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Contest Essay

Making the Case: Effectively Advocating an Old Idea in Modern Times

First Prize, Junior Faculty Division

Thesis statement: This essay contends that the case for limited government today is not made very well to the general public. In a free society making the case for an idea is not a matter of a centralized program, which can be tweaked to improve its efficiency, but requires the coherent, if uncoordinated, and effective advocacy by a multitude of public voices—journalists and writers, other intellectuals, politicians—communicating persuasively their message. By considering a breadth of examples from various media, this essay will attempt to identify a series of rhetorical weaknesses in the current efforts to promote the idea of limited government. It will then suggest ways to reform the arguments in order to increase their effectiveness. The suggestions, while not necessarily exhaustive, can be taken as “open-source” guidelines by all who are interested in making people today aware that government still wants to live at their expense.

“Everyone wants to live at the expense of the state. They forget the state wants to live at the expense of everyone.”
—Frederic Bastiat

It is remarkable that more than a century and a half after Bastiat’s original assertion, the statement still rings true. It is remarkable for two reasons: first, there is ample evidence to make the case for it and, second, there are a good number of people and organizations that are dedicated to making it. In addition, Bastiat’s meaning is easily discernable. Using parallelism, he first effectively engages the reader, and then synthesizes the case for a limited government. The message is unambiguous: every action of the state, the government, places a cost on the citizens. The cost may be financial (in terms of taxes), or it may be in terms of restrictions on individuals’ liberties (through prohibition or regulation of certain activities). The inescapable conclusion, then, is that people would want to limit the extent of the state in order to minimize their own costs, provided they were aware of this relationship.

The evidence for Bastiat’s argument in particular, and for limited government in general, is both theoretical and empirical. Respected philosophers, economists, historians, writers, even some political leaders have outlined the propensity of government to become a burden on its citizens by restricting their freedom and lowering their standard of living. The works of John Locke and John Stuart Mill easily come to mind. Even long before them, in the fifth century, St. Augustine wrote that without justice a kingdom (the state) is just a large-scale robbery. [1] Well-known historical documents like Magna Carta and the American Declaration of Independence are indictments of a state, which endeavored to live at the expense of its citizens. Nobel Prize–winning economists like F. A. Hayek, Milton Friedman, George Stigler, and James Buchanan have made a case for limited government and free individuals and markets. Powerful cautionary tales about the danger of unlimited state power like George Orwell’s Animal Farm and 1984 are part of many school curricula. Yet most people still forget that government wants to live at their expense.

The evidence does not reside only in ivory towers and old books. Just in the last century governments’ desire for imperial possessions (to live at the expense of even more people) led to world wars at the cost of tens of millions of lives and the destruction of much of the world’s economy—twice. The Soviet state and its communist allies built gulags and space ships in the name of the worker, while many of the workers were prisoners in the gulags, and the ones not imprisoned still lived in oppression and misery. [2] Espousing Dependency Theory, many Latin American governments bankrupted their nations while claiming such policies would help their people. Even in the democratic West[3] heavy taxation and regulation contributed to the economic crisis and stagflation in the 1970s. Economic recovery in the West, freeing and rebuilding the defunct communist economies of the former Soviet Union, China, and Eastern Europe, and restoring Latin America to stability rapidly led billions of people to a higher standard of living but happened only after governments began to retreat from their dominant role in the economy.[4] In Africa, few countries can claim to have made much progress despite their wealth of natural resources and nearly four decades of constant financial aid from the West[5], but the few places that have made progress are the ones, in which the state has restrained itself the most, allowing its citizens the greatest freedom.[6]

The evidence seems plentiful, and much of it is in plain sight. And numerous individuals and organizations have actively tried to show people how government lives at their expense. There are think tanks like the Institute of Economic Affairs in London and the Institute for Liberty and Democracy in Lima, Peru, and hundreds of organizations, foundations, and think tanks in the United States and around the world whose objective is to continuously research, formulate, and disseminate ideas and policies that promote individual freedom and limited government.[7] There is even some awareness by the general public today that the money government spends is taxpayers’ money, yet the corollary idea that government lives at everyone’s expense, despite all of the evidence to support it and all of the effort to convey it, remains alien to most.

