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Public Opinion and the Promotion of Liberty

03/29/2005Alberto Mingardi

Educating the public has historically been the means by which classical liberals have tried to change the societies in which they lived, and move them in a more classical liberal direction. In a manner of speaking, liberals have always appealed to the means of persuasion. This is at least for two major categories of reasons.

Historically, classical liberalism emerges as a coherent body of thinking in the very same age that saw what we call today public opinion become a force to be reckoned with. Classical liberalism is born in a time when a fledging “private sphere” was developing and blossoming. We see salons and newspapers becoming a feature of the civil and political life of European societies. In a complex matrix of political change, with representative institutions coming to life and natural rights of men being vindicated vis-à-vis absolute power, public opinion plays a vital role. Its importance is strictly associated with the idea of the existence of a “civil society” which is separated from the state: an assumption that is, in turn, at the very roots of classical liberalism. In a manner of speaking, public opinion is at the same time an essential tool and an ideological ingredient of classical liberalism.

In the second book of his Essay Concerning Human Understanding, John Locke sets the “law of opinion or reputation” as the third law that men typically refer their actions to, coming after divine law and civil law. Writes Locke: “by the relation they bear to the first of these, men judge whether their actions are sins or duties; by the second, whether they be criminal or innocent; and by the third, whether they be virtues or vices.”

The measure of what is a virtue and what is a vice is for Locke established by “a secret and tacit consent.”  “Though men uniting into politic societies have resigned up to the public the disposing of all their force, so that they cannot employ it against any fellow-citizens any further than the law of the country directs: yet they retain still the power of thinking well or ill, approving or disapproving of the actions of those whom they live amongst.”

This statement brings us in a contest where the social opinion possessed by people, albeit filtered by time, is recognized as having an essential value for social interaction. What comes to mind is, obviously, a very different characterization of public opinion, such as in the myth of the cave, in the seventh book of the Republic, where the shadows on the cave’s wall are what Plato deems to be “doxa,” mere opinion vis-à-vis “episteme,” real knowledge.

In his book on The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere, Jürgen Habermas recognizes a central role for Locke’s statement in a process that brought public opinion to become an important feature of political debate and, more generally, the “knowledge of the millions,” namely something which is valued rather than despised by political thinkers and political actors. In his study, Habermas shows how the appeal to the “public spirit” gradually becomes a highly significant moment of political fight—public opinion being for him a “category of the bourgeois society,” ultimately self-contradictory.

It is not by chance that, in his Thoughts on the Cause of the Present Discontents, Edmund Burke defines “the first study of a statesman” as “the temper of the people amongst whom he presides.” For those who oppose absolutism, government should be intended as a servant rather than a master of people: this is why people’s opinions acquire importance and gain consideration.

On a more ideological ground, we can see that the classical liberal appeal to public opinion can be understood in different ways. It may be an appeal to self-constraining forces with the body of a society, which brings us back to Locke’s law of opinion and reputation. Customs and social penalties have proved to have some efficiency in fostering order in a society, and keeping a balance in it regardless of direct action by political power.

Classical liberalism anyway has not just been about defending the legitimacy of prejudices, so to speak, but has gloriously defended free inquiry as the only way to get closer to the truth. In the “Areopagitica,” there are few sentences that are more moving than John Milton’s passionate cry: “Give me the liberty to know, to utter, and to argue freely according to conscience, above all liberties.” By the way, we should send a copy of the book to the bureaucrats at the University of Nevada.

But either way, the value of the opinion of the people is being placed above the stick of government’s regulation. Many have found inconsistencies in the classical liberal’s appeal to reason, and his defense of customs, of the legitimacy of opinions that are the heritage of the past and are valued as such.

On this front, I find truly exemplary of the essence of classical liberalism the reaction by a Spencerian libertarian such as Wordsworth Donisthorpe to the idea that theory of evolution was to be taught in schools.

He wrote in 1895: “The State should not be permitted to teach the Darwinian theory of the origin of species, at the expense of those who accept a special-creation hypothesis. It is not fair; and honest evolutionists have faith enough in the final triumph of the truth, not to request or desire even the unconscious assistance of their adversaries.”

