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Social Change Will Always Be Best Achieved Through Ideas

Social Change Will Always Be Best Achieved Through Ideas

By Brian Balfour

“They only who build on ideas, build for an eternity”

—Ralph Waldo Emerson

Ideas are the most powerful engine of social change. To facilitate a rollback of the leviathan state, the creation of a bottom-up shift in the intellectual appreciation of a free society is required.

As former Congressman and presidential candidate Ron Paul noted:

One thing my years in Washington taught me is that most politicians are followers, not leaders… Politicians will not support individual liberty and limited government unless and until they are forced to do so by the people.”

For an example of this, consider candidate Barack Obama’s opposition to gay marriage in 2008, which “evolved” into support by 2012which just happened to be the same year opinion polls showed public support going into positive territory. Toward that end, our focus should not be on lobbying politicians or getting caught up with current officeholders who will change their opinions regularly. Instead, we should be working to impact public opinion by attacking the immorality and corruption of the institution of the state itself.

Just Say No to Partisan Politics

To be a more effective voice for liberty and free markets, advocates should advance these ideas without the divisive tribalism of partisan politics that serves to only harden people in their preconceived notions. Instead, the focus should be on promoting the uncompromising supremacy of individual rights, rather than merely arguing in favor of “your team.”

In light of the government’s drastic overreach into the affairs of our everyday lives, and the major disapproval of the two major party presidential candidates in 2016, there is an energized movement thirsting for alternative viewpoints outside the unimaginative and well-worn “R vs. D” paradigm.

The time is right to capitalize on this alienation, but only a principled and consistent articulation of the freedom philosophy will do. Radical ideas should be embraced, not abandoned or avoided. Just because there may be no chance of policy wins, such as abolishing the U.S. Department of Education or Federal Reserve, does not mean we should not vociferously articulate our ultimate ends.

What has sticking to the “politically possible” ever gotten us? A $21 trillion national debt, the highest incarceration rate in the world, Obamacare, and much, much more.

As Friedrich Hayek said in his 1949 essay The Intellectuals and Socialism:

Those who have concerned themselves exclusively with what seemed practicable in the existing state of opinion have constantly found that even this has rapidly become politically impossible as the result of changes in a public opinion which they have done nothing to guide. Unless we can make the philosophic foundations of a free society once more a living intellectual issue, and its implementation a task which challenges the ingenuity and imagination of our liveliest minds, the prospects of freedom are indeed dark. But if we can regain that belief in power of ideas which was the mark of liberalism at its best, the battle is not lost.

Moral Intuition

Disappointingly, many supporters of free enterprise and personal freedom intuitively understand that such systems are superior means of improving prosperity and living standards for all, but struggle to articulate why.

As a result, they are unable to coherently debate progressives, liberals, and statists. Furthermore, their arguments are unconvincing to the “persuadable middle” of the population that is seeking informed opinions to shape their viewpoint. Sadly, the arguments of many grassroots activists in favor of free markets and individual liberty contain little more intellectual depth than talking points delivered by talk radio hosts or other talking heads.

This is a symptom of the decades-old political climate that pours mountains of resources into getting their “team” to win the next election while paying little mind to spreading the principles of the freedom philosophy.

And as social psychologist Jonathan Haidt explains so well in his book The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion, people are persuaded first and foremost by moral intuition; reason and rationale come afterward. When is the last time a data table or pie chart changed your view of the proper role of government in society?

The continued erosion of our freedoms needs to be combated through more persuasive promotion of free markets and liberty by leading with the moral superiority of a free society and economy. Data and academic studies serve merely as a supplement to beliefs shaped by moral instincts.

In sum, the best hope to change public policy from its current expanse and direction is to change the climate of ideas, leading with an appeal to the immorality of the state’s forcible exertion of social control.

As Ludwig von Mises wrote in Human Action:

No government, whether democratic or dictatorial, can free itself from the sway of the generally accepted ideology.”

Brian Balfour
Brian Balfour is Executive Vice President for the Civitas Institute, a free-market advocacy organization in Raleigh, NC. He is the author of the high school economics iBook Economics in Action, creator of the Austrian Economics educational app, and has served as an adjunct economics instructor at Mount Olive University.
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