The Endurance of an Idea

Bastiat’s was not a new idea, but in order to endure any idea must be learned anew by each successive generation. And the case for the idea must be made persuasively to each new generation if it is to be understood and accepted. Human existence is, in the words of literary theorist Kenneth Burke, an interminable discussion[8], and the process of persuasion is ceaseless. However, having accumulated evidence does not automatically equate to having made a persuasive case for the notion. Persuading most people is not done by a few philosophers or historians, or economists, or journalists, or professors, or even think tank reports. It likely takes a never-ending public discourse by a multitude of individuals who have a public voice—from journalists and authors to local and national politicians. Unfortunately, the present-day proponents of Bastiat’s view fail to make an intriguing, coherent, and persuasive argument.

Aided by the Tide

During the last two decades of the 20th century, in a seeming victory for the ideas of limited government and individual and economic freedom, governments retreated somewhat from their dominant roles in many countries. Yet reactions around the world to the financial crisis of 2008 suggest that people still see government as largely a savior.[9] The victory appears illusory and Bastiat’s lamentation is as true now as it was originally.

Part of the problem may be that the trend toward limiting the role of government at the end of the 20th century was driven not so much by an increased understanding of the ideas of liberty but by a rising tide of public opinion, fueled primarily by the failure of the alternatives: by the economic collapse of government-dominated economies.[10] Stagflation put Keynes out of fashion for a time, and utter economic collapse in the communist world discredited Marx. People went looking for alternatives and found the ideas of Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman ”lying around” and tried them on in the 1980s and 1990s. For all the credit he received, Friedman saw his role as merely developing alternative policies and keeping them alive until their implementation became politically possible.[11] Although he did engage in very public advocacy of his ideas through his Newsweek columns and PBS series, he acknowledged the challenge of communicating them to a mass audience: “I have learned in the process how easy it is to be misunderstood or—to say the same thing—how hard it is to be crystal clear.”[12] About his own experience with public advocacy, Friedrich Hayek lamented that he discredited himself by publishing The Road to Serfdom and was thereafter nearly forgotten.[13] Thus it can be said the retreat of governments at the end of the 20th century did not result primarily from active and effective public advocacy but was a consequence of the failure of planned and overregulated economies.

This is not to say that, as the tide was turning, there were no instrumental and effective advocates for the ideas of limited government. In the United Kingdom Sir Keith Joseph spoke on television and debated on university campuses, espousing and vigorously explaining the ideas of limited government. Margaret Thatcher successfully made the case for limited government to British voters over the course of three elections in 1979, 1983, and 1987[14]. In the United States William F. Buckley published a magazine, wrote books, spoke, debated across the country and across the airwaves with entertaining wit and unmatched style, and the “Great Communicator,” Ronald Reagan successfully translated the ideas of Hayek to the common voter.[15]

When the Tide Flows in the Opposite Direction

Making people aware today that government wants to live at everyone’s expense requires more active and effective persuasion because, unlike in the 1970s and 1980s, people’s perceptions aren’t informed by the collapse of government-dominated economies. To the contrary, the current sentiment is rather anti-free market and for increased government intervention. Journalist Naomi Klein’s 2007 book Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism was a scathing critique of limited government and free markets and an international bestseller.[16]

As suggested earlier, there is ample and ever-increasing[17] evidence to build the argument—from philosophy to economics, to practical experience; and there are plenty of organizations storing and accumulating further evidence. What is also needed is effective public advocacy, making a case for limited government that is persuasive to today’s audiences in today’s political and economic context.

Historically, ideas and arguments intended to influence public opinion have been communicated through the press, and later also through the electronic mass media. The importance of maintaining an independent mechanism for mass communication and public discourse was formally recognized by the First Amendment of the US Constitution: “Congress shall make no law . . . abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble . . .”[18]

Technological advances in electronic mass media have led from broadcasting (ability to communicate one message to many recipients) to narrowcasting (communicating different messages to different recipients). The concept of narrowcasting originally reflected the rise of cable television and its increased number of channels[19] but is expanded further today. The current media landscape is filled with a multitude of radio stations, hundreds of cable channels, over 100 million blogs, and billions of web pages and takes narrowcasting to extreme. In this fragmented media context, no single advocate, no matter how capable or effective, is likely to be able to develop series of coherent arguments that consistently reach a large audience and over time build a persuasive case for limited government. It is therefore necessary to have a framework, or a set of guidelines, which are universally applicable in today’s public discourse for the purpose of developing engaging and effective arguments. If employed broadly by the various proponents or advocates of the idea of limited government, throughout the present media landscape, these guidelines would help popularize and make more persuasive today the idea that government wants to live at everyone’s expense.

