A Tip from Ronald Reagan for Defenders of Liberty

Ronald Reagan may not have lived up to all of his pro-liberty rhetoric and promises, but he could teach us a lesson as candidates, activists, and defenders of liberty in general.

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Reagan’s lesson, taken from an article by Carla Howell, was that it is not just how you answer a question — it is which question you answer.  If you are asked a loaded anti-liberty question, you should redirect the conversation by pointing out the question’s false assumptions — or you can just answer the question you wish you had been asked.

Judge Andrew Napolitano kind of fell into this trap when he was on The Daily Show promoting his new book recently. Stefan Molyneux has replied with his own answers to the questions posed by Stewart to Napolitano, and I think he does better at heeding Reagan’s lesson.

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For example, 7:40 into Molyneux’s video: “Is government inherently evil? … The initiation of force is immoral … To say government is inherently evil is to create a red herring … Its like saying, ‘Are black rapists wrong?’ Well, its just one category of rapists, and government is just one category of the initiation of force. … Government is not inherently evil — that is prejudicial. You’ve got to be more specific … If I say black rapists are evil, I’ve only confused the issue. No — rape is evil…the initiation of force is evil, I don’t care if government does it or anybody else does it, its just the reality.”

Don’t miss the other great points from Carla Howell’s article, which I quote below:

Whether a question comes from a panelist during a TV debate or a friend at a part, our first reflex is to answer it. We don’t want to appear evasive or foolish, so we immediately reply with the best libertarian arguments we can muster. Most of the time, we get so busy trying to answer the question that we lose sight of what’s really going on: He who controls the question directs the conversation.

When a reporter interviews a libertarian, what’s the reporter’s goal? Is she trying to report the news in the most balanced and objective means possible? Or do her questions slant the news a particular way? … Do her questions help everyday working people understand the benefits of libertarianism? Or do they instill doubts? Is the reporter obsessing over trivial issues that distract attention from much more important ones?

What assumptions do the reporter’s questions contain? That a certain problem can only be addressed through government? That we need a new Big Government program, and the only real question is how much to fund it? That existing Big Government programs can never be eliminated?

Which issues are the reporter avoiding? Whether existing government programs have worked, had no effect, or failed? Whether they created new problems? Whether free enterprise solutions work better?

Libertarians get so caught up in answering questions that we forget to talk about libertarian alternatives and to sell libertarian proposals. Instead of pushing to cut billions of dollars in taxes, the questioner gets us talking about a line item that’s less than 1% of the budget. Trivial pursuit. Instead of talking about how we’ll free up space in our prisons for real criminals when we end the War on Drugs, we get sucked into a debate about the health risks of smoking marijuana.

When we allow others to control the questions, our proposals get lost in the noise. We fail to show that we offer something dramatically better than the usual Big Government choices.

As libertarians, we must refuse to concede  the agenda. We must refuse to fuel conversations that aid and abet Big Government. Libertarians must set the agenda! We must constantly refocus the discussion on our libertarian proposals to make government small. We must replace Big Government questions with ones that advance liberty. That move us in the direction of small government.

Reagan wasn’t always smooth when he deflected unwanted questions. But you can be. There are many ways to redirect the conversation. As Michael Cloud points out, you can simply say, ‘That’s the wrong question. May I explain why?’ … You can briefly point out why the question is irrelevant or refute the false assumptions it contains. Then launch into libertarian proposals that people really care about — jobs, taxes, financial security, restoring liberty — and spell out their benefits to voters.

Whether we’re in a TV debate, giving a speech, crafting a campaign platform, or simply having a conversation about politics, we have two choices. We can obediently respond to questions that validate and sustain Big Government. Or we can create a bold new conversation that makes possible our quest for liberty.

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