our message to the streets
Kendra Okonski 2001
Written for Liberty Magazine (unpublished to date)
Lately the pages of Liberty have been filled with reflections as
to how libertarians, classical liberals, and free market advocates
can "win." Some libertarians believe that it's a hopeless and futile
cause: our ideas are doomed to disappear, failing to impact public
policy and society. Some libertarians believe that we ought to reject
politics, and "shrug" off the rest of the world; and some believe
that the best way to achieve our desired world is to do it gradually,
to demonstrate incrementally the positive effects that libertarian
ideas can have on the world. And some libertarians believe that
we should focus our efforts on electing libertarians to public office.
If we really
care about libertarian ideas evolving out of books and into the
world, however, we should focus on developing a rhetoric to go along
with those ideas. Of particular importance is the need to imitate
the tactics of our opponents (environmentalists, human and civil
rights groups, anti-globalization groups), both in the short run
and the long run. Strategizing, networking, organizing and communicating
all play critical roles in these groups' efforts, mostly with great
success. Libertarians should be willing to "take to the streets"
with their ideas, and this article is an attempt to explain why
this is the case.
The case for
a new approach to marketing libertarian ideas is of particular relevance,
due to the development of the anti-globalization movement as a credible,
effective, and above all, active, political force.
movement has long been in the making. It is the culmination of the
technology and information revolution, the fall of communism in
most of the world, the opening of global markets to capital and
technology flows, the accumulation of wealth by guilty-feeling individuals
who give their money to causes which undermine the very system that
allowed them to create it, and the establishment of international
agencies (the International Monetary Fund, World Bank, the World
Trade Organization, and a host of United Nations programs) that
wield increasing amounts of power in national politics.
the outsider, the anti-globalization movement is a strange coalition
of groups who might, in other forums, be opposed to each other:
labor unions, womens' rights groups, human rights groups, environmentalists,
anarchists, Buchanan-like trade protectionists, and religious fundamentalists.
They argue on a number of issues which appeal to wealthy Europeans
and North Americans - biodiversity, environmental protection, labor
standards, overpopulation, technophobia, ethnic and cultural diversity.
The anti-globalization movement uses "developing world" spokespeople
such as Vandana Shiva, a privileged Indian anti-biotechnology activist
and academic, and a variety of "indigenous" individuals to oppose
technological progress, free trade, and change itself. This is a
direct appeal to the guilt complexes of the wealthy. But ask the
Indian earthquake victims of this past January if they oppose modern
construction, electricity, communications technology, or medicine,
and the picture is no longer so clear.
have turned protesting into an art form. Why do something constructive
when you can protest, especially if you are a college student who
is looking for a "cause" to embrace? These activists have given
protests credibility once again; in some ways, the protest movement
is a replay of the 1960s Vietnam War protesters. Merritt College
and New College (in California, which is no surprise) offer classes
in activism. The Ruckus Society, funded by media mogul Ted Turner,
trains young people in how to engage in "civil disobedience." Among
the skills they emphasize are teach-ins, sit-ins, puppet-making,
hanging banners off bridges and buildings, avoiding arrest, how
to talk to the media and many others.
activism is in large part facilitated by non-governmental organizations
- a broad array of public (special) interest groups now known as
NGOs. In recent years, NGOs have become intimately involved in the
international political arena. They participate at United Nations
meetings and international treaty negotiations as "observers", but
they lobby and influence country delegates to vote in favor of their
agenda. NGO observers often outnumber the small number of delegates
who represent developing countries. They come mostly from wealthy
developed nations who support such "philanthropic" work, while developing
countries can hardly afford to send any delegates at all.
NGOs have also
entered the corporate world, and not as groups who produce something
of value. They start by attacking international corporations as
violators of environmental quality, labor standards, and human rights.
Then they threaten corporations to "pay up" for their "misdeeds";
corporations are sometimes required to pay a settlement which in
turn funds the groups that attacked them to begin with.