The challenges that ought to concern today’s proponents of limited government relate to both the substance and style of their arguments.

The Need for Substance

When making an argument, it is imperative to have evidence, and also to have the correct evidence. In the April 18, 2010 edition of Meet The Press on NBC, in front of millions of television viewers, host Richard Gregory asked Congresswoman Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) what freedom and free markets have given the American people. Ms. Blackburn was attempting to make the case that the ideas of limited government as espoused by the Republican Party were superior to the ideas of increased government intervention in the economy. It was a perfect opportunity for a public figure to make the case for limited government to a broad audience. Here is the transcript of the exchange:

MR. GREGORY: All right, Congresswoman, before, before we move on, make the case for why, as Ron suggests, the Republican Party is on the right side of this economic debate in this election year.

REP. BLACKBURN: The reason the Republican Party is on the right side of this economic debate is simply this: The election is going to be about freedom, and the American people know that being dependent on the federal government for home loans, for your health care, for your education, for your jobs, even for the kind of lightbulb that you want to put in the fixture, is not the aspirations of a free people. And because of that, we are on the right side of this argument. Everything that we’re discussing here affects every . . .

MR. GREGORY: What—but hold on, Congresswoman. What did freedom get the American people during—that led to the financial collapse? Is that not a fair question about the limits of, of the free capitalist system?

REP. BLACKBURN: We know, we know that if you let free markets work—there is no expiration date on the free market. There is no expiration date on the American economy. What the American people do not like is the overreach of government, and they are seeing it time and

MR. GREGORY: I’m sorry, Congresswoman, my question was what did the free, what did the free market get us, what did freedom get us in the economic collapse? You had an absence of government regulation, and you had the free market running wild. Look what the result was.

REP. BLACKBURN: And you need, and you need more oversight. We all agree
with that.

MR. GREGORY: Mm-hmm.[20]

Put simply, Representative Blackburn had no response to the question what freedom (as opposed to government) has given to the American people. Not only did she miss an opportunity to make a case for limited government, she may have hurt her own position by making it appear seemingly indefensible. “What does freedom give us?” ought to be a question that every proponent of limited government can answer coherently.

Another situation comes from the September 21, 2009 Intelligence Squared US debate in New York City, broadcast on National Public Radio. The resolution was “Buy American / Hire American Policies Will Backfire.”[21] The resolution presented an opportunity make the case that government interference in the economy happens at the expense of its citizens. Arguing for the resolution, Professor Douglas Irwin of Dartmouth College presented as evidence the fact that US steel tariffs increased the cost of repairing the Bay Bridge in San Francisco by several hundred million dollars:

But that added four hundred million dollars to the cost to repair the bridge. That’s almost half a billion dollars for one project. Now, what can you do with half a billion dollars? Instead of paying inflated prices for steel you could repair roads, build new bridges, build new schools, invest in green technology, provide health care for children or even perhaps reduce the fiscal deficit that is literally bankrupt . . . Bankrupting the state of California. That’s more than just paying more and getting less. The real problem is this: Buy America is a bad jobs creation program. [22]

The above statement makes a strong case that citizens bear a significantly greater cost resulting from the actions of the government. Arguing against the resolution Leo Gerard, the International President of the United Steelworkers Union made the following correction:

The fact of the matter is that China did win the bid for the Bay Bridge and the fact of the matter is that the Bay Bridge is now almost eight months behind schedule and that the steel that came from China won’t hold the weld. And they’re not sure if they’re going to have to rip it all down and rebuild it, so that, if we talk about what that represents in lost dollars and productivity, it’s way more than the number that Doug used. [23]

Mr. Gerard’s correction, which remained unchallenged by Professor Irwin, undermined the credibility of the case against government intervention. Moreover, it made Professor Irwin appear to have twisted the facts,[24] bringing into question his credibility and the validity of all his statements.

