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What Social Animals Owe to Each Other

Friday, December 03, 2021

TGIF: Safety in Freedom

With the emergence of the Omicron COVID-19 variant, renewed restrictions on liberty or calls for their reinstatement have broken out around the world. The new wave is probably only beginning, and with it will surely come sermons on how we must face trade-offs between liberty and safety. This seems to be the new normal.

The usual justifications for this purported necessity always feel inadequate, with gaping holes in the case for expanding government power to extraordinary lengths. Since we all now have a good deal of experience with COVID under our belts, let's hope that the public's doubts about any new power grab will be strong and loudly expressed.

What brought this subject to mind was a recent Oxford Union debate, which I ran across on YouTube. While I've watched only a little, it quickly occurred to me that the case for a necessary trade-off between liberty and safety runs aground with the realization that liberty is a necessary condition for safety. After all, it's not always clear how one can best stay safe in a situation: that requires thought, discourse, action, and therefore liberty.

Moreover, that matter is separate from the question of how safe any particular person may wish to be. Indeed, people have different preferences with respect to risk and safety in part because life is complicated and trade-offs are ubiquitous. Increasing one's safety in some measure by abstaining from some desirable activity will likely require too big a sacrifice for some people, although for others the benefit will be well worth the cost. (A person cannot violate his own freedom.) So who's to decide? Why should a faceless bureaucrat or a charismatic politician make the call?

Few people understand that there's safety in liberty, specifically, the freedom to think, improvise, and innovate. This is true for individuals, but when the potential danger is social or global, the case for liberty is equally clear. That's precisely when we all need many minds searching for solutions without central direction. Knowledge is dispersed, and no one can say who will have a key insight. Competition is the universal solvent. And to be effective, thinking requires freedom of action.

Matt Ridley and Julian Simon before him elaborated how we all benefit from the often unintentional combination of ideas generated in different and unlikely places. By now, the serendipity that freedom produces ought to be expected. The results often are imaginative approaches to vexing problems that few would have dreamed possible.

The case for giving up freedom to acquire a measure of safety is actually an appeal to trust in an anointed central authority. And that means a threat of force is at least implied.

But where is the actual safety in that arrangement? Why should anyone believe that the anointed know what they are doing? They operate in a centralized, bureaucratic environment. The rulers expect the ruled to behave like children who have been told that all will be fine if they obey. Unfortunately, the ruled often think of themselves as children when it comes to the latest risk proclaimed by their rulers.

So are people really safer than they would have been in a free, decentralized, and competitive environment? We find no evidence for this in places that imposed harsh restrictions on liberty in response to COVID-19. Lockdowns, vaccine and mask mandates, and travel bans show no signs of delivering on the politicians' promises. There just is no good substitute for freedom at every level because no central authority is knowledgeable enough.

Finally, what about the risks that individuals might present to others and not just to themselves? There are big differences between 1) the potential risks to others that anyone may pose in simply going about the normal business of life and 2) the dangers produced by aggression, gross negligence, and inadvertent toxic pollution, where identifiable individuals entitled to due process can be shown to present demonstrable peril to others. For one thing, in the first case, people are not passive victims-in-waiting but generally informed agents capable of taking precautions against infection. Imagine the nightmare that would come from the principle that everyone in society may be viewed as a threat to everyone else merely by breathing. We don't have to imagine it, do we? That's how most governments throughout the world -- blunt instruments that they are -- responded to the pandemic. As a result, our livelihoods -- our lives-- are now subject to cancellation without notice.

(Photo credit: Dev Asangbam, Unsplash License)

Friday, November 26, 2021

TGIF: Racial Polarization Is Poison

Be they "left" or "right," those who agitate for racial polarization seem to have no sense of the harm they could do to everyone in our society. As the wise Glenn Loury would say, they are playing with fire. By polarization, of any kind, I mean more than merely a vigorous disagreement over issues or even basic principles. That's fine. Rather, I mean something dogmatic, obsessive, and fanatical, in which virtually everything in the world is seen through a single lens and everyone is expected to act and speak in a certain way, with stern consequences for the noncompliant.