The idea of separating the game of knowledge-building from political power does not imply that public opinion cannot cast new light on the mechanisms that underlie political power. In a way, if we can find a unifying experience in different streams of classical liberalism, it is the fight against the arcana imperii: the attempts to establish constitutionally limited governments, no matter if they succeeded or failed, were exactly the attempt to force political power to be reliable, transparent, predictable, i.e. not arbitrary. Opening the access to power via democratic institutions, making the debate over legislation a de facto public debate, was another step that was originally intended to undermine the most distinctively dangerous features of power. Somehow, free market anarchism builds upon the failure of these attempts, and on the observation that since the political class is always keeping at hand the key of the chastity belt we try to impose on them—to use an image by Anthony de Jasay—we should better resort to other strategies to get rid of its oppression.

Public opinion is key in this scenario. We know from Étienne de la Boétie and David Hume that government cannot survive by pure force. In Hume’s famous words, ”nothing appears more surprising to those who consider human affairs with a philosophical eye, than the easiness with which the many are governed by the few; and the implicit submission, with which men resign their own sentiments and passions to those of their rulers. When we enquire by what means this wonder is effected, we shall find that as Force is always on the side of the governed, the governors have nothing to support them but opinion. It is therefore, on opinion only that government is founded; and this maxim extends to the most despotic and military governments, as well as to the most free and most popular.”

The consent of the people is an essential tool for government’s survival as an institution, given the fact that policemen are, even in the most totalitarian state, just a limited fraction of the population. This is why public education is so essential to governments all over the world: it is not merely a pillar of the welfare state, for the reasons we well know, but, first and foremost, it is the instrument by which the State lowers the costs of coercive transfers of money by tax payers to tax consumers. If people did not believe in the legitimacy of taxation, of course we would have many people resisting this form of institutionalized robbery. However, state education is the vehicle by which the legitimizing formulas of the political status quo are disseminated in the citizen’s mind, typically at a very early stage, so that they influence the behavior and the basic beliefs of individuals for most of their life.

The public education system—conservatives are right on the point—is the battlefield where great “cultural wars” are fought. But the first of them is the cultural war to give legitimacy to the state as an institution, to dress it up in “neutral” clothes, to make it a natural fact of life as much as the sun over our heads.

The state has by and large succeeded in such an effort, so that the very existence of groups like ours, that venture to question the very right to exist of the modern state, is sometimes taken just as a quaint evidence of a lost past. No matter what kind of weapons we can use, when we compare our magazines, our websites, our think tanks, to the magnitude of the state education system, we soon realize that we are but mice fighting with an elephant. The good news is that mice can scare elephants, and that happens from time to time.

Persuading people of our arguments is far from being easy. It often takes a tremendous amount of time. It typically implies the necessity of changing our vocabulary depending on the people we are talking with. There are many roads to Damascus—and all of them deserve to be walked, if they can gain new members to our club, new fighters to the cause of liberty.

If the state ultimately rests largely on opinion, obviously it has to be fought, and defeated, on the ground of opinion. But this is not all. By saying that the state rests largely on public opinion, we are merely putting in a different way our original point: that is, that consent accounts for a good deal of social interactions.

In his Social Statics, Herbert Spencer thought that “an instinct of our own freedom, and a sympathy which makes us respect the like freedom of our fellows, compose a mechanism capable of establishing” a social context in which the law of equal freedom, that in Spencer’s mind is the juridical principle that governs a free society, can reign.

The young Spencer embraces an anthropology very similar to the one displayed by philosophical radicals. His evolutionism leads people towards progressive self-perfection. His approach has been described as a “final state natural law theory,” which is a fair sketch: people can enjoy their natural rights just as soon as the process of evolution is perfected.

Still, in 1851 Spencer could write that when

“we reflect upon the character of modern ideas and agitations, on declarations of rights, liberty of the press, slave emancipation, removal of religious disabilities, Reform Bills, et cetera, and consider how through all of them there runs a kindred spirit, and how this spirit is manifesting itself with constantly-increasing intensity and universality, we shall see that these facts imply some moral change; and explicable as they are by the growth of this compound faculty responding to the law of equal freedom, it is reasonable to consider them as showing the mode in which such faculty seeks to place social arrangements in harmony with that law.”

The most important faculty to be developed in the social landscape was, for Spencer, “a jealousy of  liberties—a watchful determination to resist anything like encroachment upon rights,” that, according to him, generates “amongst those in power such a respect for these rights as checks any desire they may have to aggress.”