The simple but important lesson from Representative Blackburn and Professor Irwin’s experiences is the imperative to know the facts, and to represent them correctly. That is the essence of having substance. As Marshal McLuhan said, “the medium is the message”[25] and in these two cases a part of the message that the audiences perceived was the incompetence of the proponents of limited government. [26]

Arguing the Wrong Point

Professor Irwin’s statement, quoted above, touches on another oft-encountered weakness in the arguments for limited government. Quite frequently, and quite unnecessarily, the proponents fall into the trap of arguing the wrong point. In the above case, Mr. Irwin claims that it would be better to have the state of California spend the money on green energy, or healthcare for the children instead of on more expensive domestic steel. His statement argues that there are better ways for the government to spend the money than on the more expensive domestic steel. The resolution, quite clearly, does not ask about the optimal redistribution of income. It asks whether a government action will result in an undesirable cost to the citizens. By arguing for a different distribution of taxpayer dollars, Professor Irwin essentially cedes the point he is supposedly defending. It is a necessary but insufficient condition for an advocate to have a substantive argument—one has to argue the correct point, too.

This problem is not new. Ludwig von Mises outlined it best in his essay Middle-of-the-Road Policy Leads to Socialism. Although von Mises discusses economic systems in particular, the general point about the difference between more government intervention and less government intervention is identical.

The antagonism between capitalism and socialism is not a dispute about the distribution of booty. It is a controversy about which two schemes for society’s economic organization, capitalism or socialism, is conducive to the better attainment of those ends which all people consider as the ultimate aim of activities commonly called economic. [27]

Two important lessons are embedded in Mises’ statement. The first was identified earlier, that by engaging in a dispute about the distribution of benefits (e.g. corporate welfare vs. public health care), the advocates for limited government surrender their argument completely. The second lesson is that the proponents of limited government must recognize that their opponents tend to have the same goal—the maximization of benefits for all people. This goal is usually made explicit by the advocates for more government, but is identical to the goal of minimizing the role of government in order to minimize the burden in places on its citizens. Identifying and maintaining this common ground is extremely valuable and an important asset in efforts to persuade.

Much of the public discourse during the 2008 presidential election in the United States, particularly after the collapse of Lehman Brothers and thereafter, centered around the role of government in handling the economic situation. One side argued that government ought to help people who are defaulting on their mortgages and losing their homes, while the other side (who would nominally be the limited government advocates) explained the necessity of bailing out the big banks, instead.[28] This was a clear example of a “dispute about the distribution of booty” and little else. Those in the US who supposedly stood on the side of limited government engaged, essentially, in the wrong argument. No wonder that such an opportunity was missed to make a persuasive case for Bastiat’s idea.

Besides the question of whether government should bail out Wall Street or Main Street, another headline-capturing debate was whether Joe the Plumber’s[29] taxes would be higher or lower under each presidential candidate’s administration. When campaigning for the presidency Senator Barak Obama said, in response to a plumber from Ohio, that he wanted to “spread the wealth around” so that everyone would be better off. The effect was Senator McCain’s accusing Mr. Obama of being a socialist. In general usage the term “socialist” has become somewhat ambiguous, especially since the end of the Cold War. To an earlier generation it may connote “anti-American” but to the post-Cold-War generation it is, at best, unclear.[30] What is clear, however, is the pejorative sense in which the term is used. As such, its effect is only to excite the passions of Obama opponents but does nothing to raise awareness of the disadvantages of socialist (big government) policies among the public.

McCain stopped calling Obama a socialist and reformulated his response by saying “He’s running to spread the wealth; I’m running to create more wealth,” but this was lost on the general public, leaving supporters excited by the name calling and those who may otherwise have been persuaded turned off by it.[31] What is easy to overlook is that the ultimate goal of both presidential candidates was to make everyone better off. Building on this common goal, the advocates of limited government could have engaged their opponents, creating an opportunity to make a persuasive case that people would be better off if the state played a smaller, not greater, role in their lives.

