Converting the Unconvertible


Here’s a thought experiment: What words come to mind with the following statements?

I grew up in Marin County, Calif., during the late 1960s and entire 1970s. I like granola. I willingly attended a Pete Seeger concert in my youth.

Among the various responses is probably one of bewilderment. Some may ponder, “How did he ever become …” leader of CEI/promoter of libertarian and free-market thought? With the additional assumption that hot tubs and the Grateful Dead may be part of my background (they are), it’s not hard to presume my world view would be akin to Barbara Boxer’s.

It is not. In fact, it never was. Rather, my faith in the power of market principles to address society’s problems largely was borne out by the hypocritical paternalism that I saw permeate the wealthy liberal elite of the infamous hometown of my youth.

So, yes, making pat assumptions about people’s world views based on political geography is superficial and shortsighted. But I want to focus on some more fundamental questions that point raises.

Are people’s views immutable? In debate, do we try to take others seriously or simply try to reinforce our own views? In the give and take of policy making, are we trying to win new converts or just defeat our opponents? Can people actually change their minds about how the world works, not just how it should work?

Conversion is a funny thing. It means coming to the belief that what one once thought was right no longer seems to be. For those seeking converts, a moral crusade offers opportunities to motivate existing followers and feed their own  egos. But successful conversion requires something woefully lacking in today’s political culture, both inside and outside the Beltway: intellectual humility.

We certainly have examples of politicians who have “changed sides,” and not likely because of humility—from Rep. Artur Davis to former Sen. Phil Gramm to Ronald Reagan to occasional former lawmakers, such as Chuck Hagel, who take cabinet positions in the administration of presidents of the opposing party. But in how many of these instances was there ever true conversion? Reagan famously noted that he didn’t so much leave the Democratic Party as the Democratic Party left him. But what about the others who have made switching parties for pure political expediency an accepted practice, such as former Sen. Arlen Specter or New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg?

Does the “war” of ideas ever actually result in prisoners of war voluntarily admitting intellectual defeat and joining a different side?

Anecdotally, I know my share of conversion stories. Fred Smith, my predecessor at CEI, speaks openly about his time as an economic socialist working for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. I have current and former coworkers, who speak of their “youthful indiscretions” as members of Young Democrats or Greenpeace.

But let’s get back to our thought experiment.

My first presidential votes were cast for Ronald Reagan. I attended Wheaton College (yes, the one where you can’t drink). I helped start a new church in Northern Virginia. Now, perhaps, I sound more like what you’d expect from these pages. That’s fine. But then engage me on issues of drug legalization, alcohol privatization, gay marriage and the Pledge of Allegiance and you might find yourself posing the same question as earlier—“How did he ever become ….”

So now we come to the “result” of the experiment. What have we learned?

Quite simply, that labels are of little use in debate. Instead, we need to recognize ideas matter and have consequences. But more than that, we need to recognize ideas are defined not as left or right, but as good or bad. Bad ideas have devastating results for human dignity and human flourishing and should be passionately opposed.

So, to the libertarians and conservatives out there trying to get heard in policy debates and gain new adherents, we can agree we’re on to something—we have a winning narrative. It’s intellectual and emotive. It’s about an enterprising society being a peaceful society. It’s about embracing a bit of humility to acknowledge we don’t have answers to every problem and ensuring not every problem be addressed from a bully pulpit.

With those who will listen, engage with them and they may change their minds. With those who won’t – well … try spreading a little wheat germ in their soup, channeling Cyra McFadden’s The Serial, playing some Doobie Brothers and then reading the Declaration of Independence out loud. You never know.