Montreal, February 26, 2006 • No 168




Bradley Doucet is a writer living in Montreal. He has studied philosophy and economics, and is currently completing a novel on the pursuit of happiness.




by Bradley Doucet


          As a general rule, libertarians are less than enamoured with democracy. At best, it is seen as a peaceful way to hand over power from one group to another, preferable to violent revolution or entrenched one-party rule, but not a panacea by any means. It is "the worst form of Government except all those others that have been tried from time to time," as Winston Churchill famously put it. The relative success of the wealthier countries of the world rests not only (or even primarily) on a foundation of democracy, but on other foundations like the rule of law, the separation of powers, a free press, and the recognition of private property rights.


          Moreover, some libertarians believe that involvement in the democratic political process is a waste of time, and worse still, that voting lends legitimacy to statist policies and that the system will never be meaningfully reformed from the inside. (See "La Démocracie, c'est le socialisme" by Martin Masse.) The most recent federal election in Canada saw the election of Stephen Harper, a man who formerly espoused an appreciation of the benefits of limited government but now seems to have embraced Big Government Conservatism in order to allay the fears of a jittery electorate.

          But if not democracy, then what? If we can't bring about a freer society through voting, then how can we do it? Some say we get the governments we deserve, meaning that those in power will do whatever they think we will let them get away with, regardless of whether they got there by winning an election or staging a coup. From this perspective, an informed, attentive and freedom-loving citizenry is a far better check on government than periodic elections.

          What is required, then, is not a change of government, but a change of attitudes, i.e., a cultural change. More people need to recognize the non-aggression principle and demand that those in power respect it. Those of us with both the time and the inclination can spread such libertarian ideas through writing, or we can start or join a group to raise awareness about a specific issue. Of course, just living a peaceful, productive and happy life is an excellent way of leading by example. And another accessible way to help bring about a free and open society is simply to speak up, expressing our thoughts and ideas as tactfully and persuasively as possible, whenever it is appropriate to do so.

On Building, Not Burning, Bridges

          If we want, through discussion and debate, to reach people who initially disagree with us, and hence spread our ideas to a wider audience, we must first of all avoid vilifying and ridiculing our intellectual opponents on the left and the right. As entertaining as they may be to their respective partisan cheerleaders, it is my continuing conviction that the Ann Coulters and the Al Frankens of the world have got it wrong, that the Rush Limbaughs and the Michael Moores of the planet are poisoning civil discourse. No one changes his mind by being told he's an asshole or an idiot. It may feel good to get this kind of thing off one's chest, but it only serves to push people away, further entrenching them in their ideas.

"An informed, attentive and freedom-loving citizenry is a far better check on government than periodic elections."

          While some of us will find it tempting to push people away, others may prefer to avoid confrontations entirely. Neither tactic will entice many converts. We all stand to benefit from a more moderate strategy of respectful engagement. If we approach each interaction at least initially as an opportunity to build bridges, to foster understanding, and to learn more ourselves, many good things can result. By asking questions and listening attentively instead of just holding court, we can learn what concerns motivate those who disagree with us, and have a chance to think about how we might address those concerns. We will also realize at times that our views need some modification, and develop a more nuanced perspective that is more securely grounded in reality. We may even realize that we are entirely mistaken about some things, and although this by its very nature is the hardest kind of blow for the ego to take, the alternative is to continue in error, which is much more destructive in the long run.

          Overall, by approaching discussions and debates with an open mind, by being willing to entertain the possibility that I might be wrong to some degree, and that others might have something to teach me, I stand the best chance of arriving at a good approximation of the truth in any given matter. My confidence in my ideas can only grow as they survive – perhaps somewhat modified – the challenges to which they are exposed, and this increased confidence and accumulated practice will make me an even more effective, more persuasive debater.

The Rules of Engagement

          An open-minded, respectful attitude is a necessary but not a sufficient condition for making the most out of our interactions with others. If we want to pursue the truth, and persuade others of the truths we think we already know, then it behooves us also to spend some time studying logic, and critical thinking more generally. What makes an argument valid or invalid? What are the common fallacies that can lead us (and others) into error? How can we learn to spot these fallacies in our own and others' thinking? Without a solid understanding of the rules of logic, the best-intentioned debates can easily deteriorate into unproductive chaos.

          Of course, all parties need to be at least modestly logical and critically minded for a discussion to be productive. The requirement to be respectful does not mean one must tolerate rampant illogic in others. Martin C. Young, who teaches critical thinking in California, enumerates on his Website a list of rules for promoting rational thought. Rule 9, "The Gloves-Off rule," sketches the limits of courtesy:

          If someone insists on talking to you, but over and over again refuses to intelligently respond to the logic of what you say to him… If rational argument cannot get through, then perhaps humor, sarcasm, insult, deliberate misunderstanding, elaborate fantasy, repeatedly saying "ni" to them, false profession of imaginary but hideously frightening religion, expressive gestures, or relentless logical nitpicking will. And if you don't get through, then at least you're having a good time… Remember that you should always give these people… plenty of opportunity to be rational before you unleash your dark side, but if they just won't play nice, then you owe them nothing.

An Unsettling Experience

          Disagreeing with others on matters of politics and principles, even when everyone is respectful and logical, can be an unsettling experience. Most people tend to resist changing their minds. When we, as libertarians, argue for the reduction and even the dismantling of the welfare state, some on the political left will disparage us as uncaring and label us right-wing. When we argue for the abolition of vice "crimes," some on the political right will disparage us as libertines and lefties. We must learn to take all of this in stride, at least to a point. If we avoid both overly aggressive and overly passive responses and choose instead some middle ground between these two extremes, we can get the most out of this unsettling but also potentially enjoyable experience.

          Of course, the people with whom we disagree will also tend to find the experience an unsettling one, and this is all the more reason to remain civil. It is precisely when people feel unsettled that they are most likely to question and rethink their ideas, but only if they also feel they have been treated with respect. It may not be immediately apparent, but ideas planted in one discussion can germinate and lead to reflection and investigation at a later time. At the very least, it can only be a good thing for our intellectual opponents to be reminded that their ideas are not universally accepted, and to know that there exist calm, confident, reasonable people who disagree with them on principled grounds.

          It may sound like a lot of work to change the world by changing people's minds, but a free and open society presupposes a critical mass of people who understand and value liberty. Enthusiastic promoters of liberty tend to have a good appreciation of the importance of personal responsibility, so we should take responsibility for being the most respectful, logical, well-informed, persuasive debaters we can be. We have little to lose, and a freer, more open world to be gained.