Following Mises’ instruction that the dispute is not about the goal but rather about the means of achieving it, keeps, if not creates, an interest in the opponents to listen to the argument from the other side. This is what William F. Buckley, Jr. did in a discussion with historian and big-government proponent Arthur Schlesinger after the 1994 midterm elections.[32] Buckley made the point, very civilly, that acknowledging the social security system is a mess does not mean one is anti-Social-Security. It means that there may be a better way for retirees to have income, while making capital available to the economy by limiting the government’s role in its administration. He was talking about privatizing Social Security, a controversial topic, but such style of presentation invites, rather than turns off an opponent, and allows persuasion to take place.

The Allusive Style

Style is another important aspect of making a persuasive case, and it is perhaps one of the most allusive aspects of the art of communicating.[33] A brief analysis shows how Frederick Bastiat used style effectively in the statement, which is subject of this essay: “Everyone wants to live at the expense of the state. They forget that the state wants to live at the expense of everyone.”

Most people, regardless of their political and philosophical orientation, would likely accept the first premise. Whether one believes that people should live or should not live at the expense of the state, most would agree that people want to do so. This agreeable introduction parallels the more controversial main point, coming next, that the state wants to live at everyone’s expense. The main point, too, is made less confrontational by placing the condition that “people forget” it. This would tend to cause a reasonable person who disagrees with the point initially to pause and examine whether the disagreement is the result of reason or of mere lapse of memory. This moment of self-examination creates an opening for genuine persuasion to take place—all thanks to an engaging style.

Preaching to the Choir

Persuasion is intended to influence people who hold an opposing viewpoint, or who have not yet formulated a perspective. Alas, much of what may be thought of as persuasion today (for the idea of limited government) is just “preaching to the choir.” It is so because instead of engaging the opponents, the messages are so styled and so formulated, so as to excite the passions of the supporters, but this turn the other side off. It happens by employing certain language, and by ignoring the perspective and background of the intended audience.

During the 2009–10 health care reform debate The Wall Street Journal adopted the term “Obamacare” to depict its opposition to the health care reform proposed by President Obama.[34] The health care debate could have been a great opportunity to make a persuasive case for limited government. Instead, the term “Obamacare” immediately signaled to potential readers a negative attitude toward the proposed reforms. Whatever good and informative suggestions for better ways to reform the system were contained in the articles, they were read mostly by people who needed no persuasion in the advantages of limited government.

The covers of two books, each of which makes a case for limited government, provide a dramatic contrast between an engaging and disengaging style of presentation. One of the books is How Capitalism Will SAVE US by Steve Forbes and Elisabeth Ames. The title, as formatted here, parallels the style of the title on the cover of the book itself, where the words “save us” are written in a larger font than the rest of the title, at the top of the cover. Beneath the title, toward the middle, is pictured a raised fist, Che Guevara style, tightly holding hundred dollar bills. The bottom of the page is framed with Steve Forbes’ name in large font.[35] The message that the cover page sends is “Save us—fist holding tightly hundred dollar bills—Steve Forbes.” It’s certainly open to interpretation, but it would not be too far-fetched to suggest that someone, who is not steeped in the ideas of limited government, would very likely take this to mean “Mr. Forbes and his rich buddies need to save their wealth?!” This is hardly an effective approach to spreading the ideas of limited government beyond the circle of the true believers in a time when government seems to be saving precisely the rich bankers.

Like Mr. Forbes, Amity Shlaes, makes a wonderfully coherent case for limited government by showing how government intervention increased the suffering of Americans during the Great Depression in her book The Forgotten Man.[36] Unlike Mr. Forbes, Ms. Shlaes takes a different approach to engaging potential readers with her cover page. It shows a Depression-era photograph of men in the streets, alluding to and acknowledging the joblessness and suffering of that period, and her title, The Forgotten Man, is a phrase oft used by Franklin Delano Roosevelt. With an engaging cover and a non-confrontational style Ms. Shlaes can draw in readers who don’t share her views initially, but can then effectively make the point that the true forgotten men were the ones who had to carry the tax burden levied by an ever expanding government during the 1930s. Amity Shlaes has a better sense of the audience she could persuade than Mr. Forbes and thus contributes more to making people aware that government wants to live at their expense.

