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How To Sell Libertarianism

Frederic Bastiat (Source:Wikipedia)

Like most libertarians, I did not discover economics in a college classroom. I studied engineering, but, in the college library, I read Samuelson’s “Economics”. I never took much to Samuelson, but it was in his work I read a passage from Bastiat’s “The Candle Makers’ Petition”. It was a passionate, unapologetic defense of free trade. It was beautifully written. When I finished reading this passage, the course of my life was set. Bastiat sold libertarian philosophy to me.

In his article “On Selling Classical Liberalism”, in the October issue of The Freeman Alberto Benegas-Lynch, Jr. says that classical liberal ideas are difficult to sell because people are not inclined to liberty. Lynch is right, but Bastiat sold libertarianism to  generations of young men and women. Bastiat’s works were translated into English before the works of his contemporaries were. Unlike other eminent French economists of his time, Bastiat is still popular, because he entertains his readers. He was a brilliant prose stylist.  This is an extraordinary achievement. In the whole of human history, very few economists can be considered good prose stylists. Unpopular ideas are almost impossible to sell, but libertarian ideas will appeal to a wider audience if there are more such stylists. Bastiat succeeded where his contemporaries did not because he gave his readers a memorable reading experience.

Lynch argues that it is not possible to sell classical liberalism to the masses like consumer good because the consumption of ideas is a more active process. Lynch thinks that people cannot follow complex chains of reasoning, and that they are not likely to accept a philosophy when its advocates cannot accurately describe their ideal society. True enough, but a great work of literature can have mass appeal even if the reading public disagrees with the underlying philosophy. Ayn Rand’s fiction works are a case in point.

It is almost impossible to find libertarian books in my country, India. I have never seen a work of Friedman or Hayek in an Indian bookstall. When I was growing up, the only treatises in “political economy” I saw in my house were the three volumes of Karl Marx’s “Capital” and Adam Smith’s “The Wealth of Nations”. Robert Heilbroner once said that only one or two economists wrote best sellers that reached the mud huts of Asia. Marx was definitely one of them, but it is not because he wrote beautifully. Marx appealed to man’s desire to be placed in a cradle in which all his needs are met. But, there is no need to do so, if you have something valuable to offer, other than your abstract beliefs. Ayn Rand’s books outsold Marx’s 16-fold in India though her philosophy is in direct conflict with everything an average Indian bibliophile believes in. Only a minority of her readers become libertarians, and it is true that reading Ayn Rand is not “enough”. But, without her, many of us would not even have come across other libertarian thinkers.

A columnist once said that in terms of book sales, the world has voted for Ayn Rand 25 million times more than all the other important capitalistic writers combined. It is not all down to her philosophical ideas, the claims of her admirers to the contrary notwithstanding. The timeless appeal of her unpopular ideas does not fully explain her success in the marketplace of ideas. She wrote prose that electrified the pulse of millions, as Heilbroner would have put it. Her novels sell because they are great entertainment. Even Ludwig Von Mises and Murray Rothbard would not have had such a huge influence over the young if they were not good writers.

Academics tend to believe that there is a conflict between entertainment and respectability. But, no one could beat her to it. No one could replicate her success. Why? The retailing of libertarian philosophy through popular fiction is a rare talent. The market valued her talent, because, as Virginia Postrel argues in “The Substance of Style”, the aesthetic experience is an important need of people. It is important, even to the consumers of the lowest level of intelligence. Why do libertarian intellectuals assume that this is not true of their readers, of the consumers of ideas?  

Lynch thinks that it is unacceptable to connect liberal ideas to marketing because, to go against the grain, we should maintain the virtue of integrity, and not sell our principles and values. But, to have more influence, there is no need to betray libertarian principles. Libertarians just have to write well. The sales of the non-fiction works of Robert Heilbroner and John Kenneth Galbraith vastly surpass that of any libertarian academic. Great stylists as they were, it is true that their anti-capitalistic beliefs partly explain their success. But, this is not true of H. L. Mencken, the first celebrity intellectual and one of the greatest prose stylists of the 20th century. Mencken could air the most socially unacceptable facts and still make his readers laugh. Not surprisingly, the American public forgave his excesses.  It is a profound gift, to be able to entertain and philosophize at the same time. Forget libertarian strategy. If libertarian intellectuals have nothing of value to offer their readers other than the abstract ideas they believe in, there is something really wrong.


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