The World Doesn’t Need You to Change It (But Ideas Still Matter)

SFL Staff

There has been much discussion on this blog about social change and how libertarians should go about trying to change the world. That question has dominated my own thinking for several years. Here, however, I would like to explore the limits on the theories of social change typically embraced by libertarians  and argue for a reframing of the discussion that takes these limits into account. In her book,  The Future and It’s Enemies: The Growing Conflict Over Creativity, Enterprise, and Progress, Virginia Postrel defines two camps: stasists who value a regulated, engineered world and dynamists, who recognize and support a world of constant creation, discovery, and competition. In my mind, the phrase, “Let’s change the world,” misses the dynamist observation that the world is already constantly changing and exaggerates the capability of individuals or small groups of people to deliberately transform the monoliths of politics and culture for the better in predictable or targeted ways.

Was Margaret Mead correct when she said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has?” In a recentEuropean Students For Liberty webinar, Daniel D’Amico argued no, that historically, the influence of concerted politically structured groups of people has been insignificant compared to emergent trends that no one controls in the economy, population, and culture. He also claimed that libertarian circles are wrong to think that the echelon of second hand dealers in ideas that Hayek describes in “The Intellectuals and Socialism” is Hayek’s larger vision of social change. D’Amico rejected the populist notion that merely having more people identify with classical liberal ideology is going to significantly improve the world.

I don’t fully agree with D’Amico. Stephen Davies and many others have examined historical accomplishments such as the abolition of slavery, the repeal of the Corn Laws, privatization of religion, and criminal justice reform and have argued that while these events and processes were largely driven by a wave of monumental changes including population growth, sustained economic output, increased urbanization, and technological transformations (e.g. mass printing), small groups of classical liberals were able to navigate those waves to help ensure key victories were won for freedom. That being said, I do think D’Amico is right in saying that many libertarians are too cavalier in their assumptions about social change. Generally, libertarians believe we should try to change the world either by influencing the power structures of politics, money, and the media; shaping the broader culture to be more amenable to liberal ideas through education; or both. Ultimately, I think the limitations on our ability to enact these visions of social change are far greater than we are often willing to admit.

More and more libertarians seem to be adopting a public choice mindset and are on board with principled non-voting, recognizing the statistical fact that no single vote makes a difference in national democratic elections. However, the same libertarians usually uphold the importance of education and persuasion in creating a gradual cultural shift. While I still see a great deal of value in educational efforts, I am no longer convinced that people can intentionally shape culture with any level of ease (and even if we could, there are a whole host of other reasons that should give us pause).

Adam Gurri has applied Everett Rogers’diffusion model (which helps explain how obscure innovations become widely adopted) to human norms and traditions and argues, “The probability that your pet ideology will hit the diffusion of innovations jackpot, and that you will have had anything to do with it at all, are so vanishingly small that you might actually have a better shot of personally electing the next President of the United States.” Rogers found that the overwhelming majority of innovations fizzle out in the first stage of diffusion when they have not yet reached more than 10 percent of the population. Once an idea has been adopted by 20 percent of the population, its further spread is almost guaranteed because of path dependence and feedback loops, but very few innovations ever reach that point. Even among the innovations that do break through, the vast majority die out after a year. We can’t predict what amalgamation of technological and sociopolitical factors will form the glue to which certain ideas stick. As Gurri says, “So some tiny fraction of initial innovations diffuse, and a small fraction of those innovations survive their first year post-diffusion. Over time, these survivors accumulate to form the basis of our norms and traditions.”

Okay, so maybe changing culture is a daunting uphill battle but we can at least influence the individuals in our personal networks, right? Well, maybe amongst our dearest friends and family. Paul Adams has written about how 80 percent of our communications happen among our closest five connections and that our strong ties wield great subconscious influence over our preferences. However, Jonathan Haidt thinks we are deluding ourselves if we believe rational persuasion is effective. In his book, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion, he puts forth compelling evidence that once people have adopted a political ideology based on intuitive values (rooted in both biological and environmental factors), they do not primarily use reason to weigh evidence to determine if their ideology is sound. Rather, people will fixate on the evidence that confirms their biases and brush aside arguments or studies that cause cognitive dissonance.

If it is true that our political and cultural efforts to change the world are shots in the dark, is there cause for panic and despair? Far from it. Deirdre McCloskey has estimated that we are, on average, 1600 times better off than our ancestors who lived 250 years ago. On the whole, people’s lives are getting better by the day as we are exposed to more and more choices because of liberty. The world is already changing at a rapid pace every day. As Gurri has said, “We are not guides, arbiters, or engineers of this process. Our individual contributions are small and fleeting in the face of the enormous and persistent edifice of the traditions we are a part of, and the scale of the population living and dead that participate and have participated in them.”

Thankfully, liberty doesn’t require everyone to be a libertarian activist in order for it to work. As my friend Josh Cole is fond of saying, “The purpose of libertarianism isn’t to make more libertarians. The purpose of libertarianism is to be free.” Michael Huemer argues in his essay “In Praise of Passivity,” that due to the complexity of society, the limits on our knowledge, and the likelihood of unintended consequences, the wisest course of action is usually, in fact, to stop trying to solve society’s problems and instead follow the maxim, “First, do no harm.” The world would probably be a better place if more people abandoned their grandiose visions and instead followed Bryan Caplan’s approach and simply worked to make their small corners of the world more beautiful by making decisions about how to spend their time with the full knowledge that there is a good possibility that “all you will get out of it is the enjoyment of doing something well.”

That being said, the move towards a freer society is not, nor has it ever been, inevitable and what we believe and how we act does matter. By focusing on improving ourselves and the work that we do rather than trying to change the world around us, we can discover how each of us as individuals can best add value for others in our own unique roles and determine which fights are worth fighting. For me, the purpose of organizations like Students For Liberty is not necessarily to leave a mark on the world, but rather to leave a mark on the hearts and minds of students everywhere by introducing them to the Hayekian way of seeing the world so they can recognize and marvel in the fluidity, adaptation, and spontaneously emerging order all around them and join a community of like-minded people who are unified by this open-ended process. I am motivated by Hayek’s belief that “It is in the process of learning, in the effects of having learned something new, that man enjoys the gift of his intelligence.”

Lest anyone thinks I am focused on ivory tower navel gazing at the expense of tackling tragic circumstances around the world, I should mention that what I find most inspiring about SFL is the outreach we do with students who live in countries characterized by oppressive governments. Once such students are introduced to the classical liberal methodological framework, they are better equipped to understand and navigate their surroundings so they can lift themselves out of poverty and overcome unique local challenges in decentralized ways. I am proud to be part of an organization that has caused Jeffrey Tucker to observe,

It’s finally dawning on libertarians that they have no model to impose on the world, no preset formula to improve society, and, therefore, no strict dogmas on how things should or should not work in a world of freedom. The point is to free themselves and the whole of society from the shackles of statism and regimentation to allow for experimentation, evolution, and trial and error—an agenda that stems from the conviction that only a free people can discover the right path forward for themselves.


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