It can happen in politics, but it is becoming especially common with race, where some would have us interpret virtually everything through a racial prism. This is more than simply unfortunate; it threatens what the ancient Greek philosophers and later philosophers such as Spinoza -- whose 389th birthday (Nov. 24, 1632) we marked this week -- held to be the good life for human beings; it's the conception of life in which being virtuous is seen as constitutive of happiness, or better: eudaimonia, and not separate from happiness or merely means to it.

Racial polarization threatens this not just in the obvious way, namely, with the potential holds for violence. I'm thinking of the more subtle way: through the narrowing and undermining of all sorts of social cooperation.

Formulators of the original (classical) liberalism, which has been refined into the libertarian political philosophy, took to heart what the Greeks and their intellectual descendants emphasized, namely, that we human beings are inherently social animals. Some went even further to note that, as reason- and language-bearing creatures, we thrive best when surrounded by people who exhibit their rationality in the fullest sense, not only as a tool to judge means but ends as well. Only in such a milieu can we live in ways most proper to rational animals, that is, with reason always in the driver's seat. This entails, among other things, dealing with people through argument, persuasion, and consent rather than command, manipulation, and force.

A key way that social existence promotes individual flourishing is cooperation, which augments our otherwise weak individual capacities. While no collective brain exists, liberal society creates something analogous to it. As a result, we each gain access to an incredible volume of knowledge -- moral and otherwise -- any morsel of which we might never have thought up or encountered while living alone or in small groups during our limited lifespans. The marketplace of ideas is an example of this process that benefits us all beyond measure. In this day when free speech and free inquiry are increasingly under assault from reckless elements left and right, this would be good to remember.

The benefits of the broadest possible social cooperation are also abundant in the material realm. The early liberal political-economic thought demonstrated that living in isolation was to live in abject poverty. No one was better at pointing this out than Frédéric Bastiat, the 19th-century French liberal. In the opening chapter of his unfinished magnum opus, Economic Harmonies, he wrote:

It is impossible not to be struck by the disproportion, truly incommensurable, that exists between the satisfactions [any] man derives from society and the satisfactions that he could provide for himself if he were reduced to his own resources. I make bold to say that in one day he consumes more things than he could produce himself in ten centuries.

What makes the phenomenon stranger still is that the same thing holds true for all other men. Every one of the members of society has consumed a million times more than he could have produced; yet no one has robbed anyone else....

We should be shutting our eyes to the facts if we refused to recognize that society cannot present such complicated combinations in which civil and criminal law play so little part without being subject to a prodigiously ingenious mechanism. This mechanism is the object of study of political economy.

If this was true in 1850, what would Bastiat say about our time? Think of all the things we have access to in the developed world, even those of modest means. (The people of the developing world want the same, which shows the cruelty of so-called climate policy, which would raise the price and reliability of energy.) The point which shouts from Bastiat's passages is that we have much to lose if social cooperation were to break down or even narrowed. Society is exchange, as the liberals hammered home on many occasions. "Society is concerted action, cooperation," Ludwig von Mises wrote in his grand treatise, Human Action, which he was tempted to call Social Cooperation, another name for specialization through the division of labor and knowledge.

Need more be said about the threat from racial and other deep polarization? To invoke another original liberal, Adam Smith famously wrote that the division of labor is limited by the extent of the market. The fewer the people with whom to cooperate, the more primitive the division of labor. And the more primitive the division of labor, the poorer we are. That should require no elaboration.

When social distrust is sown among groups, particularly on the basis of spurious identity considerations, a great deal of what we value but take for granted is put at risk. This doesn't mean that America's history of slavery, Jim Crow, and less formal forms of racism can't be taught and discussed frankly. They must be. But the cost will be unspeakably severe if frank conversation about the past and even aspects of the present transmogrify into polarization, hatred, and distrust.

Good people everywhere should speak out against polarization. Think about what we all have to lose. And once it's lost, there may be no getting it back.

