Don’t Ignore the Heart in the Battle for Minds

So you’ve got all the facts to demonstrate that more liberty is the solution for policy problem X. Why don’t more people agree with your prescription? Yes, the facts are important, but maybe you need to develop the ability to appeal to other people’s values.

Fred Smith explains:

Few people find it reasonable to educate themselves about policies about which they can do little. This is known as rational ignorance. Too often, we in the policy community seek to “educate” the public about the “facts” of a policy, failing to understand that this rational approach is irrelevant to individuals who suffer from information overload and feel that they lack the means to influence policy. […] 

A wide body of literature suggests that people derive their opinions of complex issues from their core values. Effective persuasion requires that we frame our policies in ways that convey understanding and sympathy for their values.

Intellectual arguments come into play only after we’ve succeeded in opening a communication link. We must first give them a reason to listen. In other words, people don’t care what we know, until they know that we care!


Smith’s chapter “Persuasion and Issue-Framing,” in the Institute for Humane Studies book Creating Your Path to a Career in Public Policy recommends an approach developed by Aaron Wildavsky and Mary Douglas called “Values-Based Communication.” According to VBC, individuals generally hold one of four core values: individualism, hierarchy, egalitarianism, and fatalism.

While fatalists are less politically relevant and hierarchists can be moved by arguments showing the free market is more efficient than government, egalitarians are a tougher lot to move. For them, a simple appeal to liberty as a good in itself is not going to work. We need to show, Smith explains, “how markets reduce the suffering associated with poverty, that richer is healthier, and that freedom of exchange promotes more equitable social arrangements.”

In a country of diverse values, as Smith explains, we can succeed in building a coalition for liberty only by showing people that liberty is the best way of achieving the others ends about which they care.