Should We Restrict Ourselves to the War of Ideas?

Economic liberalism faces a multi-front assault, an assault that has been underway for decades but that has intensified in recent years.  As discussed in the last SPN report, over the next few years we policy groups can expect vicious attacks on our funding, our research and our integrity.  And that attack will be paralleled by comparable assaults on business groups that challenge statist policies.  Anti-market forces will seek to ban or limit the role of  research (and policy advice) “tainted” with economic self-interest.  Already, McCain-Feingold limits businesses and others from engaging the political debate.   And, more recently, editors of several academic journals moved to force authors to disclose any business support they might ever have received.  And, as one would expect, there is a growing effort to disparage our groups as industry fronts, while simultaneously pressuring firms to cut all links to us.  All these actions are intended to stigmatize any links between the policy process and the market.

The overall goal of anti-market forces is clearly to drive voices for economic liberty from the political marketplace, to further weaken the alliance between market forces and the intellectual world.  If they succeed, the only information that will be allowed to influence public policy will come from government and left-liberal ideologues.  We should take the threat they pose very seriously.  Our coercive utopian foes are no longer interested in a “war of ideas.”  They want to win.  To do so, they’re willing to sacrifice their once-cherished principles – fair play, free speech, tolerance. 

In response to this attack, some have proposed that we abandon, at least temporarily, any effort to influence policy through the political process.  Perhaps if we restrict ourselves to the war of ideas, we might avoid attack, at least for awhile.  Statists, after all, have little to fear about being tolerant in the Academy, where they reign supreme.  But any move to reduce government triggers efforts to crush us.  Yet, if we few fail to fight, who will?

It is understandable why, having gained much in the war of ideas, some market liberals would be reluctant to engage the messy world of politics.  After all, Frederick von Hayek himself warned against a premature rush into politics:

 First, you must reach the intellectuals, the teachers, and writers, with reasoned argument…. It will be their influence which will prevail and the politicians will follow.

To Hayek, ideas were primary, his view was that only “ideas have consequences.”   But, of course, Hayek was fully aware that the ideas of consequence through much of the 20th century were the horrific ideas of fascism, communism, and progressivism.  Hayek certainly realized that someone would have to go beyond the war of ideas and struggle to make good policy, good politics.  Hayek’s caution was that we not rush too quickly into the political wars.  But he wrote in the early post-WWII era, when the Depression and WWII had convinced many that government was an effective and moral force for advancing the public interest.  In that era there was little literature on economic freedom, and the little that did exist (largely the work of the Austrian economists) was little known.  Thus, Hayek emphasized restoring and expanding the ideas of liberty.  (For similar reasons, he created the Mont Pélerin Society, an intellectual redoubt to preserve liberal ideals and ideas in the coming Dark Ages.)  In that era, his focus on ideas rather than action, on rebuilding the intellectual arsenal of liberty first, was appropriate.  Charging statist Panzer divisions with market-liberal rifle platoons would have been suicidal.    

But that was then – this is now.  Hayek’s arguments for avoiding politics have weakened as the failures of collectivist, utopian planning have become painfully evident.  What’s more, Hayek’s push to restock the arsenals of liberty was more successful than he could have imagined.  Today, market liberal ideas are far more widely known and accepted than in the mid-20th century, and people are more receptive to economic liberalization policies.  That’s why it is past time to engage the political struggle, to seek now to implement market-liberal policies.  To argue otherwise, to argue that we need only win the war of ideas, is naïve.  Intellectuals, after all, reap their rewards, not through wealth but through recognition.  Unfortunately, this fosters a disdain for market entrepreneurs.  Thus, the intellectual class has no reason to accept economic liberal views; to do so would threaten its economic and psychological self-interest.     

Instead of trying to persuade leftwing intellectuals, we should learn from what has made leftwing activists so successful.  Left-of-center groups typically conduct the whole vertical array of activities linking the world of ideas to that of politics.  They host conferences and write papers, market aggressively their ideas, reach out for policy reform allies, and then seek through creative means to advance (via regulation, legislation or litigation) their reform agenda.  Free market groups, in contrast, tend toward a more horizontal structure, specializing in one stage of the policy process (as think tanks, litigation groups or advocacy groups).   The difficulty is finding eager, capable groups to undertake the next stage of the policy process.    

But, we also need to better market our reforms, not always a strength of free market groups.  We persuade our fellow individualists (those valuing economic and civil liberties) but have been far less effective at reaching other important cultural value groups.  Our emphasis on freedom, to many, seems to enshrine, “just another word for nothing more to lose”!  Our challenge is to find ways to market our policy ideas to conservatives (who place greater weight on security) and to liberals (who value justice and fairness).  Yet we do believe that expanding liberty also makes the world a more secure and a more equitable place.  Our challenge is to demonstrate that fact, to show our liberal and security-conscious friends how our ideas and policies might better advance their values.  We must communicate, we must recognize that people won’t care what we know until they know we care.  We do and should let them know it too.

Such an outreach strategy can be effective, as demonstrated by a recent policy shift by the World Health Organization.  The WHO now encourages the use of DDT for malaria control.  That reversal resulted from an effective communication strategy that finally made people realize that millions of Africans were dying because a powerful environmental elite (locked into a Rachel Carson mindset) had too long controlled global public health policies.  A handful of people (the group, Africa Fighting Malaria, most noticeably) forced an awareness of the deadly impacts of the anti-DDT policy, encouraging opponents to retreat and allowing the World Health Organization to switch course.  Victories in other areas, such as social security reform or school choice, are possible but will require that we communicate how those reforms will advance egalitarian and conservative goals, as well as liberty.     

Of course, there are risks in moving beyond the purity of the intellectual battlefields.  But there are also major risks in not engaging the political process.  Moreover, we are unlikely to escape attack by retreat in any event.  The legacy of the Bush presidency means we’ll be operating in adverse policy terrain for years.   Our enemies have long sought our destruction, worked to weaken our influence.  They will now have more tools to advance those objectives.  We must expect them to become even more aggressive in the years ahead. 

But that aggressiveness reflects, in part, the desperation of the Chattering Class.  Statist policies continue to fail and even liberals no longer believe in government as they once did.  Yet, those favoring expanded political control exercise power in the bastions they retain – the media, key posts within government and corporations, the academy, the legal establishment.  And they still exercise that power to block any effort to shrink Leviathan.  They are determined.  We few must be no less so.  There are risks of resisting the assault on liberty but there are risks of surrender.  We cannot abandon the political world to the enemies of freedom to allow the market to be driven from the marketplace of ideas.