Style matters for academics, too. Professor Walter Williams of George Mason University is a renowned economist and a proponent of limited government. He commented on the US auto industry bailouts in a December 2008 essay titled Bailouts and Bankruptcy.[37] He is eminently qualified to discuss US economic policy, yet the style of his essay seems fitting only to those who are already convinced in the advantages of limited government.[38] Here is a part of his opening paragraph:

Let’s not allow Congress and members of the bailout parade panic us into allowing them to do things, as was done in the 1930s, that would convert a mild economic downturn into a true calamity.

It is rather unlikely that his call would be really effective at having many people consider his viewpoint. The reality is that the majority of Americans, Amity Shlaes’ book notwithstanding, aren’t convinced by the idea that the federal government helped usher in the Great Depression. By being controversial instead of informational in the opening paragraph Professor Williams would tend to turn away readers who he might wish to persuade. Then he continues:

What happens when a company goes bankrupt? One thing that does not happen is their productive assets go poof and disappear into thin air. In other words, if GM goes bankrupt, the assembly lines, robots, buildings and other tools don’t evaporate. What bankruptcy means is the title to those assets change. People who think they can manage those assets better purchase them.

In theory, that is true. In practice, many things influence the outcome, so it is sometimes true. In Detroit, history shows, it is frequently not true. When GM closed factories and laid off 30,000 workers in Flint, Michigan in the 1980s other industrial companies did not go in and take over the closed GM plants or employ the laid off workers. The same is largely true of Detroit, where many more American car companies went bankrupt. Visitors to the city are shocked by the sight of long abandoned factories and yards.[39] Any driver at the intersection of Interstates 75 and 94 near downtown Detroit can see the skeleton of the old Fisher Body Plant dominating the view.[40] There are many more like it.[41]

With so much and so vivid evidence in plain sight, the idea that assets of bankrupt enterprises always go to more productive uses, and that everyone ends up better off without government intervention, sounds like a fairy tale to lay observers. This particular essay by Professor Williams seems more like preaching to the choir than attempting to persuade new audiences. In order to be persuasive, on has to understand the intended audience, its perspective, and its context.

Context and System

Another weakness in many an argument for limited government is the vilification of government. This is a problematic and ineffective mode of persuasion for two reasons: first, such vilification goes against the historical context in which the present discussion takes place and second, it ascribes to a system the characteristics of a being with its own malevolent intents.

The present-day Tea Party movement in America draws people who desire a smaller government. On the surface, this movement could be a uniting and an effective persuasive force. It draws its name from The Boston Tea Party of 1773, an act of patriotic protest against a British government policy, which raised the cost of tea for the colonists, while depriving colonial shippers from possible revenue. However, the Tea Party of 1773 was a protest against the policy instituted by the British government of King George III. Since then the American Revolution has taken place, which replaced the British monarchy with a democratically elected representative government and formed the United States of America.

The government of the United States (and of many countries around the world) is not some despotic monarchy or totalitarian regime, making rules at whim for the clear benefit of the ruler and his cronies. Modern democratic government, as every history and civics textbook teaches, is, however imperfect, the best form of government we have been able to devise.[42] In the West, democracy is even considered a value worth promoting.[43] It is a system of government that allows all members of society to have their voice heard. It is this, so far the best, system of government that our tax dollars support. What we have today is, in the words of Abraham Lincoln, “government of the people by the people for the people.”[44] In this context, vilifying government or opposition to its policies seems an opposition to the best option for government. It doesn’t help that, vilifying of government is associated with the actions of domestic terrorists like Timothy McVeigh.[45]

It is clearly not true that all policies of a democratically elected government are admirable, or even acceptable. There are plenty of examples of democracies breeding catastrophes.[46] Nonetheless, in the present historical context vilifying our democratic government is dogmatic and a rhetorically ineffective approach to communicating the idea of limited government.

