Everyday Activism: Libertarian Letters to the Editor

Tired of no media coverage? Look in the mirror, and be the change you want.

When watching or reading news, do you feel like shouting at mainstream politicians and their misguided positions? Do you wish a reporter or TV program would have deigned to give a Libertarian viewpoint or cover a Libertarian candidate? Use that frustration to inspire productive action: write a letter to the editor or guest column. Libertarians get frustrated when the media doesn’t cover our ideas or candidates, but most neglect to take advantage of the free opportunity most newspapers give to spread our ideas via opinion pages. Although frustration can inspire action, be sure to remember that the purpose of a letter is to try to persuade people. If an issue isn’t time critical, it can be productive to step back from a letter for a day or two before re-reading it to be sure it makes a reasoned productive case. Imagine if even 1 out of 20 registered Libertarians in Colorado did a letter each month. That would be 1878 opeds submitted, and many of them would be printed. If you don’t see Libertarian views in the local newspaper: look in the mirror and realize YOU are the solution. If everyone waits for another person to do it, it may never happen. Assume that if you don’t do it, perhaps no one will.

Venting your views can be cathartic and seeing them in print can provide a sense of accomplishment.Its good for your mental health, and the health of the Libertarian Party. Libertarians don’t think a centralized government can create products as well as the distributed effort of all the collective minds in the public. The collective minds of all Libertarians working to spread libertarian ideas can do so more effectively than only relying on centralized Libertarian Party organizations with limited resources. Even if you don’t usually read the local newspaper or subscribe to it, you can still consider submitting opinions for those who do read it.

In the age of the internet, writing for a newspaper opinion page may seem an outdated idea, but it is still effective and important. Although newspaper readership is declining, those who read newspapers are more likely to be better informed “influentials” aka “opinion leaders” who pass information on to less informed members of the public who rely on their views. In the age of partisan online media where people communicate within echo chambers, newspapers are one of the few places where people can be exposed to ideas from other political perspectives. Small newspapers often print most of what they receive, even if larger newspapers like the Denver Post can’t. The more letters a newspaper receives on a particular topic, the greater the odds at least some of them will be printed. Editorial departments seem more willing to publish alternative views than news sections are to cover them. There is less incentive for those who hold mainstream views to bother writing letters since their views already get covered in the news sections, and by regular columnists and editorials and other people’s letters. We have the potential for a disproportionate share of opinion pieces to be from libertarians since most of the public doesn’t bother submitting letters. Its useful to keep up a steady stream of letters throughout the year from a libertarian perspective, not merely during election season. It will take time to get the public on our side, and the only way that will ever happen is by as many people as possible working to educate them as often as possible. Opinion pieces are one of the easiest for people to do since they can be done anytime.

Many people have never encountered libertarian ideas, and unfortunately many are skeptical of ideas they haven’t heard of before. No matter how good the idea is, they may not take time to think it through to realize it makes sense. Unfortunately many people assume that if an idea were good, then they would have heard of it from the mainstream media or major parties before. Anything different is a “fringe” outlier they take less seriously. Advertisers pushing consumer products repeat their ads until people view their product as a credible option rather than viewing it as an unknown risky potentially fly by night choice they might regret. The more people see libertarian ideas in the newspaper, the less they will seem to be rare “fringe” viewpoints and the more seriously they will be taken. The more often reporters see libertarian views mentioned in letters, the more likely they are to realize they exist and to consider them worthy of mentioning in their news articles.

People who aren’t very political drift often towards what they view as a safe “centrist” position on issues. Most only get a sense of what the public in general thinks via the opinion pages, so the more libertarian letters we get in the more we can shift the perceived “center” on issues in our direction. A libertarian-friendly Republican (we’ll do him the favor of not disclosing his identity) once served on a non-partisan board where some Libertarians had managed to get elected. The more radical Libertarian positions made his less radical suggestions seem more centrist and viable and shifted the results in our direction, even if not as far as we’d have liked.

Choosing a topic, and writing it:

During election season people are more apt to pay attention to newspapers since they realize they’ll need to decide how to vote soon, so obviously its best to focus on Libertarian candidates or libertarian positions on ballot issues. Often no other group is pushing the sort of argument a libertarian might make. Even if another letter has already made a libertarian argument and you can’t think of a different one, its useful to repeat it. Not everyone reads every oped, but even if they do it can sometimes takes repetition before the public “gets” an idea. It may be that you’ve phrased it in a way they grasp better than a prior letter.