Tuesday, November 23, 2021

Friday, November 19, 2021

TGIF: Rigged Political Language

It's an old trick: gain advantage over others by hiding one's meaning behind euphemisms and other forms of linguistic camouflage and misdirection. People do this in all walks of life, but politicians make careers of it. If they engage in straight talk at all, it is by far the exception. The journalist Michael Kinsley defined a gaffe as "when a politician tells the truth – some obvious truth he isn't supposed to say."

Obfuscation is the currency of politics. Little has changed since Oscar Wilde's time: "Nowadays to be intelligible is to be found out.”

Libertarians have emphasized this scam for years. When they say that taxation is theft, they offer an illustration. If you threatened to harm people, say, by imprisonment, unless they surrendered some of their incomes each year, you would be prosecuted for extortion, even if you planned to do good works with the money. Punishment would then follow. Politicians do the same thing, except that taxation is not illegal.

When the government orders people to leave their homes so politicians may put the land to other uses, that is also theft. But it is called by the high-sounding term eminent domain. That euphemism adds to the mystique of the state as it reveals what ought to be a repugnant idea: that the government is the supreme owner of all land in its jurisdiction -- even in the United States, whose Constitution implicitly embraces that principle. True, eminent domain is not an enumerated power (so much for the doctrine of the limited power), but it is acknowledged indirectly in the clause about compensation in the subsequently added Fifth Amendment. This shows that the framers thought the power to take private property was inherent in the sovereign.

The so-called "takings clause" is an odd part of the Bill of Rights. It proclaims that people have a right to "just compensation" whenever the government violates their right to property. That the government pays what it calls "just compensation" does not make eminent domain alright. What makes compensation just in a normal transaction is that the buyer and seller freely agree to the amount. Since sellers are coerced under eminent domain, no compensation qualifies as just.

If we set our minds to it, we could all find many more examples of political euphemisms. The Department of Defense was once called the Department of War. The term free election disguises the fact that voters choose among politicians under duress: they will be coerced by government policy whether or not they participate in the election. Climate policy ought to be called pro-poverty policy. Trade policy would better be known as crony-reward policy. Government intelligence and military justice ... well, you get the idea.

Scanning the recent headlines, I notice that many places are enacting so-called gun-buyback programs. What a euphemism that is. You would think that the only thing that the government could buy back was something that it had originally sold. That's what back means in such a phrase. But state and local governments don't sell guns to citizens, so how can they buy them back?

I concede that the recent programs appear to be voluntary, although the money paid (sometimes in the form of grocery gift cards) is taken by force from the taxpayers. So the politicians aren't even buying back with their own money. In the past, however, buyback campaigns were mandatory, and some favor compulsion today. For example, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton spoke favorably about Australia's compulsory program. Beto O'Rourke, who sought the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination, has called for a compulsory "assault weapons" buyback.

Incidentally, the National Bureau of Economic Research recently published a paper (for which I cannot vouch) purporting to demonstrate that gun violence is not reduced in the United States when governments buy and destroy guns turned in by citizens:

Gun buyback programs (GBPs), which use public funds to purchase civilians' privately-owned firearms, aim to reduce gun violence. However, next to nothing is known about their effects on firearm-related crime or deaths. Using data from the National Incident Based Reporting System, we find no evidence that GBPs reduce gun crime. Given our estimated null findings, with 95 percent confidence, we can rule out decreases in firearm-related crime of greater than 1.3 percent during the year following a buyback. Using data from the National Vital Statistics System, we also find no evidence that GBPs reduce suicides or homicides where a firearm was involved. These results call into question the efficacy of city gun buyback programs in their current form.

This isn't surprising. People with violent intent aren't likely to sell their guns "back" to the government.

At any rate, we ought to be clear about what we call these programs. Governments demonize guns (rather than bad users of guns) by bribing people with stolen money.

We might actually roll back government power if the exercise of that power were not systematically obscured by euphemisms.

Friday, November 12, 2021

TGIF: Equal Rights Now!