NGO movement is largely funded by American foundations, European
governments and some wealthy individuals. It can mobilize its resources
(both human and financial) to wherever they are needed around the
world - whether it is at an international treaty negotiation, a
meeting of Fortune500 businesspeople, or in order to blockade a
shipment of genetically modified seeds. By no means do the members
of these groups reject the technologies they oppose for everyone
else in organizing and their publicity campaigns: their websites
are designed by top-notch designers, they use cellular phones, they
(gasp!) wear Nike tennis shoes and drink (gasp!) Starbucks coffee.
What is perhaps
most impressive to the uninformed viewer is that these activists
are young people - young people who ostensibly "care" about the
plight of the planet and, to a lesser extent, its people. A large
group of students participated in the United Nations' COP-6 global
warming meeting in the Hague this past November. No matter which
international agency is meeting, activists in their late teens and
early to mid twenties are sure to engage in protest festivities.
Groups like Students United Against Sweatshops, Students for a Free
Tibet, and cooltheplanet.org all make use of young, impressionable
minds to further their political agendas. Environmental groups distribute
flashy, image-oriented, emotionally compelling marketing materials
on college campuses around the world, to attract a generation whose
attention span has been shortened by MTV and CNN.
This April will
mark the first anniversary of the protests against the International
Monetary Fund and World Bank in Washington, DC, where I live and
work. It is clear from speaking with these protesters, and those
at the World Trade Organization meeting in Seattle, that they barely
understand the acronyms "IMF" and "WTO," much less the function
of these organizations. Hypocrisy runs rampant among these young
people. They engage in a form of imperialism by opposing the freedom
of people in developing countries to improve their living conditions
and lifestyles while excoriating free trade and business for purportedly
doing the same. Many of these kids haven't experienced poverty firsthand,
but they romanticize about the meager lifestyles of the world's
founder Barun Mitra, an Indian colleague and friend, attended the
Seattle protests as a free market observer, noted that one of the
most ironic scenes of the protests was a young kid wearing Nike
tennis shoes, smashing in the window of the Nike store. Like Seattle's
protests, Washington, DC's, London's, Melbourne's, and Prague's
brought much media attention to these protesters and to their ideas.
In a September
28 editorial entitled "Bricks and Bombs", the Wall Street Journal
Europe said of the violent protests against the World Bank and International
Monetary Fund in Prague: "Today's protesters want to fight 'globalization,'
whatever that is in their minds…Though the demonstrators insist
on being taken seriously, they have nothing to say. They want to
'Smash the IMF!' but can't say why…The real victims here are the
Czechs. They wanted everything to go smoothly…Now the worst has
happened. Prague police had to contain violent demonstrators and
the city's reputation has been besmirched. In a few days the protesters
will fly home, while city residents clean up the damage and wonder
why so many well-to-do Western youths are so angry at global capitalism."
Of course, libertarians
might well agree with some premises of their arguments against the
IMF, World Bank, and WTO. But not one of those is based on a hatred
of free trade, technology, and affluence, especially for those people
in the world who most need wealth creation to escape their lives
Why our opponents
divide between libertarians of all disciplines and others is a very
wide one. Most individuals who do not call themselves libertarians
believe that the political mechanism can be used to control people
and society to achieve a better world, something which might be
called the "fatal conceit" as Hayek termed it. Competing philosophical
understandings of man, society, and the "good" life, which help
to widen that divide.
Yet the fact
that the ideas of classical liberalism have yet to be widely accepted
in mainstream politics, culture and society, suggests that we have
failed to communicate the message that we deliver or it has failed
to strike a chord with the average citizen. We pride ourselves on
our consistency, and our lack of compromise, but we fail to reach
people with our message because we have not given it a broad appeal.
We have not found creative ways to express our ideas in unconventional
ways, in forums where they might not otherwise be heard. We often
suffer by "preaching to the choir", and sometimes the choir's disagreements
on our approach to broadening our appeal means that we do not focus
on bringing our ideas to a bigger group of people.
We can learn
from our opponents
During the April
protests in Washington, DC, I began to think seriously about ways
to expand libertarian ideas. Our challenge is to make our views
prevalent in politics, economics, society, and popular culture.