The rest of the year its useful to write about issues you care about and are knowledgeable about, e.g. a topic where you were frustrated at the media’s lack of coverage of a libertarian viewpoint. Ideally it should be a topic the rest of the public cares about as well or they aren’t likely to read what you wrote. You can get ideas from checking Libertarian Party sites for press releases and commentary, libertarian news sources like Reason.com or libertarian think tanks like Cato.org to see if there are any new ideas or data that haven’t made it into the mainstream media to help spread. You don’t need to wait for an ideal topic, its useful to just pick something periodically to get an opinion piece to keep putting libertarian ideas out there.

Its best when possible to try to offer people new ideas and arguments they haven’t seen before, rather than persuading them to abandon an idea they already believe. For instance if conservatives seem to hold a particular policy view for moral reasons, then argue the utilitarian case that their policy won’t achieve the goals they have despite good intentions. If liberals seem to hold a particular policy view based what they claim is supporting data, then see if there is a moral case you can use to argue that it doesn’t matter if “the trains run on time” if its done in an immoral way. If you have competing data, then that point can be argued as well after you present other arguments.

For instance many people feel recreational drug use is bad. Some people try to persuade them that ” no, it isn’t as bad as you think” (most commonly used by those trying to say pot is less dangerous than alcohol), which may be like talking to a wall. Sometimes its more productive to avoid challenging their view, but argue that they should still support a different policy. e.g. “No matter how bad you think drug use is, the drug war isn’t the way to solve the problem because…”. Then if you have more time you can go back and also try to add evidence that you feel backs up your case that “no, it isn’t as bad as you think”.

You don’t have to be a polished author to submit an opinion piece, as long as its written clearly enough for others to understand. If you aren’t confident with your writing skills it can be useful to have others critique your work, and you can return the favor by critiquing theirs. Practice makes perfect, and you can practice writing by posting comments online as well. Although fewer people usually see online comments, the public is more tolerant of writing glitches in a real time informal medium and you can use a pen name for your less polished online posting while you work to improve your writing. Its important with any medium to check your facts and be sure your reasoning is sound before you post, even if your writing isn’t polished. Libertarians should maintain a reputation for having good evidence based arguments, in contrast to the major parties.

Its important to remember the goal is to reach non-libertarians and not to “preach to the choir” by using arguments that appeal to those who already think the way libertarians do. Try to find arguments that would potentially appeal to liberals and/or conservatives. For instance, find principles liberals and conservatives where superficially claim to agree with us, but where they don’t consistently apply those principles. For instance liberals claim to be “pro-choice” but don’t follow through to be “pro-choice on everything” the way libertarians are. Conservatives often claim to be prefer smaller government, but then given in too easily when GOP politicians give in to increase spending. Establish common ground by pointing our how you applaud some goal a policy of theirs is meant to address, like a program “for the children”, but that a libertarian solution would provide better results. Check your newspaper to see how often will publish letters from repeat authors. Although fewer people read comments and social media posts, those are also important to make since some people are only reached that way, and they also allow you to get feedback on your arguments (though beware that often you will merely get unrepresentative troll replies). Its also important to check the length limits for opinion pieces in the publication you are targeting. Most word processing programs will show a word count to let you work on tweaking your writing to fit within the limits. One way to get started is to forget about the length limits or polished text, and merely write out all the points you wish to make in some form. Then go through your writing and focus on finding the fewest words to best make each of your points, and removing any points you don’t have room for.

Some publications allow you to submit longer “guest columns”, but they print fewer of those due to limited space. There are ways to increase the odds they’ll print a guest length piece. If a co-author represents a group, like a local Libertarian Party official, they are more likely to give extra space. You can try to find a co-author who has credentials indicating they are an expert in the topic, even if you do most of the work. Some libertarians don’t wish to use their name on publicly printed opinion pieces. They may be concerned about expressing their political views publicly for fear of a backlash from their work or social circles, or value their privacy for some other reason. If you know of a well informed Libertarian who doesn’t wish to submit opinions, ask for their help writing yours. If you don’t wish to have your name in print but have ideas, see if any friends might let you help them do letters.

This was submitted by a Libertarian activist who wishes to remain anonymous. To see some published Letters to the Editor, please visit the LPCO website here. We will also be collecting some submitted language that you can use for your own. Please submit links to your published Letters to the Editor and any proposed language for general use.

Thank you for all you do for Liberty.

As an example, you can find the Denver Post Op-Ed guidelines here and letters to the editor guidelines here.


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