A pet peeve of mine is the distinction, drawn even by some market enthusiasts, between so-called personal liberty (or civil liberties) and economic liberty. The former, which usually includes freedom of conscience and religion, speech, and press, is thought to be noble and spiritual, while the latter, related to commerce and the pursuit of wealth, is held to be vulgar and materialistic. This has its roots in the thinking of the ancients.

The distinction thrills the hearts of those who disparage markets and "economic freedom," Pro-market thinkers use the distinction for understandable analytical purposes. but I see no reason to leave the anti-market activists unchallenged on the point.

A New Deal-era Supreme Court case -- upholding the federal power to ban interstate commerce in filled milk -- embraced the division of freedoms when the majority in a famous footnote stated that "there may be narrower scope for operation of the presumption of constitutionality when legislation appears on its face to be within a specific prohibition of the Constitution, such as those of the first ten Amendments, which are deemed equally specific when held to be embraced within the Fourteenth." That sentence meant in essence that government interference with economic liberty did not require the same strict scrutiny that interference with personal liberty required. How the justices ignored the protection of property rights in the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments or Article I, Section 10's protection of contracts against the states is a mystery to me, but the upshot is that Congress and the state legislatures were given greater latitude to regulate what were regarded as economic activities.

Calling this "arguably the most important footnote in U.S. constitutional law," one commentator wrote, "Footnote four of United States v. Carolene Products Company, 304 U.S. 144 (1938) presages a shift in the Supreme Court from predominately protecting property rights to protecting other individual rights, such as those found in the First Amendment." (Emphasis added.) With the word other, this statement at least includes property rights among our individual rights, which is more than most fans of the footnote and its underlying philosophy do.

Any way you slice it, over 80 years ago the Supreme Court declared that some rights or freedoms are more equal than others. Most of the intellectual elite would agree. So the idea of equal rights became old-fashioned. And so it is today.

This two-tiered system in which some rights are second-class -- which means they are not really rights at all! -- ought to be rejected. Individuals are integrated beings who pursue ends of many kinds every waking hour. Moreover, material possessions are as important to people's life-affirming pursuits as any nonmaterial values.

Thomas Sowell put it well when he wrote in Basic Economics: "Of course there are non-economic values. In fact, there are only non-economic values."

Economics is indispensable because it explores what goes on socially and individually when people engage in exchange for any reason or abstain from doing so. The discipline focuses on the intended and especially unintended consequences of exchange, including the emergence of money to replace barter and the generation of relative prices in markets. That economists ignore some kinds of activities does not make those activities nobler than other sorts.

Besides, engaging in so-called personal liberty has economic implications because such liberty involves material objects. Free speech requires the use of resources, which in a modern society are acquired in the market. At the very least, a speaker has to stand somewhere. All activities have some, even if only slight, consequences in the market. They affect employment; they favor and disfavor certain kinds of businesses; and they change the prices of goods. If someone works long hours for money in order to visit the world's great museums, architectural wonders, and symphony halls, is that perso engaged in an economic or non-economic pursuit?

At any rate, it makes no sense to artificially divide (non-invasive) human activities in the conventional way, especially when the disparagement of commerce is the purpose. All natural rights deserve equal protection under the law. The government should have no power to discriminate.

Two economists who emphasized the general character of all human action were Ludwig von Mises, a pillar of the Austrian school, and the British economist Philip Wicksteed. Mises called the analysis of the logical structure of all human action praxeology, and he pointed out that economics is simply the best-developed branch of that discipline. He wrote in Epistemological Problems of Economics, "Everything that we say about action is independent of the motives that cause it and of the goals toward which it strives in the individual case. It makes no difference .... whether it is directed toward the attainment of materialistic or idealistic ends...."

And in The Common Sense of Political Economy, Wicksteed, who has been called the "British Austrian" because of his work's compatibility with the Austrian school, wrote, "It follows that the general principles which regulate our conduct in business are identical with those which regulate our deliberations, our selections between alternatives, and our decisions, in all other branches of life.... I shall try to shew that it is time frankly and decisively to abandon all attempts to ... establish any distinction whatever between the ultimate motives by which a man is actuated in business and those by which he is actuated in his domestic or public life. Economic relations constitute a complex machine by which we seek to accomplish our purposes, whatever they may be." (Read more here and here.)