But how do we get attention in the media? What should be the broader
strategy, so the ideas of libertarianism really take off?
differences with our opponents should not mean that we should despise
all of their tactics. As Randall O'Toole mentioned in these pages,
libertarianism and environmentalism started out as fringe beliefs,
at about the same time (1970). From the very beginning, libertarians
lost, and environmentalists won, because environmentalists used
a variety of means to personalize their message (to make politics
personal): lobbying, street campaigning, advertising, anecdotal
victims, street theater, protesting, teach-ins, witty sloganeering,
sitting in trees, public interest litigation, coalitions.
NGOs and all of their anti-globalization counterparts continue to
use these methods to communicate with the public. They also use
the Internet to their advantage, by creating slick-looking websites
and corresponding advertisements in the popular media. They are
also intimately involved in the international political arena as
NGOs, at United Nations meetings and treaty negotiations, in corporate
shareholder meetings. They have coalesced with the clergy and religious
groups, human rights groups, labor unions, and anarchists. This
multi-level approach means that today's environmental movement is
a highly salient political force.
But being intellectuals
does not mean that libertarians are devoid of finding ways to creatively
market their message. For instance, no wide-scale effort (to my
knowledge) has ever been funded to bring the libertarian message
to all college campuses. Some efforts have been made -- my previous
publication, Restoration Magazine, which was based at Hillsdale
College from 1997 to 2000, developed a network of college libertarians
during the past three years. The Libertarian party and some individual
students are doing well at individual campuses, but no broad-scale
effort has been sought to take the classical liberal message to
It is unfortunate
that our opponents often win because they have proper marketing
materials, and can attract big-name speakers to interest students.
They make their politics personal by utilizing emotions to motivate
people into joining their cause. At the University of Florida in
October, Libertarian candidate for Vice-President Art Olivier attracted
a good-size group of college students one evening. But he delivered
a memorized campaign speech, and had a difficult time fielding questions
that weren't part of his memorized rhetoric. As a libertarian politician,
he failed to deliver on the promise of his ideas because he simply
could not talk about them in a way that convinced the audience that
he understood them and their concerns.
Green Party succeeded in its endeavor to impress young people. I
attended a Green Party rally here in the nation's capital before
the election, where 12,000 people (most of whom were under the age
of 30) gathered in support of Ralph Nader. The Green Party made
extensive use of its college groups and young election volunteers.
It took the stuffiness out of politics,and gave it a "hip" new image.
It was stylish for young people to sport a "Nader/La Duke" green
and white campaign button or bumper sticker.
failure of libertarians is that, in many ways, these kids have libertarian
intuitions. In their minds Republicans and Democrats are members
of the same party. They equally despise corporate welfare and the
War on Drugs.
While we may
be appalled by many of the Green Party's ideas, one thing that it
does successfully is to cultivate support amongst young people.
Free-market and libertarian activists haven't discovered the potential
offered by campaigns that get youth on their side. In the long run,
the Green Party may indeed prove to be a powerful political force,
and a threat to the furthering of libertarian ideas.
people are often quite ideological. Perhaps it is because they have
only recently been exposed to ideas that purport to explain how
the world works, and they have little to lose from taking an ideological
stance. Libertarians should take advantage of these leanings in
the same way that the Green Party has, otherwise we risk losing
a powerful constituency.
Some young libertarians,
including myself, have worked to put these ideas into practice since
last June. We have copied the tactics of our green and anti-globalization
counterparts, only changing the message. Taking to the streets,
we have protested the Sierra Club, Friends of the Earth, against
the protesters in Philadelphia at the Republican National Convention,
the environmentalists at the US Capitol who support the Conservation
and Reinvestment Act, and most recently against the Department of
Justice. In the process, we are learning how to reach out and talk
to our peers.
have been accused of being "corporate shills", funded by industries
who stand to gain from free trade even though we have self-"funded"
all of our activities [homemade signs, copying fliers and press
releases, and relying on lots of creativity]. Others accuse us of
not caring about the poor and not caring for the environment, presuming
that by virtue of being libertarian, we do not care about such things.
Our first task,
therefore, is to demonstrate that free trade is fair trade. While
this will be no easy task, we must emphasize that enabling poor
people to take advantage of the gains created by exchange is the
only way to help them lift themselves out of poverty in the long
run and to promote a clean environment. The point should be, "wealthier
is healthier and cleaner." We should point out that the policies
that anti-globalization activists promote will actually have the
opposite effect they intend. Preventing trade with onerous regulations
will condemn the poor to poverty. The environment will suffer too
if the world's people are prevented from using technologies that
will help them save and protect resources.