In a state of mature evolution, the free man “loves liberty as a miner loves gold, for its own sake and quite irrespective of its advantages.” “What he thus highly values he sleeplessly watches; he quickly detects any attempt at diminution of it; and he opposes aggression the moment it commences.”

Indeed, “when a community consists of men animated by the spirit thus exemplified, the continuance of liberal institutions is certain.”

I think Spencer is up to a very important point when he concludes that “political freedom, therefore, is, as we say, an external result of an internal sentiment—is alike, in origin, practicability, and permanence, dependent on the moral sense; and it is only when this is supreme in its influence that so high a form of social organization can be maintained.”

To be sure, I don’t want to imply that the hopes of classical liberalism rest upon the fate of a new man, that some features of human nature are to be changed if we want to live in a free society. But I think that the consciousness of the value of freedom, as well as the ultimate de-construction of the fundamental myths of the state, is a necessary step to achieve the goal of a society in which aggression is minimized.

Even if we are not to attribute much credit to Herbert Spencer’s evolutionary approach, even if we are still recovering from the disillusion that the transition “from status to contract” was never completed, I think there is much common sense in recognizing that “the very antecedents of a peaceful agitation serve in some measure to ensure the success of the free institutions obtained by it.”

Continues Spencer:

“Not hunger, nor the anxiety to escape from torture, nor the desire for vengeance, is now the transforming force, but a calm unswerving determination to get human liberties recognized. The carrying out one of these battles of opinion to a successful issue through long delays and discouragements, through ridicule and misrepresentation, implies a perennial source of energy quite different from mere insurrectionary rage. In place of a passing gust of anger, a persistent and ever-strengthening sentiment is here the acting agent. Agitation is its gymnasium.”

If we endure enough, the new institutions won’t express “an exceptional state of the popular mind,” but “its habitual state.”

This may sound a bit naïf, especially because these lines were written long before socialism became the leading political theory. In a manner of speaking, when he was writing Social Statics Spencer saw very little competition to the ideas that informed his mindset. Still, this does not change the fact that he is giving us an impressive catalog of the reasons why classical liberals should not abandon the trenches of public opinion.

Writing one century after Spencer, and thus in a time when the perspective seemed to be irremediably lifeless and, on the other hand, socialism was more popular than ever, “the coming slavery” Spencer feared had consistently become reality, yet Frank Chodorov didn’t cease to show optimism. One revolution breeds another, he contended, outlining a strategy that the Mises Institute, among others, is successfully putting in practice today:

“Since the only direction youth can go is away from the current collectivistic tradition toward its opposite, those who cherish the individualistic stock of values must try to peddle them to these embryonic revolutionists. We must polish up our ancient arguments, apply them to the current scene and offer them as brand new merchandise. We must do a selling job. Youth will not buy us out, lock, stock and barrel, but will be rather selective about it; they will take what seems good to them, modernize it, build it into a panacea and start a revolution. God bless them.”

This is the great hope underpinning what has been and still is one of the most distinctive features of the libertarian movement: reaching out to students. Seminars, conferences, books targeted on the youth are already building a new generation of intellectuals, activists, journalists, and—last but not least—laymen who are not particularly interested in making their ideology their job but who are strong as rocks in their beliefs. The primary task of such an educational work should be, in Murray Rothbard’s words, “debamboozling the public on the entire nature and procedures of the despotic State.”

Changing the world one mind at a time is far more difficult than changing it by gaining power and executing all our enemies. But it is more consistent with our fundamental beliefs, and it is the more satisfying exactly because it is so challenging.

New technologies

How do new technologies fit into this scenario? I think that the role of the Internet in the growth of the libertarian movement can hardly be overestimated.

We are still a very small minority, whose voice is hardly heard within the establishment. Those who are pursuing a career in academia know well the kind of difficulties you are forced to endure, if you choose the way not to conform to the dominant consensus. Those who write op-eds in the newspapers know well that most of the time you have to explain the argument you want to make to your editor twice or three times before he realizes there is a point in what you’re saying. Our daily life is made of small triumphs and great frustrations: every time we succeed in winning an argument with a friend, every time we gain people to the cause we believe in, every time we meet a new student or reader who is expressing interest for the bunch of crazy, radical ideas we are trying to sell him, we have the feeling our battle is not lost. But then we switch television on, we read papers, we give a look to the real debates going on in the so-called scientific community, and depression becomes the permanent status of our minds.