So let's have no more about the unequal status of economic and personal liberty. They are one.

Friday, November 05, 2021

TGIF: Another Climate Conference

Sometimes we've got to be grateful for hypocrisy. If those who pretend to be world leaders actually delivered a fraction of what they promise in Glasgow, Scotland, where the UN's COP26 (Conference of Parties) Conference on Climate Change runs through Nov. 12, we'd be far bigger trouble than we already are.

You know how these things go. Power-loving, sanctimonious politicians and their minions pontificate (for 12 days!?) on how the world will end in 20 minutes unless they force their subjects to behave in ways they don't wish to behave and to spend trillions of dollars they would rather keep. Meanwhile, cheap and dependable energy will be taken from or denied to them for their own good. It's an old song,

Fortunately, these charlatans haven't yet gone nearly as far as they purportedly intend or their most zealous supporters want them to go. But this is certainly not to say that they do no harm except to give kids nightmares and scarce some grownups. The politicians et al. have done immense harm for years, with their demonization of carbon dioxide (a foundation of all life), and their pushing of "solutions" such as unreliable and costly wind and solar power to imagined manmade problems. (Even Michael Moore has seen through those scams, for which he's paid a price by alienating himself from former fans. Spoiler alert: a movie he produced, Planet of the Humans, indicts so-called renewable energy  --Alex Epstein calls them the unreliables -- as environmentally hazardous.)

One reason for the welcome gap between promise and performance is that politicians worldwide realize that real people won't stand for the full program. First, they've heard the apocalyptic predictions (driven by GIGO computer models) for too many decades, and second, they care about their living standards. The West's affluent average don't want to become poor, and the rest in Asia, Africa, and Latin America don't want to stay poor.

In the developed world, that means people don't want higher energy prices, and for good reason: power, which comes largely from marvelous fossil fuels, underlies everything that makes life for the masses materially far better than it was only a couple of centuries ago -- however much we take it for granted.

And in the developing world, poor people would like to have the living standard that the average Westerner has. In essence, those who lack cheap electricity and gasoline want don't want to be kept waiting.

Whoever asks them to give up that dream and remain inhabitants of a tourist theme park ought to be ashamed of themselves. Their rulers give mixed messages on the matter because they prosper from the big money transfers from the developed world's taxpayers. But as the heroic economist P. T. Bauer taught us so well, government-to-government transfers are more likely to fuel central planning, corruption, and oppression than good things for real people. Rather, Bauer insisted, good things come from freedom, independent enterprise, and free markets.

Fortunately, along with the hypocritical politicians and despondent zealots, we find many voices of reason on the matters of climate and energy -- voices of people with impeccably strong credentials in all the relevant fields, from the atmospheric sciences to economics and related social sciences. Since they are not driven by the ambition to use climate to push for a Jacobin and authoritarian "great reset," they can see things clearly. That is, they are guided by evidence and logic, rather than computer models chock-full of controversial assumptions about something as complex as "the climate." You can see this in the climate optimists' (some call themselves "luke warmers) print and video presentations. Compared to them, the merchants of hysteria look like junior high school debaters who memorized a few talking points and scary scenarios the night before.

One optimist is the Danish political scientist Bjorn Lomborg of the Copenhagen Consensus Center. (To say he is an optimist is not the say he thinks we live in the best of all possible worlds.) I am inclined to disagree with some of what Lomborg says because I as a layman find the pro-CO2 scientists (Princeton's William Happer, the late Freeman Dyson of Princeton, MIT's Richard Lindzen, and many others) more persuasive. Lomborg takes the UN IPCC's climate assessment at face value and reserves a role for the government -- though he would spend far, far less than the alarmists -- that I find objectionable. Those reservations aside, as a non-alarmist he has sensible things to say.