Of course, the
other protesters often don't understand our point of view. A funny
anecdote: at our Philadelphia protest, one of our protesters wore
a fuzzy giant pig costume. His sandwich-board sign read on one side,
"No more pork for the IMF", and on the other, "Porky loves corporate
welfare." The other protesters invited him up onto their float,
called Corpzilla (to oppose corporate welfare). When he raised a
sign that said "libertarian", the other protesters were utterly
confused: at first, they loved him because his ideas coincided with
their own. But how could he carry a "libertarian" sign?
of our work the past few months is that we have utilized the Internet
to organize and network. At the moment, libertarians have a unique
opportunity to engage in another form of outreach, through the Internet.
Our challenge on the Internet is to create visually appealing, image-oriented
sites that strategically use the marketing tools that make our opponents
effective. Again, this is an area where we can learn from the other
side. Instead of lagging behind in our technology, we need to use
the democratic advantages of the internet to our own advantage.
so far is that, while libertarian groups may not have instant credibility
with the media, we usually receive a substantial amount of coverage
when we show up to "counter-protest." We intrigue the media by being
"counter" protesters-though sometimes they get it wrong. (Our facetious
chant "more good, less evil" was interpreted by a Houston Chronicle
reporter to be "more guns, less people"). Despite this particular
misunderstanding, slogans such as "up with people, down with government!"
illustrate our ideas quickly and make other protesters, and reporters,
interested in our point of view.
Our media appearances
over the past seven months include MTV, local DC news and national
networks, a variety of print media citations, and several radio
interviews. Protesting, or counter-protesting, not only secures
press for our views, but more importantly, steals media attention
away from groups we oppose.
While mass media
appeal isn't everything, it is important to penetrate this area
with free market ideas, to show that a feisty group of young libertarians
care about the world too. A cadre of free market protesters will
help to put a human face on what might be considered by the rest
of the world old and dry ideas.
must develop a long-term political strategy to promote a rhetoric
with which to capture people's hearts. What follows are a few suggestions
for doing so:
and alliances. Too often, we narrow our focus to gain ground
on specific issues. On those issues where we can make an impact,
we ought to develop relationships with those on the "left" and "right"
who care about similar issues as we do - the criminalization of
drug usage, immigration, corporate welfare, civil rights issues,
religious tolerance, peace, and true justice. We must start somewhere
with these people, and these issues offer an opportunity to demonstrate
that personal freedom implies economic freedom (and vice versa).
networking. For too long, our opponents have had an advantage
over us because they network well. They are flexible and versatile,
and no matter where, they travel to protest. They are able to organize
and be effective because they communicate with each other.
and organizing. One reason our opponents succeed is because
they plan their events well in advance. Instead of being on the
defensive all of the time, we should play offensive roles too. Thinking
ahead, strategizing, and being organized will allow us to take an
offensive lead in our efforts.
outreach efforts. Our NGO and activist opponents have a clear
financial advantage over us. Their substantial financial resources
afford them the opportunity to be constantly engaged in planning
their next events, putting up websites, distributing materials and
carrying out street campaigns. They are "professional" activists
with young leaders (Kevin Danaher of Global Exchange, Adam Werbach
of the Sierra Club, etc.). Libertarians should be willing to fund
similar efforts and to develop young leaders for the "movement."
our ideas effectively. This is perhaps most important of all.
We must develop a rhetoric for our ideas which gives them a human
face, which makes abstract ideas tangible to common people, and
which appeals to a younger generation. We must be willing to engage
in unconventional creative marketing.
Enterprise Institute was one of the first libertarian groups to
use a similar strategy: "analysis, educational outreach, coalition
development and advocacy," as Fred Smith writes in "Learning the
Washington Game: Political Strategy and Tactics," in Steering the
Elephant: How Washington Works (New York: Universe Books,1987, pp.39-56).
He concludes, "We must not count on the assurances of Mammy Yokum
of Li'l Abner that good will win over evil "'cause it's nicer."
