Students Dive Into The Political Shark Tank

Recently I was a presenter and participant in a workshop organized by the Foundation for Economic Education (FEE). The event, “Communicating Liberty: Shark Tank,” is one of a number of FEE Student Seminars designed to help participants become more effective spokespersons for liberty. As one involved in that struggle for over 40 years, I found it invigorating and stimulating. When I entered the liberty movement, there were few young activists and many of them were committed, but a little on the, shall we say, eccentric side.

Now, not only are many young people enthusiastic about liberty and libertarian values, the composition has become far more diverse (boys and girls) and far more representative of today’s youth generation. During the weekend, there were numerous opportunities to interact with the students – answer queries and gain insight into the next generation of libertarians. It was fun!

I’ve long thought that the growing number of libertarian youth offer an opportunity to address our critical marketing challenge – how do we reach the rationally ignorant? To those not familiar with this term, it refers to the fact that, while we all have reason to seek out information about choices that advance (or threaten) our self-interest, we have few reasons to devote scarce educational time to learning the pros and cons of issues which may be important, but about which we can do little. In politics, this describes most issues for most people. Or, as I sometimes put it:

In the public policy world, people aren’t stupid because they’re stupid

They’re stupid because they’re smart

So if we try to make them smart, we’re being stupid!

The theme of this seminar, marketing liberty, lent itself to that approach. My presentation “Crafting the Moral Defense of Capitalism” fit in well and subsequent discussions provided some potential “what next” tasks.

It has long been noted that “what we say” or, perhaps, better, “what we thought we said” is not always what is heard. And that point is most relevant when seeking to influence the opinions of the rationally ignorant. The educational approach most often used by intellectuals is poorly designed to reach people who have no reason to be educated. When crafting a message for the general public, we cannot educate; yet, given the need to influence the opinions of the rationally ignorant, we must communicate. Finding ways of doing so – and then ensuring that they work – is critical. Thus, my presentation focused on the “Value Based Communication” (VBC) approach. This theory was pioneered by UC Berkeley political scientist Aaron Wildavsky and is now being pursued by researchers like the staff of The Cultural Cognition Project at Yale Law School.

To expand the work being done by others in the field, a next step might well be to recruit panels of individuals with varied values (individualists, hierarchists, egalitarians, communitarians, etc.), to organize them into value-specific online “focus groups,” to test the VBC theory. As FEE or other groups craft value messages that we think would persuade a group, we would forward that message to the relevant value panel for validation (or, perhaps as likely, rejection). Those critical responses are vital to make sure our audience is hearing what we are really trying to say.

Free market advocates are spending a great amount of time and energy on marketing efforts – which is good – but the most important task in marketing is gaining feedback. Are we reaching our target audiences with our intended message? My recent interactions with the staff – and distinguished alumni – of the Foundation for Economic Education suggest that fans of free markets and limited government are becoming increasingly aware of the values challenge in communications and will be moving, more than ever, toward reaching people with messages aimed at their values as well as their minds.