Government, especially a democratic, representative government, is a system. It is not a separate being that can be blamed for having mal intent resulting in a bad outcome. In a democratic system the people are an inseparable part of the government. To the extent the system is heading in the wrong direction (increased government intervention), there is no outside person or entity to blame or vilify. MIT professor Peter M. Senge makes the point clearly:

We tend to blame outside circumstances for our problems. “Someone else”–the competitors, the press . . . the government—did it to us. Systems thinking shows us that there is no outside; that you and the cause of your problems are part of a single system. The cure lies in your relationship with your “enemy.” [47]

The American Founding Fathers understood that the government they instituted was a system; that is why they tried to set it up with check and balances, and constrain it through the Constitution and The Bill of Rights. Friedrich Hayek understood very well that government is a system. When Hayek published his famous book he didn’t title it Types of Governments to Avoid Due to Their Propensity to Institute Serfdom. He called it The Road to Serfdom, a warning that free people in a democratic society can unwittingly travel in an undesirable direction.[48] Instead of vilifying his opponents or the government, Hayek makes a coherent and persuasive case for limiting the power of the system, effectively persuading both Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan.[49] George Orwell’s Animal Farm is another clear description of government as a system, capable of corrupting the ideals of the individuals in it.

If the aim is to broaden the appeal of the idea of limited government, then vilifying the government is laying blame in the wrong place, and is rhetorically ineffective. Dogmatic adherence to an idea does nothing but widen the divide between its proponents and opponents. It more likely contributes to the demise of an idea than to its popularization.

The New Rules of the Game

An early Greek philosopher named Isocrates said that human progress happens “because there has been implanted in us the power to persuade each other and to make clear to each other whatever we desire . . .”[50] To harness that power of persuasion classical rhetoricians outlined a set of fundamental skills known as the canons of rhetoric.[51] This essay contended that in order to progress toward increased awareness of the idea of limited government, as espoused by Frederic Bastiat, it was necessary to make a better case for the idea, to advocate it more effectively. By considering examples from various media—television, radio, books, periodicals, and the internet—it attempted to identify some key weaknesses in recent advocacy efforts and to draw a set of lessons for more effective persuasion. Here is a summary of the lessons:

  • Know the facts, and know them accurately. It is important to have substance.
  • Be aware that the debate over the role of government is not about the distribution of benefits.
  • Be aware that the debate over the role of government is a debate over the best means to achieve the same goal.
  • Use the common goal to engage the target audience
  • Name-calling detracts from the effectiveness of an argument. Inform instead.
  • Employ a style that would attract and engage an audience of opponents
  • Avoid preaching to the choir
  • Consider the context and perspective of the target audience in order to communicate the message more effectively
  • Democratic government is a system. Vilifying it is counterproductive. The goal is to show that by minimizing its power and influence individuals are better off.

These lessons are not the modern version of the classical canons of rhetoric. However, they could serve as a practical modern guide for making a stronger and more persuasive case for limited government by any advocate using any medium. In a free world where, fortunately, there is neither a central propaganda apparatus nor a Ministry of Truth[52] that can be employed, the endurance of an idea depends on the persuasive skills of individuals attuned to the context of their times.


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Solzhenitsyn, A. (2002) The Gulag Archipelago 1918–1956 Abridged. Perennial classics: New York

Von Mises, L. (1991) Two Essays by Ludwig von Mises. The Ludwig von Mises Institute: Auburn, AL

Yergin, D. and Stanislaw, J. (2002) The Commanding Heights: The Battle for the World Economy. Touchstone: New York

[1] St. Augustine The City of God in Ebenstein (1969), p. 176

[2] See Solzhenitsyn (2002)

[3] Referring to Western Europe and The United States

[4] The transitions are described in multiple sources. See Friedman, T. (2007) p. 52

[5] See Moyo (2009)

[6] See Powell (2008)

[7] The Atlas Economic Research Foundation supports or is associated with over 500 think tanks that support and promote limited government around the world.

