As I mentioned in a recent issue of The Liberator Online, the Advocates finished its move from Indianapolis to Sacramento last month. A colleague of mine was sorting through the treasure-trove of materials and resources that the Advocates has collected over the decades and stumbled upon something he then passed along for me to read.
What he shared was a powerful essay in the form of a pamphlet entitled “Persuasion versus Force” written by Mark Skousen in 1991. In it, Skousen quotes an excerpt from the rather obscure book Adventures of Ideas written by Harvard professor and philosopher Alfred North Whitehead:
The creation of the world—said Plato—is the victory of persuasion over force…Civilization is the maintenance of social order, by its own inherent persuasiveness as embodying the nobler alternative. The recourse to force, however unavoidable, is a disclosure of the failure of civilization, either in the general society or in a remnant of individuals…
Now the intercourse between individuals and between social groups takes one of these two forms: force or persuasion. Commerce is the great example of intercourse by way of persuasion. War, slavery and governmental compulsion exemplify the reign of force.
Skousen proceeds to acknowledge a truth all libertarians will recognize: “The triumph of persuasion over force is the sign of a civilized society.” But, he adds, it is also a principle with which most citizens will agree, regardless of their liberal or conservative tendencies.
My friends on the left and the right will not dispute that persuasion is preferable to violence and force. If they did, I would likely reevaluate our friendship. However, it seems that only libertarians consistently view socio-political events from the persuasion-force perspective, and it is only libertarians who reject wholesale the use of force to promote one social agenda over another (through politics or otherwise).
In other words, it is within this framework that libertarianism’s unique selling proposition (USP) lies. While it isn’t wrong to tout the fact that libertarians advocate for free markets, limited government, and peace, from a marketing perspective it leaves something to be desired. After all, liberals and conservatives will, from time to time, pitch policy positions that align with the libertarian position—but not because they fundamentally reject force. Unfortunately, Democrats and Republicans regularly embrace force over persuasion whenever it is deemed politically expedient to do so.
In my experience, the disconnect between people saying they reject force and then employing it through the political system is largely due to the fact that most people 1) do not recognize most forms of political coercion as being such (e.g. voting for and enforcement of bad laws), and 2) rationalize political coercion either as a defense mechanism against previous aggression (e.g. the “But he started it!” retaliation argument), or as the only option (building roads). It is our job as Advocates to continue to shine a light on these problems.
To me, anyone who consistently rejects force and employs persuasion in their personal, social and political relationships is acting as a libertarian. I am unaware of any contemporary competing ideologies or political movements in America that embrace and advocate for the “nobler alternative” of peaceful, voluntary persuasion. This is the libertarian USP.
Have your own take on libertarianism’s USP? Write me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I’d like to hear about it.