Private Institutions Are Not the Enemy of Libertarianism

Libertarians have a reputation for denigrating traditional American institutions. They deride the Superbowl as “sportsball,” sneer at mass-market entertainment as “bread and circuses.”

It goes deeper than that. As Mises Institute president Jeff Deist says:

While libertarians enthusiastically embrace markets, they have for decades made the disastrous mistake of appearing hostile to family, to religion, to tradition, to culture, and to civic or social institutions—in other words, hostile to civil society itself.

This perceived hostility to American institutions, from football to voting to religion, is counterproductive. It makes us outcasts, which makes it harder for us to sell the message of liberty to our fellow Americans. I’ve been advocating for liberty—in print, in speeches, and on radio and TV—for several years, and I’ve been a professional marketer longer than that. If you’ll permit me, I’ll lay out three reasons that participating in American institutions can help us promote liberty.

Reason #1: Strong Institutions Are an Antidote to Extremism

Extremists on the far left and the far right are no friend to liberty. Far left activists have made it  illegal in some cities to call someone the wrong pronoun. The Far Right coalesced around former President Donald Trump with an almost cult-like fervor (remember alt-right provocateur Milo Yiannopolous referring to “Daddy” Trump?).

But extremism can only thrive when traditional institutions break down. Mussolini’s black shirts were mostly angsty young men who lacked connection and were searching for meaning. They found it in the state because they couldn’t find it elsewhere. Today, members of the alt-right are mostly lonely and angry. A country with robust social institutions—bowling leagues, churches, strong families, etc.—is a country where the alt-right would struggle to gain any ground.

The Far Left, too, is primarily viable because of our decaying social institutions. Many far-left activists try to divide Americans by every conceivable line, to make out that we’re all irrevocably different from each other. A core tenant of critical race theory, for instance, is the interest-convergence thesis.

As I described it in a long explainer on critical race theory:

Harvard Law School scholar Derrick Bell, a founder of Critical Race Theory, coined the term to describe the idea that white people only advanced civil rights when it was in their interest to do so; that is, when their interests converged with the interests of the black people who pushed for civil rights legislation.

That is, the interest-convergence thesis “says that people simply cannot empathize with the intense pain of someone with a different skin color. Instead, it’s all about power, and different races are cast in an endless power struggle with each other.”

This theory is only plausible in a country where core institutions have broken down, and where we’re all lonely and isolated from each other. In a country where everyone volunteered and went to games and church together and enmeshed in a tight web of civic institutions, the idea that people cannot feel empathy for those of a different skin color would be more self-evidently ridiculous.

In The Righteous Mind, renowned sociologist Jonathan Haidt points out that humans are hungry for a sense of meaning and a connection to something larger than themselves. Ideally, we satisfy this yearning through social institutions. If we cannot, then—like the black shirts who revered Mussolini—we try to get it from the state. As Haidt puts it, “if people can’t satisfy their need for deep connection in other ways, they’ll be more receptive to a smooth-talking leader who urges them to renounce their lives of ‘selfish momentary pleasure’ and follow him onward to ‘that purely spiritual existence’ in which their value as human beings consists.”

By contrast, tight civic institutions can actually be a bulwark against tyranny. Haidt again: “In fact, a nation that is full of hives [Haidt’s term for the civic institutions that bind people together] is a nation of happy and satisfied people. It’s not a very promising target for takeover by a demagogue offering people meaning in exchange for their souls.”

American institutions have been decaying for decades. As a result, we’re more lonely and more isolated than ever. By strengthening these institutions by participating in them more directly, libertarians can ward our country against the siren song of ever-larger government.

Reason #2: Social Engagement Helps Us Persuade People

Any professional marketer (myself included) will tell you that people buy with their hearts and then justify the purchase with their heads. This is as true of political views, which we buy into, as it is of a new TV.

If we want to convince more people, we don’t just need to appeal to their minds; we need to appeal to their hearts. The best way to do this is to have something in common with them. These common bonds make people more receptive to what we have to say. Your neighbor is going to be much more open to your political ideas if you’ve gone to a few ballgames together.

This is especially true with volunteer work. Participating in the civic institution of volunteering is excellent for the libertarian public image.

Libertarians are often accused of being selfish, but it’s harder for ideological opponents to lob that accusation at someone who just spent 8 hours at a soup kitchen.

Imagine that every libertarian decided to volunteer 5 hours per week helping the poor. Imagine that that groundswell of volunteerism showed up in the data, and a nonpartisan org like Gallup ran the headline, “Poll shows that libertarians volunteer more time than any other political group.” What could coverage like that do to help our public image?

Reason #3: Civic Institutions Erode the Need for Government

Most people want more government because they don’t feel that they can trust their neighbor. We can’t trust the person we work for, so we advocate for OSHA and minimum wage laws. We can’t trust the folks down the street to parent their kids well, so we need Child Services.

A country of strong and vibrant social institutions, like what Alexis de Tocqueville described when he visited the United States in the early 19th century, feels little need for government. Why? Because its citizens trust each other.

Spreading the Message through Genuine Connection

Libertarians have a reputation as the Mark Zuckerbergs of the world: intimidatingly intelligent, but so aloof and alien that it’s hard to feel kinship for us. If we want to make liberty more palatable to mainstream Americans, we need to roll up our sleeves and participate in the web of civic institutions that our fellow citizens care about. The best way to fight tyranny is to create a culture where no one looks to the state for their sense of purpose and connection.

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