[8] See Burke (1957) pp. 94–96

[9] See Klein (2007)

[10] See Yergin and Stanislaw (2002)

[11] See Friedman, M. (2002) p. xiv

[12] See Friedman, M. (1972) p. ix

[13] Hayek TV interview shown in The Battle of Ideas, the first episode of PBS Documentary “The Commanding Heights “ based on Yergin and Stanislaw’s book. See

[14] See Yergin and Stanislaw (2002)

[15] Newt Gingrich interview in The Battle of Ideas, the first episode of PBS Documentary “The Commanding Heights“ based on Yergin and Stanislaw’s book. For a transcript see

[16] For a list of recognitions and awards see

[17] Just one example is the Heritage Foundation’s 2010 Index of Economic Freedom, which demonstrates a clear correlation between economic freedom and prosperity. Available at

[18] See First Amendment to The United States Constitution. Available at

[19] See Croteau and Hoynes (2003) p. 12

[20] NBC’s Meet The Press with host David Gregory, April 18, 2010. Transcript available at: Retrieved April 30, 2010

[21] Both audio and transcript are available at

[22] See transcript: Buy American Hire American Policies Will Backfire. Media Transcripts, Inc. for Intelligence Squared US. September 21, 2009. p. 7. Retrieved from

[23] Ibid. p. 10

[24] It is rather unlikely that Douglas Irwin deliberately misrepresented the truth. The fact that he did not defend himself suggests he may have misspoken during the live debate. It is more likely he meant to say that if the tariff had been in place when the bidding took place (several years prior) then it would have cost the taxpayers the additional amount. Listening to the audio or reading the transcript, however, one is left with the impression that one of the sides gave incorrect facts, which undermines the ability of the speaker to influence the audience.

[25] See McLuhan and Lapham (1994)

[26] For a discussion of how mass media audiences formulate and perceive the messages of the media see Potter (2005) pp.19–22

[27] See Middle of-the-Road Policy Leads to Socialism in von Mises (1991), p. 50

[28] These topics were so broadly reflected in the media that it seems unnecessary to reference individual reports.

[29] Widely reported in the media. See for example Larry Rohter, “Plumber from Ohio Is Thrust Into Spotlight” The New York Times, October 15, 2008.

[30] I draw here on my own experiences with both adult learners and traditional college students during the past several years of teaching at a university.

[31] See Andrew Ward. “McCain says the joke’s on him in last-ditch TV bid.” Financial Times, November 3, 2008,

[32] Buckley and Schlesinger were interviewed on PBS’s Charlie Rose, January 9, 1995. Video available at

[33] See Jasinski (2001) p. 537

[34] The ABI/Inform (Proquest) periodicals database contains over 700 articles, in which the term “Obamacare” is used since 2009. A vast majority of them were published in The Wall Street Journal. Search conducted May 1, 2010.

[35] See Forbes and Ames (2009)

[36] See Shlaes (2008)

[37] See Walter E. Williams, Bailouts And Bankruptcy, December 10, 2008. Retrieved from:

[38] I wrote this assessment of Prof. Williams’ essay and posted it on my blog on December 14, 2008 at

[39] As a former resident of the metro Detroit area, I have first-hand observations, including of the reaction of visitors to the city.

[40] A web photo essay makes the view available to anyone. Go to

[41] See another photographic tour titled The Industrial Ruins of Detroit at

[42] Consider Winston Churchill’s famous quotation, “No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time”

[43] Organizations, such as Freedom House, are actively engaged in promoting democracy around the world. See

[44] Abraham Lincoln, The Gettysburg Address, Library of Congress. Retrieved from–4113–8bd2-c89bd42b1fad@1&asset=d6db09e6-d424–4113–8bd2-c89bd42b1fad:4ab8a6e6-eb9e-40f8–9144–6a417c034a17:13#

[45] See Carl Hulse, “Recalling ’95 Bombing, Clinton Sees Parallels” The New York Times April 15, 2010. Retrieved from

[46] See Chua (2003)

[47] See Senge (1994) p. 67

[48] See Hayek (1994)

[49] See Yergin and Stanislaw (2002)

[50] Isocrates is quoted in Jasinski (2001) p. xiv

[51] See Jasinski (2001) p. 81

[52] See Orwell 1984

Evgeniy Gentchev is Associate Professor of International Business at Northwood University in Cedar Hill, Texas. An immigrant from Bulgaria, he is co-editor of the anthology When We Are Free and a contributing author to In Defense of Capitalism, both published by Northwood University Press. He was awarded 1st Prize in the Junior Faculty Division of the 2010 Sir John M. Templeton Fellowships Essay Contest.