As it is obvious, mass media do not exist in a vacuum and pay a tribute to the existing political consensus. They are also tied up to political power in more subtle ways. In many European countries, media are directly subsidized by the state. In the country I come from, primary sources of information, that is: news agencies, take their money directly from the prime minister’s office. This is why we have a dozen of clones of Reuters disseminated between Milan and Rome. How independent in dealing with political news they can be, I leave to your imagination. But even when you come to papers and TV that do not depend on public funding, their publishers are often businesses that rely so heavily over political subsidies and/or regulation that they will seldom regard a frontal opposition to the government as a viable option.

The Internet has been a great tool for developing our network. In continental Europe, most of the libertarians I know are Rothbardians. If I just give a look to the people working for the Centre for the New Europe, that in Brussels connects some of the most prominent free enterprise voices of our continent, I see at least four people that are permanently indebted to a certain institution in Alabama for having opened their eyes on the nature of the state. Cécile Philippe, Gabriel Calzada, Martin Stefunko, myself, have all been here and are all trying to apply what they learnt in Europe. Cecile runs a small but fast-growing French think tank, named after Gustave de Molinari. Gabriel has just founded a “Juan de Mariana Institute” in Spain, and teaches at the Universitad Rey Juan Carlos in Madrid. Martin is a well known opinion maker in his country. And these are just the first names that come to mind.

Americans will forgive me for focusing on Europe, which I know a little bit better. We have a think tank like the Liberalni Institut in Prague, that is organizing a European Austrian Scholars conference in April, featuring among others Guido Hulsman, and truly making the difference in its country. The Lithuanian Free Market Institute in Vilnius is the best think tank in Europe, and its directors are as sound as you can get. You all know what a splendid work Cristian Comanescu and his associates have been doing in Romania. As far as my little experience is concerned, I am very happy directing a young think tank that is growing at a fast pace.

The fight for liberty needs continuous dedication, eternal vigilance, and professionalism. This is really a key part of it. Very often libertarians seem to lack the fundamental feature that a political movement needs to achieve permanent success: organization. All of what I just said is really linked with the new technologies. Mises.org and Lewrockwell.com are websites that are so powerful and well done that they are literally feeding a movement with ideas and articles, exercising a real influence on people all over the world.

I think the Internet is adding up to a phenomenon I thought Donisthorpe described very well for his time:

“Twenty years ago I took a census of the individualists in this country,” he wrote at the end of the 19th century, “and I found that they could all be seated comfortably in a bus. Twelve years ago I took another and I found that their number had increased to about three hundred. This increase I attributed mainly to the teachings of Mr. Herbert Spencer. At the present time the individualists of England may be counted by thousands, and perhaps tens of thousands. I attribute this further increase partly to the same cause, partly to the efforts of the Personal Rights Defence Association and the Liberty and Property Defence League, and partly to the visible evil effects of the practical State socialism of the Legislature.”

Substitute the name “Herbert Spencer” with the names of Mises, Hayek, and Rothbard, and the Liberty and Property Defense League with the Mises Institute and the many think tanks that are trying to make a difference in the contemporary world, and you have a fair picture of what is happening today. The Internet gives us a much clearer vision of what others are doing in our small circles all over the world by allowing us the possibility of staying in touch with people who live far away from us. As a movement, we are growing, no doubt.

The Internet provides us with the possibility of exchanging papers, of meeting, even if not in person, new scholars and policy analysts, in developing our web of relationships within the little free market world. The web is a great tool, not just for connecting people but also to free ourselves from the kind of notions that were imposed on us during our school years. It is just so much easier to get in touch with Austrian economics, for example, even if all your professors are neoclassic, if you can get hold of the sources just by googling the name of Carl Menger. I should mention here the wonderful Online Library of Liberty, that David Hart edits for the Liberty Fund, which seems to me to be one of the greatest gifts ever made to libertarian scholars.

Still, I believe sometimes we should remind ourselves that we do not live in a Google-world. On the Internet, our ideas enjoy a far wider representation than in the real life. They are much more part of the debate in newsgroups, mailing lists, websites, than in magazines, TV broadcasts, conversations over a glass of wine. I fear that in getting too connected, we may get disconnected from reality.

This has also some relevance to the kind of vocabulary we use in discussing with other people in the real world.

