The Liberty Movement’s Influence Model Is Broken

Here’s how to fix it

Years ago I was talking to a liberty minded Congressional staffer on Capitol Hill, and he said offhandedly about some issue, “This is a game of inches.”

In other words, the goal wasn’t to achieve transformation. It was to make policy a little more pro-freedom.

And he was right. Major policy shifts depend on major shifts in the public’s thinking. So long as people supported a major regulatory-welfare state, Congress is going to give us some version of a major regulatory-welfare state.

But that got me to thinking…what causes major shifts in the public’s thinking and is that the influence strategy the liberty movement is following?

The Think Tank + Grassroots Model

Two of the three dominant strategies of influence we see in the liberty movement are think tanks and grassroots activist organizations.

Think tanks like the Cato Institute, the Heritage Foundation, and the American Enterprise Institute are modeled on academia. Scholars conduct research and though they do some public outreach, most of what they do is attempt to influence policymakers.

It’s a totally legitimate model…if you’re playing a game of inches. If there is a substantial constituency in favor of your political orientation, then helping policymakers formulate and defend policies that fit your orientation can be effective.

But if you’re not playing a game of inches? If you’re looking to achieve fundamental change in the public’s mind and in public policy?

It. Just. Doesn’t. Work.

Similarly for activist organizations. They’re good at mobilizing voters, raising money for candidates…in general, helping a viable political orientation fill Washington or the state capital with “their people.” Beyond that, I’ve seen no evidence they’re any more effective than think tanks.

Educational Non-Profits

The third dominant influence strategy is educational non-profits like the Charles Koch Foundation.

Recognizing that education is central to fundamental change, they focus on supplying the world with ideas, whether it’s the economic, historic, or philosophic case for freedom.

These organizations do some of the most important work in the liberty movement. But what are they preparing young liberty champions to do?

Overwhelming: to work in liberty think tanks, educational non-profits, academia, or, less commonly, practical politics.

It’s a closed loop leading to nowhere.

Thought Leaders

One of my core convictions is that ideas don’t convince people: ideas as advocated by and embodied by people convince people.

Whenever we see fundamental change, it is driven by identifiable thought leaders.

In the environmental movement, you had people like Rachel Carson and Paul Ehrlich.

In the creation of the liberty movement, you had people like Ayn Rand and Milton Friedman.

In today’s world, who do we see changing people’s fundamental ideas? It’s not any organization or institution. It’s people like Sam Harris, Jordan Peterson, and Bill McKibben.

(The biggest change agent today is Trump, though whatever he is, he’s not a thought leader. The way I see it, he’s more a symptom of the lack of a solid and relevant ideological foundation on “the right” and a reaction to an increasingly virulent “left.”)

The State Of The Liberty Movement

Unfortunately, there are very few thought leaders in the liberty movement. And many of the seeming thought leaders are little more than provocateurs who are good at getting attention for themselves and manufacturing soundbites for the media, but have nothing to add in the way of ideas.

Why? In part, because none of the movement’s best minds are encouraged to become thought leaders. And insofar as they’re channeled into existing institutions, they are actively hindered from becoming thought leaders.

Thought leaders need to be independent, innovative, experimental, and fast-moving. That is at odds with the needs and nature of an organization.

But there’s good news. Thought leaders are by their very nature self-sustaining. Insofar as they’re actually effective at winning over audiences, thought leaders can prosper on the free market.

More than that, market feedback can help thought leaders focus and channel their thought leadership more effectively.

Example. When my colleague Alex Epstein created his organization, The Center for Industrial Progress, he deliberately chose a for-profit model. I’ve seen firsthand the discipline and feedback that model gives — as well as the intellectual independence it protects. And his results — becoming the most influential free-market energy thinker — speak for themselves.

(Related: See Jason Crawford’s essay on “Why anything that can be for-profit, should be,” which deserved far more attention than it received.)

Building A Thought Leading Liberty Movement

If we want thought leaders, we need to offer training that equips them for thought leadership — and encourage the pursuit of for-profit models rather than the non-profit model that dominates our movement.

On the training side, one of my goals in teaching persuasion is to provide exactly the guidance I think future thought leaders need. (And it’s no accident I’ve chosen a for-profit model myself.)

We need more of that. We need masters in writing, speaking, marketing, sales, social media, traditional media, and more to provide the best available training to any potential thought leader who wants it.

But what’s involved in encouragement?

First and most obviously: moral encouragement. Telling promising young minds they should aim to become thought leaders will have a powerful impact all by itself.

Second, institutions can change the way they develop talent. For most institutions, young people either play a pure support role to established staff, or they do work under the umbrella of the institution.

A better method: institutions can hire promising talent and provide them with financial and intellectual support, but encourage them to do independent work and independent platform building.

Third, those with money who want to encourage thought leaders can play a couple roles.

For rising thought leaders, they can act as accelerators. Not paying the salary of a thought leader, but funding specific projects that will help a thought leader rapidly scale their influence. (See how Alex Epstein is harnessing this approach.)

For talented people just starting out, it’s tougher, because no one I know has cracked the code of reliably spotting future thought leaders. The best model I can think of is venture capital.

VCs seed a lot of companies knowing that most of them will fail — but knowing (or at least hoping) that the few who succeed will justify all the failures.

Why can’t that work for thought leaders? How much would you be willing to pay if it gave us a thought leader for liberty as influential as Jordan Peterson or Sam Harris?

The key is to spot promising talent and pay them enough so that they can focus on launching a career, but not enough (and not for long enough) that it discourages them from becoming self-sustaining as quickly as possible.

The spotting is the hard part. In my experience, the best people at spotting future thought leaders are current thought leaders.

(The best model I’ve seen for this approach is what Tyler Cowen is doing with Emergent Ventures.)

What’s next?

I’d love to hear your thoughts and criticisms, including next steps. You can email them to me a or find me on Twitter: @donswriting.

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Writer. Speaker. Thinker.

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