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Thursday, August 4, 2022

Why Freedom Needs a Philosophy

Piecemeal policy advocacy won’t be enough.

Photo by Simon Wilkes on Unsplash

Governments around the world have been waging a war on liberty, blasting away our rights with a rapid-fire succession of radically tyrannical policies. How can those of us who believe in liberty counter that?

For one, we can persuade more people to join us in opposing the bad policies. But, that can be an uphill battle. As you may know from experience, it is hard to change people’s minds—especially their political stances. Advocates of liberty are often baffled by how stubbornly people cling to their anti-liberty positions.

Why do we keep running into this brick wall? According to Henry Hazlitt, it is because libertarians often don’t realize that, “some proposal they are combatting is merely part of a whole system of thought.” That, Hazlitt explained, is why even irrefutable arguments against a bad policy will often fail to persuade.

So, it is not enough to criticize a specific bad policy in isolation. “It is a comprehensive though confused philosophy that we have to meet,” Hazlitt concluded, “and we must answer it by an equally comprehensive philosophy.”

Let’s flesh out Hazlitt’s contention with an example. Say you’re debating someone who supports the minimum wage. You clearly present an ironclad case, buttressed by economic logic, moral reasoning, and empirical evidence demonstrating how the minimum wage violates rights and fosters unemployment, driving the very people it’s supposed to help into poverty and dependence. Meanwhile, your opponent’s counterarguments are confused and misinformed. And yet in spite of all that, he angrily rejects your claims and persists in his support for the minimum wage.

Why might that be? The problem is that his support for the minimum wage “is merely part of a whole system of thought,” as Hazlitt said: namely, the progressive economic, political, and moral ideology he has imbibed from school, the media, or some other influence.

If he were to concede to your superior argument and turn against the minimum wage, that opposition would be discordant with the rest of his worldview. Merely entertaining the notion creates cognitive dissonance. So he recoils from the intense mental discomfort and rejects reason itself for the sake of emotional self-protection.

According to psychologist Jordan Peterson, there is a “‘natural’ human tendency to respond to… the strange idea… with fear and aggression…” This is because “to give serious consideration to another’s viewpoint means to risk exposure to indeterminate uncertainty – to risk a rise in existential anxiety, pain and depression…”

It may seem silly to consider new ideas so scary and belief systems so precious. But we all do it, and for good reason.

As Peterson elaborates in his book Maps of Meaning, our belief systems (including our socio-political worldviews) are how we make sense of the world. They are the compasses and maps we use to navigate the vast complexity of life. Without overarching paradigms to structure our lives by, we feel lost at sea: confused and afraid. That is why we are so attached to and protective of our “systems of thought.”

As the historian of science Thomas Kuhn demonstrated, even scientists are wedded to their paradigms and tend to cling to them in spite of countervailing reason and evidence, until such “anomalies” accumulate to the point of precipitating a “crisis” and the paradigm finally collapses under their weight all at once. The discredited paradigm is then supplanted by an alternative paradigm. Thus, scientific paradigm shifts tend to be revolutionary rather than evolutionary.

As Jordan Peterson argued, this is true, not just for scientific paradigms, but for belief systems in general, including socio-political paradigms.

So a progressive may preserve his precious paradigm by responding to “anomalies” like your strong case against the minimum wage with a blanket denial. You may have planted a seed of doubt, but he is reluctant to let it sprout, lest it compromise and collapse his whole progressive philosophy. Such a “paradigm crisis” would throw his world into upheaval, so he is loath to let it happen.

But, if, in addition to challenging his current paradigm, you also offer him an alternative paradigm—“an equally comprehensive philosophy,” as Hazlitt put it—that may ease his anxiety over letting his progressive ideology go. Instead of the prospect of his existing structure collapsing and being replaced by nothing but directionless confusion, he is offered the opportunity to replace one structure with another. That is a lot less scary.

So instead of just debunking the minimum wage in particular, it is key to also provide at least a glimpse of a wider alternative vision: i.e., the economic function of wages in general, the ethics of contracts in general, and what free markets and free societies are and how they work. Once your opponent starts to understand and embrace the freedom perspective as a whole, embracing market wages and letting go of the minimum wage will be a lot easier.

To get people to abandon progressivism, socialism, authoritarianism, and other illiberal ideologies, we must “above all,” as Hazlitt concluded, “expound the foundations of a philosophy of freedom.”

To turn people against bad policies, we must first-and-foremost turn them toward good fundamentals and a good philosophy. We must go beyond playing “whack-a-mole” with bad proposals and lay the philosophical groundwork necessary to help individuals have their own revolutionary paradigm shifts—their own conversion experiences—toward liberty.

  • 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.