If reading all the stuff that our friends produce all over the net is impossible, I fear that even reading most of it can generate some addiction. I fear that we may experience what happened, in Miguel de Cervantes’s novel, to Mr. Chisciana, who ended up being so taken by novels about chivalry and the epic struggle between good and evil, that he decided to dress himself up as a knight and became the heroic nightmare of windmills.

If our fight for justice is in many ways as hopeless as the one of Don Quixote, we should anyway keep our feet down to earth. We shouldn’t forget that we are not winning the war of ideas, and that, if such a conflict is ever to be concluded with a happily ever after, this requires continuous dedication. Opening up a libertarian blog is not necessarily more important than convincing our roommate that socialized medicine is not such a good idea for helping the poor.

The fact that there are many libertarian websites, many libertarian mailing lists, many libertarian discussion groups can be both good and bad news. The good news may be that, since the Internet is the game park of younger people, we are nurturing a number of younger libertarians greater than ever before. The bad news may well be related to the fact that doing things on the Internet is usually very cheap, amazingly cheaper than organizing conferences or publishing books. This is obviously good insofar as it makes it possible for us to make the most of our funding, but in some places and in some circumstances simply shows that a libertarian movement was or is not able to find and cultivate donors.

This is not something that can be easily overlooked. It is true that fundraising in Europe is more difficult than in the United States, that people typically do not think of donating money to political nonprofit institutions, that it will take time before we can achieve a mentality shift as relevant as to make the idea of helping with your pocket the cause of liberty appealing to the enterprising bourgeoisie—which is still, I believe, our social constituency.

But you cannot have a political movement without donors and benefactors: in other words, you cannot have a political movement that is composed purely of intellectuals. This implies its very failure. It means you never succeeded in establishing a link with that part of civil society you are fighting for.

I think the Internet has given us so far just a fleeting glimpse of what it can do for the cause of liberty. We do still have to develop a better understanding of what use can be made of Internet broadcasting. Very few people in Europe do what the Mises Institute does, making available online mp3 files of its conferences and meetings. Daily updated websites in Europe are a rarity: and I can name but one, “Libertad Digital” in Spain, that is really a self-sustaining free market online magazine. Blogs are often a great thing, but they can prove to be a sidetrack, and sometimes they produce an over-simplification of political analysis which is even worse than the one customarily supplied by “real” papers.


If a free society is to be attained by persuading people, the role of what Hayek called the “second-hand dealers in ideas” is of primary importance. I believe a free society can be achieved only by convincing our fellow men of its superiority over possible alternatives. Freedom has to be recognized as a value to be protected: Spencer was right on this point.

In such a scenario, I can hardly picture a more important role than the one Henry Hazlitt served, and many people in this room continue to serve. I am far from being always happy with journalism. Sometimes you have to write about things you do not really care about much: it’s the market, baby. Sometimes you have to simplify your thoughts and ideas in such a way that you have to inadvertently overstep into mere sloganeering. Sometimes you may feel you are wasting your intellectual skills, sometimes—in an unconscious beam of modesty—that you are not really qualified to write on a particular subject, sometimes that you are just talking with yourself.

Let me tell you something that I find frightening: there are readers out there, and even things you believe will be unnoticed, sometimes will not be. A good line can change the mind of another human being. You can seldom resist contemplating the power of your own words—and this is why I believe the best investment a writer should consider is an investment in his own style.

Never be content with the way you write, even if you’re Dante. Only people who have an unprofessional approach to writing believe that it is all about a natural gift. It may be part of the game, but you need to work on the way you write, making it better and better, so that at a certain point, there will be people who will read your articles for the sheer pleasure of doing so, regardless of whether or not they agree with your positions. When you reach that stage, it becomes ever easier to convince your readers, because by making them addicted to your prose you’ll make them addicted to your ideas.

I would like to conclude these small reflections with a quote from Henry Hazlitt.

This comes from the speech he delivered on the occasion of his seventieth birthday, and explains very well why we shouldn’t shut up, why we should continue in trying to follow his footsteps, why there is still a lot to do for free market writers who want to breed sanity in the intellectual debate.

“We have a duty to speak even more clearly and courageously, to work harder, and to keep fighting this battle while the strength is still in us. . . . The times call for courage. The times call for hard work. But if the demands are high, it is because the stakes are even higher. They are nothing less than the future of liberty, which means the future of civilization.”

I find these words as beautiful and inspiring as true.

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