Marginal Steps to a Better World
I was recently asked to give a talk for the Foundation for Economic Education (FEE) on how we can improve society. Now, I’ve been asked to give my fair share of presentations. Most are things that fit nicely into the economist’s “wheelhouse.” Ask me to explain public choice, price controls, the economics of war, terrorism, drugs, etc. and I’m ready to go.
But this talk provided a challenge.
As an economist, I see my job as discussing patterns in society, using theory to explain general tendencies and directions. This is in contrast to point predictions, or making suggestions on specific things to do in particular magnitudes. To offer advice on such an important topic of “how do we improve society” seemed a task outside what economists (or anyone for that matter) are capable and qualified to answer. So after racking my brain, I did what I sometimes do when I’m stuck and asked the all-powerful entity known as “Facebook.” After gathering thoughts from friends and colleagues and collecting my own thoughts, I offered students the following (and a few others).
- Engage Ideas
Frederic Bastiat said, “The worst thing that can happen to a good cause is not to be skillfully attacked, but to be ineptly defended.” If we are truly interested in advancing the cause of liberty, we owe it to these ideas to know them, understand them, and articulate competent defenses of these principles.
- Engage with Others
In order to spread ideas, you have to talk to other people. On a related note, don’t be a jerk. In a world where it’s progressively common for “discussions” to devolve into red herrings and ad hominem attacks, we gain absolutely nothing by trying to destroy our intellectual opponents. Find common ground and start from there.
- Be Relevant
Are you well versed in some obscure philosophical writings? Awesome. Sorry to tell you, but pretty much no one cares. Advocates for liberty need to show how the ideas they advocate are relevant and important for current policy.
- Hate Oppression, but Love Liberty More
I have to admit, I’m guilty of not doing a great job of this one. We can spend all day talking about the evils of oppression, intervention, and general government incompetence, but without at least some suggestions of how we as individuals can improve the world, our criticisms sound more contrarian than productive. I encouraged them to, in their discourse with others, discuss how it is that freedom and liberty have improved their lives and the lives of others throughout the world.
- Learn to Write a Letter to the Editor
If you want to learn to argue for a position, an op ed is a great way to start. Such an exercise forces you to make a point clearly, concisely, and comprehensively. Bonus for students—you get to hone your writing skills!
- Remember that Marginal Steps are Still Victories
Those who love liberty are often passionate about their ideals. This is wonderful. But I find this enthusiasm is often easily frustrated. When a person feels so strongly about an idea, it seems impossible that others will fail to see its value. I reminded the students to think of their own intellectual journeys. In particular, I asked them to think of how many times their mind was complete changed after one lecture or conversation. As I suspected, most had no such experience. Those that did had only one in their memories. As such, I told them not to expect a Biblical-style conversion of others. Instead, recognize that small, marginal steps are great progress. If you can get another person to think a little differently, or even see another point of view, you’ve made remarkable progress.
I’m sure there are other things I may have missed. Perhaps if asked to give this talk again I can provide further suggestions.
If nothing else, I can say that the students impressed me. There is still hope for freedom.