Wednesday, January 09, 2008

The Libertarian Small Sample Problem

The Ron Paul newsletter scandal (summarized by Arnold Kling here and Radley Balko here) underscores what I see as the most difficult PR issue for libertarianism: the small-sample problem.

Given the relative rarity of libertarians, both in the public eye and in general, most people’s judgment of libertarianism will be based on a very small sample – often a sample size of one. If the first libertarian someone meets is a smart, reasonable, decent person, they will come away with a positive impression and possibly a willingness to explore further. If the first libertarian someone meets is a wild-eyed lunatic, on the other hand, they could easily write off libertarianism as the ideology of wild-eyed lunatics.

The Paul candidacy presents a special case of the small-sample problem. For many people, Ron Paul is the first and only libertarian-identified candidate they’ve ever seen receive any serious media attention. As a result, they may assume other libertarians share all of his views. Many libertarians, including Kling, are wary of supporting Paul – even though they probably agree more with Paul than anyone else in the field – because they fear the public will assume that all libertarians are anti-immigrant gold-bug conspiracy theorists (and possible closet racists).

Liberals and conservatives don’t have this problem. Everyone understands that these groups contain a gamut of opinion, with some degree of disagreement on every issue. If one candidate goes off the reservation on one issue or another, there’s no real fear that his position will define the movement forever.

This is why, when I talk to young libertarians about how to spread their ideas, I say they should think of themselves as ambassadors for the movement. That means, first and foremost, presenting themselves as fundamentally decent people that you would actually want to have a beer with; and second, being willing to admit the diversity of libertarian thought (“libertarians don’t all agree on this, but…”) before pushing their own peculiar views.

As an aside, I think one reason libertarian ideas have fared so well in the blogging world is that there are enough libertarians online, of both the reasonable and kooky varieties, that non-libertarian political bloggers usually have a fair sense of what libertarians think in general (notwithstanding the occasional smear).


Eric Crampton said...

I was cheering pretty hard for Paul prior to this. I'm more than happy to accept the explanation that he wasn't all that diligent in overseeing what there was written. But isn't a somewhat important part of a President's job, umm, delegating things and choosing the right people? And hasn't the most charitable interpretation of this episode just shown that he's fundamentally incompetent on that front?

Ran said...

This is true of a lot of kinds of groups, actually; for example, at Ben Gurion (the major airport in Israel), there's a big sign reminding you as you leave that you're representing Israel to everyone you meet elsewhere.

Incidentally, the small-sample problem is exacerbated by the like-attracts-like problem: if you only make friends with people who are like you (for some relevant characteristic — in this case, politically), then your perception of people unlike you will be skewed by your small exposure. You can see this even with some liberals who have a deep misunderstanding of what the typical conservative believes and vice versa, even though there's nowhere in the country where the ratio between the two is more extreme than 60–40. Similarly, you apparently think that the typical blogger has decent exposure to libertarians; this may be true, or it might mean that you're mostly exposed to bloggers who have decent exposure to libertarians. ;-)

Isaac said...

The whole idea that Ron Paul would publish such radical and hateful literature is absurd. Ron Paul represents the percentage of America who loves Freedom, not those who would perpetrate hate crime. Shun a racist, certainly, but by no means should we establish a sort of "thought-police" to keep us safe! The whole philosophy (no matter how pure the motive) of making an idea illegal has "regime" written all over it. Such reprehensible concepts were implemented in Nazi Germany and in many communist nations to coerce conformity.

The reason people don't like Ron Paul is because he doesn't tell any special interest group he's going to give them something. He instead informs the whole of America he will give them their tax money back, bring an end to inflation, bring home our troops, secure our borders, and keep the government from acting on ideas that contradict what this nation was founded upon.

However, many Americans would rather sacrifice freedom to obtain services from the government as opposed to maintaining economic stability, and would rather have our military police the world rather than securing our own borders.

These ideas may seem radical to some but to an average citizen, they seem quite common and make a lot of sense.

An average citizen can't enter into such an exorbitant debt and continue to strut around like a rich philanthropist while ignoring the repercussions. An average citizen can't go to his neighbor and tell him what to teach his kids, or what to do with his possessions. This idea is the basis of indoctrination.

These are the deeper issues Ron Paul is trying to expose and those who don't understand these issues or haven't really followed enough political current events (which is very easy not to); they are the very people most likely assuaged by such libelous material. These are clearly not people who know the character of his person or the cry of his heart. This is why these accusations are insulting to those who love truth and dignity. It robs a percentage of those who have been blind to the real political issues from being reached by putting a false label on the man.

Glen Whitman said...

Woohoo, I attracted my first Paulist defender! Look, I was a supporter of Paul until about three days ago. And I'm going to take issue with exactly one word in your comment: "libelous." It is not libel to accuse someone of having said words that were actually published under their own name. And the words that were, in fact, no doubt about it, published under Paul's name and with his apparent approval, were ugly, bigoted, and racist. Full stop. So the charge of "libel" is just nonsense. The only remaining question is whether Paul does or ever did actually agree with the words published under his name. I hope not. But even if he didn't, he should have exercised better judgment. And if Lew Rockwell is the actual author, then Paul's continued association with Rockwell is an abomination.

Grant Valdes said...

"The whole idea that Ron Paul would publish such radical and hateful literature is absurd. Ron Paul represents the percentage of America who loves Freedom, not those who would perpetrate hate crime. Shun a racist, certainly, but by no means should we establish a sort of "thought-police" to keep us safe!"

It is absurd and hard to believe. Unforunately, it also appears by all accounts to be reality.

And no one is arguing that Ron Paul should be legally prosecuted for anything he's let be said in his name (and if they are, they're damn un-American and should read the constitution). But as you put it, a reasonable response it to "shun" an open racist, or at the very least express clear disapproval. That's all I'm doing as a (former) grassroots organizer for Ron Paul. I'll most likely still vote for him, but to carry on as if this never happend is to implicity endorse the sentiments of the newsletter.

Anonymous said...

Also, could Ron Paul defenders please stop talking as if he's the Second Coming? He's simply a Republican politician running on a platform with some libertarian-sounding planks. (And there's been a lot of discussion as to whether how libertarian Paul really is, given his seeming willingness to allow some pretty heavy control, provided it's done down at the state level.)

Hearing about "how Ron Paul will SAVE AMERICA!" makes me very, very queasy. Sounds far too much like the stuff that leads up to Jonestown, redux.

gcallah said...

"underscores what I see as the most difficult PR issue for libertarianism"

Isn't that that most people, when they learn about it, find it nutty?

Glen Whitman said...

Gene -- yes and no. There are two main reasons people may find libertarianism nutty. First, they may find it nutty because the value judgments and world view involved in libertarianism are ones they find inherently unappealing. Second, they may find the presentation of those ideas unappealing, in part because the presenter gives a poor impression. The first problem is a real one, but I wouldn't call it a PR problem -- I'd just call it disagreement. The second problem is indeed a PR problem, and that's what I had in mind.