The Epidemic of Passable Arguments
by Ethan Glover, Sun, Jan 15, 2017 - (Edited) Wed, Jan 10, 2018
Originally published on FreeKeene.
When an organization claims a monopoly on the legitimate use of physical force, it is a 'state.' The state is violence.
That argument, originating from Max Weber in 'Politics as a Vocation' [PDF](Archived) isn't wrong. The argument itself, and the lecture it originates from is a well-formulated description of and perspective on politics. If you argue on the premise that the state is a monopoly on violence, your argument won't fall apart. But it may have a precarious balance.
Give the video below by Nerdwriter a watch. It's about movies that might be good.. but not really. They do everything right, but they don't connect. What Nerdwriter sees in movies, is also in arguments for libertarianism.
A 'passable' libertarian argument, or 'passable' activism does just enough to get attention, and just enough for others in the community to consider it 'correct' or 'doing something.' Regardless if it has an effect. It's just enough to get praise, or in the case of celebritarians, just enough to get donations, maintain sponsorships, or sell merchandise.
Nerdwriter once attributed the epidemic of passable movies to a "lack of tonal control." I've attributed the epidemic of passable arguments to a lack of connection. That is, the inability or refusal to take note of who you're talking to, listen to them, remain curious about their beliefs and explain your own in a way that they as an individual can connect with.
Logic Isn't Good Enough
Many arguments I see, that aren't emotionally charged rants, start off by loosely referencing what they're replying to and stretching into a 'logical' step-by-step that ultimately concludes with a cliche phrase.
If you don't pay your taxes, you go to jail. If you refuse to go to jail, you will be physically forced into jail. If you resist arrest you will be beaten into submission. If you use enough physical resistance, you can be shot and killed. Taxation and all state actions are ultimately backed up by the point of a gun.
That argument is correct. But only in a strictly 'logical' sense. Logic alone isn't enough to articulate how the world works. Especially the human, social world. That same scenario can still happen in a world where there is no monopoly on force, but instead, there is competition in a free market. If you explicitly agree to the protection of and adherence to a particular set of rules, there's no reason to believe that the refusal to obey can't escalate to lethal force.
In the video, Nerdwriter talks about scenes that make sense, that we can relate to, but are just copied emotional arcs from other movies. They're not realistic or relevant scenarios when you look at them critically. He explains that good movies capture the human experience with nuance and insight in a way that can teach us things about ourselves, or teach us how to articulate those things.
The idea of 'human action' taught me a lot about humanity and the chaos within it. Grasping the idea of the 'invisible hand of the free market' showed me how organization on the small scale based on self-interest creates organization on the large scale based on collective interest.
I didn't start saying "taxation is theft," until I already understood what that meant. That wasn't an argument that taught me anything or helped me understand anything. It's just something fun to say. I know it's true that taxation is theft, but that statement isn't exactly insightful. It doesn't say anything about the current state of humanity. There's no nuance, no acute observations. It doesn't tell you anything that you didn't already know. It has no effect whatsoever.
The Normal Vocabulary Isn't Good Enough
What makes a movie passable, according to Nerdwriter, is that passable movies observe real life through the lens of other movies. Passable movies draw from a library and vocabulary that people don't use or relate to. But it's familiar enough for the viewer to understand. Which makes the movie... passable. They get it. They just don't connect with it. Passable movies aren't memorable, they don't change you, they just sort of... pass the time.
It's the same with many libertarian arguments. Taxation is theft, collectivism is dangerous, public education is indoctrination, no victim no crime. These phrases were built on and collected from previous libertarian arguments in the same way that the scenes in passable movies were. They make sense, but they don't connect. As Nerdwriter puts it, these phrases are "cobbled together from a weird alternate reality that is only a dim echo of our own."
Movies use cliche scenes to rush through certain plot points in order to get to the unique part, the schtick of the movie. But that reduces the effect it has on the viewer. Libertarian arguments have also become cliche enough that they don't hold any persuasive power over anyone. They rush through the build up, the personalized explanation, just to get to the part where they can say, "Taxation is theft!"
For a short period of time, I wrote ~20 pages per week on a long form blog called "AnCapUs." I directly answered questions people had about anarcho-capitalism, usually pulled from comments. But I started to realize I was repeating myself too often to the same people. With careful moderation, I kept my comments full of in-depth discussion. Publish 20 pages, spend the rest of the week not only writing the next 20 but talking about the last. I was creating good conversation, but it wasn't getting anybody anywhere. It was just an exercise in trading opinions. Nothing was connecting with or effecting anybody.
So I stopped writing on a regular basis. If I come across something unique that intrigues me enough to share with everyone, I do so. When something like Nerdriter's passable movies video helps me find a new perspective, I try to translate what I get out of it. Otherwise, everything I'm saying here, you've probably heard before. In fact, I've said it before. "Don't use slogans to sell your ideas, have a personal conversation." The difference is in the perspective.
We should be seeking new ideas from different places in order to help us explain and articulate our beliefs in different ways. My goal is not to tell 1 million people that taxation is theft. My goal is to find 10 people, figure out how they think, believe and feel; and then figure the perspective that will help them understand. The perspective that will persuade them. My goal is to find an original argument for every single person I talk to about these ideas.
This isn't much different than Kevin Kelly's 1,000 true fans. Find the people you can effect, figure out how to effect them, and don't worry about large numbers. Allow that to happen on its own, if at all. We don't need celebritarians reaching large amounts of people. We need conversation between family, friends, and random encounters. A system of small conversations and transfers of ideas. Celebritarianism and syndicated activism have not helped libertarianism.
Ron Paul didn't know why he became popular in 2008 when he'd been saying the same things for decades. He just showed up to colleges and people started to cheer at the names Rothbard and Mises. The ideas became popular on their own. Libertarianism as a "movement" lost popularity through embarrassments in activism and scandal in infighting. CopBlock, as one example, has struggled with the idea of whether it should be violence porn to get the views or concentrate on boring legislative battles. In time, it has started to concentrate on getting violent or outrageous video and getting people to emotionally react, rather than make a change.
There's probably a popular Adam Kokesh, Larken rose, or Ron Paul video that you clearly remember changing the way you think. In most cases, I would challenge that and say that someone you knew personally primed you for gaining perspective from that video.
Even if that isn't true, that video connected with you. It wasn't a perfectly formulated argument with the right incantation. You can't just share that video every week and expect it to have the same effect on others. You can't repeat what they said and expect it to convert hundreds. The words they used were individualized to them and their experiences. The fact that it worked on you says more about you and what effects you than the level of persuasiveness that video has.
The point of this is to make a request. If you're going to argue for libertarianism or try to persuade others of its ideas, don't make 'passable' arguments. Don't speak 'logically' and then complain that no one is listening because they're dumb or indoctrinated. Instead, step out of the world or libertarianism and it's library of standard phrases and arguments. Look at the library of the person you're talking to, and use it. You'll not only gain a new and fascinating perspective on your own beliefs, but chances are you'll have a lasting impression on those you're trying to persuade.