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Evangelism Through Examples And Experience

May 3, 2009

I am generally skeptical of trying to improve government through evangelism for a number of reasons, but there is an excellent working paper from GMU’s Mercatus Center arguing for preference change as a viable option: If A Pure Market Economy Is So Good, Why Doesn’t It Exist?  The Importance Of Changing Preferences Versus Incentives In Social Change, by Ed Stringham and Jeff Hummel:

Many economists argue that a pure market economy cannot come about 
because people will always have incentives to use coercion (Cowen and Sutter, 2005; 
Holcombe, 2004). We maintain that these economists leave out an important factor in social 
change. Change can come about by altering incentives or preferences, but since most 
economists ignore changing preferences, they too quickly conclude that change is 
impossible. History shows that social change based on changes in preferences is common. 
By recognizing that preferences need not be constant, political economists can say much 
more about changing the world. 

Many economists argue that a pure market economy cannot come about because people will always have incentives to use coercion (Cowen and Sutter, 2005; Holcombe, 2004). We maintain that these economists leave out an important factor in social change. Change can come about by altering incentives or preferences, but since most economists ignore changing preferences, they too quickly conclude that change is impossible. History shows that social change based on changes in preferences is common.  By recognizing that preferences need not be constant, political economists can say much more about changing the world. 

They have a good argument.  However even if one buys it, I think it would be wrong to neglect the importance of real-world examples in changing minds.  Let us contrast two approaches:

  1. Figure out how to form libertarian societies with those who are already libertarians.  Use those societies to convince others by example and experience that libertarianism works.
  2. Convince enough people to become libertarians to substantially change government in an existing country.  Use that country to convince others…

While the latter seems hopeless to me given the basic facts about how few people are intuitively libertarian, I am open to the idea that it is possible. However, even if it is possible, surely it is far more difficult and cumbersome a method.  How many decades or centuries of sweat and tears and rhetoric does it take to enact such a monumental shift in the culture of the world?  To convince people that a system of government that they see nowhere in their world is superior?  It is difficult enough to overcome prejudice with facts – overcoming it with mere abstract theory seems close to impossible.

I’m sure I’m not the only one whose had the experience of trying to argue for libertarianism with data, and seen it constantly argued away, doubted, minimized, or rejected because it doesn’t fit the listener’s prejudices.  One can always find some flaw or incompleteness in a study in order to reject it (witness those who still claim intelligence is not hereditary despite the extremely robust evidence).  A successful society is the ultimate argument, and the ultimate tool for evangelism.  Showing is much more powerful than telling.

Thus the argument for political change through cultural change does not contradict the philosophy of secessionism or experimentalism.  Forming an actual society based on any fringe ideology (such as libertarianism) is not only a way for ideologues to live their beliefs sooner, it also provides the best kind of ammunition for arguments.  Out of the murky assumption-dependent world of theory, and into the concrete world of fact.

In advocating for laissez-faire economics, the two words “Hong Kong” have more power than thousands of academic papers put together.  If we want to change global culture, the best route is to create more examples of success to power our evangelism.  Few people will be convinced just by reading or debate.

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