Down to Earth
There is a paradoxical tendency in the liberty movement that I believe is important to address: the dismissal of another person’s views as outright nonsense, often accompanied by a self-indulgent grin. We have all done it when we are explaining our ideas to a friend, but they cannot hold their desperation a second longer and, frustrated, they shout “but, who will build the roads?”. You explode in laughter, simply unable to answer. Not because you cannot reply to that simple point, but because you are so up in your libertarian ivory tower that such a simple question seems obvious to you and hearing someone question it seems more absurd than a Mr. Bean sketch.
This is something that, as a physicist and a classical liberal, I experience very often. When you have spent your day preparing for an exam on Quantum Field Theory and someone approaches you and asserts that the Earth is flat, you laugh. However, you are not only laughing because the proposition is ridiculous, you also laugh to hide the fact that it has been so long since you last came back down to earth to consider that they have caught you unprepared. To give a proper and detailed refutation to their claim you would have to consider it carefully, as any mistake on your side could leave some hope for the supporters of the ludicrous claim in question, but that takes too much effort and laughing seems to do the trick. There are two important lessons that I think every libertarian should take from this kind of situation.
The first lesson is very simple: listen to people, particularly if they are listening to you. It seems evident and yet we are often so caught up in our grand explanations of libertarian philosophy that we find ourselves only answering our own questions instead of listening to the concerns of the person in front of us. So we have to exercise a bit of empathy. very few people are born libertarians, so it is very likely that you once said exactly what that person is saying right now. It is also very important to consider what our goals are in the discussion. If we are on a stage debating with a socialist for example, it might be appropriate to ridicule their beliefs. This is because, in that context, the person in front of you is an opponent, and your real audience are those watching the debate. This is not the case when you are talking to someone in a private context, they are not your opponent but your friend. You want to convince them, and people will not agree with you unless you let them do so without stepping on their own ego. Ridiculing someone you want to convince is rarely a good idea. But also, believe it or not, you may be partially wrong. There is usually some truth to people’s concerns, especially in the field of Politics. Even if they are entirely wrong on content, the fact that they have reached adulthood and still hold such beliefs shows a very important truth: we are doing something wrong. This leads us to the second lesson.
The second lesson is this: if you cannot explain something in simple terms, you do not understand it well enough. This famous quote, allegedly from Albert Einstein, was best practiced by another brilliant physicist who was also an inspiring teacher, Richard Feynman. While at Caltech, a colleague of Feynman once asked him to explain why spin one-half particles obey Fermi-Dirac statistics. In libertarian terms this would be like asking Mises to explain why private property is important. Feynman replied that he would prepare a freshman lecture on it. However, a few days later, he came back and said “I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t reduce it to the freshman level. That means we don’t really understand it”. Physics, as opposed to Politics, does not have the privilege of encountering great opposition once it has been shown to predict and explain evidence. It takes brilliant and intellectually humble scientists like Feynman to notice that we have skipped a piece in the puzzle, that there is something left to explain. It is a privilege to be able to talk to people who do not understand your ideas every day. It presents a chance to review some of your core tenets, to reflect on them and often learn to see them from a different perspective. You might realise that there is something missing.
This is all summarised in a very simple piece of advice: talk to people who do not agree with you as often as you can. There is a caveat, you need to listen to them and seriously consider their critiques. If we are to take the battle of ideas seriously, we cannot sneer at the most effective form of training. After all, if we stay secluded in our libertarian bubble, it is humanity at large that will pay for our mistake.