More will be required. We will have to be smarter, self-critical,
and goal-oriented. The fight is clearly worthwhile, but we had best
be prepared for a long, long campaign and expect to be bloodied
many times before the conflict is over."
A critical part
of libertarianism is to develop a rhetoric through which to "sell"
our ideas. I believe that it's important to adapt the images and
values of the day to ideas that are certainly tried and true. Libertarianism
fails to ring true to a generation of people who do despise politics
and politicians on one level, but are convinced that government
can "work" if only the right people are in charge. Many of these
individuals are victims of a public education system which teaches
them to revere the state but never to fear it.
part of this rhetoric is how we present ourselves to people. Our
intellectual opponents have succeeded in part because they tug at
people's heart-strings, using arguments that are emotionally swaying,
that compel people to believe "how could I not support this government
policy which will make the world a little fairer?" Saving the whales,
vaccinating poor children, feeding the starving: who in their right
mind could be against these things? Yet our challenge is to show
that we do care about these things; we can be humanitarians and
libertarians at the same time.
While it may
not be the gut instinct of a libertarian to argue our policies this
way, we must find a way to do so. Libertarians often act as if "once
people have the right information, they will change their minds."
But to be truly effective, I believe we must change people's hearts.
We need to make our arguments emotionally appealing. Randall O'Toole's
observed that environmentalists were successful here; they gave
a human face to otherwise sterile subjects.
approach is especially important because, I believe, one does not
need to be an intellectual to be a libertarian. To give libertarianism
a popular appeal, we must seek out those arguments which clarify
why government fails at environmental protection, alleviating starvation,
and making society "fairer."
may believe that freedom and liberty are intrinsically good things.
But for those motivated by other beliefs, we must demonstrate that
freedom and liberty are instrumental to achieving their ends and
upholding their values. We can show them why freedom is a moral
imperative, and why our ideas promote better results for the environment,
for civil rights, for the disadvantaged of our society, and for
all the people of the world.
Part of communicating
is determining the best way to undermine our opponents and defuse
their arguments. One advantage they have over us is their access
to specialized resources. Their cadre of creative and enthused individuals
can and create public spectacles and devise slogans. In my experience,
though, a group of libertarians can be equally creative when they
are put into a position where they need to be. Strategizing is critical
to our pursuits, because we often can undermine our opponents' ideas
simply by demonstrating the inherent moral hypocrisy of the claims
made by those who border on being socialists.
We should also
engage in active outreach to those young people who have good instincts
about politics and government. They may never encounter libertarian
ideas until they no longer have intellectual flexibility. I think
that many young people have an inclination to disbelieve and distrust
certain intellectual propositions. By focusing on reaching these
individuals, libertarians would build a base of committed group
of young people who in turn will aid us both in augmenting our creativity,
and in showing our ideas to the world. Our challenge is to reach
these young people.
this summer were miniscule and made me realize what we're up against:
a lot of well-funded opponents who use emotional messages that resonate
with the media. We have only begun to understand how to market our
message in the same way, to give our ideas the same sort of compelling
emotional appeal that the anti-globalization people are able to
utilize so effectively. But if we always allow them to steal the
spotlight, then our ideas might as well be doomed.
If we want to
win policy debates, if we want ideas to come out of books and into
practice, then we must be willing to engage in new ways of communicating
our message. We should take our message to the streets. We ought
to engage our intellectual opponents on moral grounds. We must demonstrate
how their policies are hypocritical and at the same time, why ours
are consistent with their values. We should build political alliances
and coalitions with those who we might despise otherwise. We need
to gain credibility as a broader societal, cultural, and intellectual
force - not just an obscure political party known for demanding
the legalization of drugs. We should adopt the tactics of our opponents,
and adapt our message to our opponents' point of view.
message to the streets" is no small feat. It is certainly true that
to fully understand the libertarian vision takes time and often
comes only through dropping presuppositions about the nature of
human interactions in society, to understand what classical liberalism
is about. But we should start experimenting, learn from our mistakes,
and take advantage of the opportunities we have to influence the
world. If our ideas cannot be accepted on a broad scale, or if we
aren't going to try to make them so - what is the point in holding
them at all?