciting company Praxis has taken: using the freedom philosophy, deschooling, and the spirit of entrepreneurship to help launch the careers and change the lives of young people from all across the country.

Imagine a world-wide libertarian community that consists of fewer Internet virtue-signalers and would-be politicos, and an ever-rising number of entrepreneurial, wealth-building, value-creating, life-affirming individuals who astound and inspire all who know them. What exemplars of, and walking arguments for, the greatness of liberty such men and women would be.

Maybe freedom lovers should stop expending so much energy bashing our heads against the brick wall of policy disputation, and instead try the open door of appealing to self-interest: by promoting the freedom philosophy, not just as a political philosophy, but as a life philosophy.

  • Dan Sanchez is an essayist, editor, and educator. His primary topics are liberty, economics, and educational philosophy. He is a Distinguished Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Economic Education (FEE). He created the Hazlitt Project at FEE, launched the Mises Academy at the Mises Institute, and taught writing for Praxis. He has written hundreds of essays for venues including (see his author archive),,, and The Objective Standard. Follow him on Twitter and Substack.