Lomborg's book is False Alarm: How Climate Change Panic Costs Us Trillions, Hurts the Poor, and Fails to Fix the Planet. As you can tell, he thinks the planet needs fixing with respect to the climate, but where he differs from the catastrophe lobby is that he sees no world-threatening emergency. Instead, he sees warming as one of many world problems -- and not even the most dire -- that could be addressed calmly, effectively, and much less expensively than the lobby demands. Panic, he says, is misplaced and assures bad responses. That in itself is refreshing. Have a look:

In the Financial Post in August, Lomborg wrote:

Because of economic development, the UN estimates that the average person in the world will become 450 per cent as well-off by 2100 as they are today [if nothing were done about warming]. But climate change will have a cost, in that adaptation and challenges become somewhat harder. Because of climate change, the average person in 2100 will “only” be 436 per cent as well off as today. [Emphasis added.]

This is not the apocalypse but a problem to which we should find smart fixes.

He went on:

[G]lobally, many more people die from cold than from heat. A new study in the highly respected journal Lancet shows that about half a million people die annually from heat, but 4.5 million people die from cold. As temperatures have increased over the past two decades, that has caused an extra 116,000 heat deaths each year. This fits the narrative, of course, and is what we have heard over and over again.

But it turns out that because global warming has also reduced cold waves, we now see 283,000 fewer cold deaths. You don’t hear this, but so far climate change saves 166,000 lives each year.

His bottom line is: "In reality, humans adapt.... Ultimately, this is why the scare stories on climate impacts are vastly overblown and not supported by this new [IPCC] climate report."

Lomborg sees that the obsession with climate overshadows far more urgent developing-world problems regarding malnutrition, disease, education, and more. And as he points out, these maladies are related to a deeper problem: poverty. He understands that these problems would be best addressed by increased production of wealth, a truism demonstrated repeatedly in modern history. And how is widespread wealth produced? Lomborg goes part of the way with libertarians: freedom.

In Fortune he wrote:

To help make the world better, we need to focus more on the very best policies. Top among these is freer trade. Free trade has recently been criticized by left- and right-wing politicians because it hurts vulnerable communities like manufacturing workers in the Rust Belt.

This misses the bigger picture.... Much of ... [the] benefits would go to the world’s poorest, who would have far more opportunities if they could become part of the global market....

By making people richer -- especially in the world’s poorest countries -- freer trade would also lead to societies that are far more resilient to climate shocks, more capable of investing in adaptation, and far less vulnerable to rising temperatures. In that way, free trade can be considered a smart climate policy as well as an excellent way to promote human thriving generally.

In other words, wealthier is healthier, as the political scientist Aaron Wildavsky used to say. And that means that freer is healthier, more resilient. Changes in climates are nothing new. They've always changed. What's made the natural world so much more hospitable since the late 18th century are: reason, greater freedom in all realms of peaceful action, the division of labor, innovation, free trade, and man's consequent adaptation to nature's sometimes perilous changes.

As Lomborg wisely counsels, the world isn't coming to an end -- to which I would add: unless those who want to deprive the world of cheap and dependable energy succeed.

Friday, October 29, 2021

TGIF: The Challenging Art of Persuasion

Anyone who hopes for a peaceful pro-liberty intellectual revolution is interested in the art of persuasion. But is it a practical art? Can enough people be persuaded to abandon long-held anti-liberty views for something quite different?

I'm assuming here that one wishes to persuade people of positions that one really thinks to be right and true. Demagogues may try to sell propositions they don't actually hold, but let's leave them out of the story. Of course, even wrong and bad people can believe what they say and seek to persuade others of those views. But I'm thinking only of the good-faith efforts of people of intellectual integrity to persuade others to their side.

That persuading people of the truth can be difficult is captured by popular cliches. For example, someone said, "It's easier to fool people than to convince them that they have been fooled." That's often attributed to Mark Twain, but Snopes says the evidence is lacking. (This sort of thing is so often the case.) Snopes says that Twain did write in his autobiography, "How easy it is to make people believe a lie, and how hard it is to undo that work again!" That's pretty close.

Then there's this one (and its variations): "A lie can travel halfway around the world before the truth can get its boots on." That's also commonly attributed to Twain, but we are told we have reason to doubt it. Jonathan Swift, Thomas Francklin, and others, however, referred to the respective speeds of truth and falsehood. (I guess Abraham Lincoln was right when he said you can't believe everything you read on the internet.) Another saying goes something like this: "It isn't what we don't know that hurts us. It's what we know that isn't so." Nope, again not Twain, as far as we know, but he and others came close. It's been attributed to probably a dozen authors.

My point isn't about who did or didn't say these things, of course; it's that observers have long understood that dissuading people from erroneous beliefs is no easy task. (I've tried long enough.) It can be like swimming upstream, which is understandable as well as frustrating.

Many thinkers have written about the various biases we all have and other impediments to clear thinking, such as the common logical fallacies. (Steven Pinker's Rationality would be the latest book in this genre. Bryan Caplan's The Myth of the Rational Voter also gets into this regarding people's solid biases regarding international trade and immigration.) It seems to me that a big reason for the difficulty in getting others to understand one's contrary position, much less embrace it, is the simple preference for the familiar that so many hold. Whether this has something to do with our descent from people who lived in and trusted only small and somewhat isolated groups, I do not know. But I'm not sure that an evolutionary explanation is necessary. The appeal of the familiar -- the safe -- seems obvious enough.

As we grow we develop a worldview, and it becomes the default position. It's what we know (or "know"). It's home. Asking that we abandon it for something else is a big deal. It's such a big deal that it's not merely a matter of examining the evidence. One would have to be convinced that examining the evidence is worthwhile. That in itself is a big barrier to surmount. I think many people commonly assume that if a newly encountered idea were true, they would have heard about it before. They haven't heard it; therefore something must be wrong with it. The inclination to doubt the new can readily find subjectively satisfying supporting grounds: the advocate of the news must have cherry-picked the data or left out conflicting theoretical considerations, and so on. Confirmation and other biases can be powerful if one is not vigilant. Nothing is easier than restoring one's inner equilibrium.

Another barrier to persuading people to embrace freedom fully is that many propositions are counterintuitive; they require thought based on at least some knowledge of a special discipline. Libertarians spend a lot of time trying to teach people that a society unguided by a central authority can be peaceful, orderly, and efficient. Unfortunately, that's not obvious. We grow up learning to plan our day, our lives. We see other people doing it. So how could society as a whole work smoothly and well without a central plan and planner?

It's not easy to explain this to people who's never encountered the idea of spontaneous order. Asking them to trust individual freedom and the market can seem like asking them to have blind faith in something alien. This is true about many economic propositions and other esoteric subjects that require training in a particular way of thinking. Fear of the strange is a powerful inducement to stick to what you "know."

On the other hand, some people are eager for the unfamiliar and go out of their way to seek it out. Who can say why in a given case? Maybe they are simply rebelling. Or maybe they've spotted intellectual and empirical problems with their original worldview that other people overlook. If you were raised in a communist society and believed what you were indoctrinated to believe, you might eventually notice that the society is no worker's paradise, with all the regimentation and deprivation. That could lead you to reject your inherited worldview. But not everyone does this. What's clear to A may be far from clear to B, even siblings who grew up in the same environment. Human beings are interesting.

Those of us who are trying to persuade people to embrace the nonaggression obligation--that is, classical liberalism, or libertarianism, may have an advantage though. Most people already believe that they shouldn't rob, hit, or kill, or otherwise aggress against others. So those of us who are merely asking that this already widely accepted principle be applied across the board -- even to people calling themselves the government -- may have an easier job than we thought.

On the other hand, freedom can be scary for some people. It obviously requires self-responsibility, which requires effort and brings the possibility of failure. Not everyone relishes that. In Monthy Python's Life of Brian, the condemned hero tells a Roman centurion that he doesn't have to follow orders to kill him -- to which the centurion responds, "I like orders."

Who can say which inclination will be stronger in enough people? The best we can do is start with the familiar; be clear; and be honest. That's our only hope.

TGIF -- The Goal Is Freedom -- appears on Fridays.