A Recent Speech
On June 30, 2018, I gave a speech at the Libertarian National Convention in New Orleans. The speech was titled, "Why Don't American Voters Trust Libertarians to Govern?" and I'm appending it below. The read is long (the speech was 40 minutes), and I'll have a video of it soon. Until then, if you want to read it. Here it is:
Good morning, and welcome to downtown New Orleans. Let me get you oriented to the neighborhood.
A couple of blocks over there is the birthplace of jazz; a few more blocks over in that direction is the birthplace of drinking respectably on a Sunday morning (otherwise known as brunch); and a few more blocks over is the birthplace of Huey Long-style socialism. I guess two out of three ain’t bad.
You remember Huey Long? Every man a king? In the words of Randy Newman’s song about Huey, “If there’s something belonging to others, there’s enough for all people to share.” Speaking of socialism, hold that thought. You’re a libertarian; you can hold a thought.
We’ll get back to socialism but first I need to tell you another story that leads to downtown New Orleans. It’s a story about my grandfather, who came here in the late 1800s, before illegal immigration was invented. He didn’t come here exactly, not right away. First, he went out west to Arizona or Nevada (we aren’t sure which). He worked for a while and saved his money, and then took a loan and opened a business. He went broke. He got another job, saved his money, and paid back the loan. He kept working, saving his money, and then moved to San Francisco, where he took out another loan to start another business. And he went broke. So, he got a job, paid back the guy who loaned him the money, and saved enough for another move. This time he moved here, and in 1910 he opened a hardware store about two blocks from here. And that business is still feeding some of my cousins.
He went broke twice and still succeeded. Why was he able to do that? Because when he saved his money, it was still worth the same when he went to get it out of the bank. He was able to start again because he had stable money. Hundreds of thousands at that time did what he did. Few could do it now. Regardless of what government numbers say, Americans are facing a rising cost of living as our money degrades in value. The people know it; anyone who buys groceries knows it. The lack of sound money leaves all Americans feeling unmoored and worried. We work harder and harder to make ends meet and wonder why we can’t. Things aren’t as good as they were for our parents, and we feel a bit “less than” that we can’t keep up.
I was talking about socialism, and now I’m talking about my grandfather and sound money and how the lack of sound money makes us feel even though we can’t identify the cause. Well hold that thought, because we’re going back to socialism.
Shortly after my grandfather opened the business, the world was engulfed in war. The war was so expensive that every combatant country went off the gold standard. Well, everyone but us (though we did a bit later). The war and subsequent depression led to great upheavals across the world, which led later to the rise of collectivist ideologies almost everywhere. In Germany, a nationalistic form of socialism rose up. If you had the right eye color, and hair color, and the right religion and were born in the right place, then there was enough of other people’s property for you to share. That didn’t end well. In Soviet Russia, there was a different form of socialism where it didn’t matter where you were from. They had people of many ethnicities and couldn’t use racism as a standard. They needed another standard. If you were willing to be a jailer in the nation-sized prison and help run the place and were good at it, then there was enough of other people’s property for you to share. That didn’t end well either.
But here we had Huey Long, and FDR. We had a democratic form of socialism. Americans didn’t like the word socialism, and they didn’t like the idea of losing freedoms. Socialist solutions wouldn’t work here if it involved taking freedoms away from people the way the Russians or Germans did. Roosevelt loved talking about freedom. He said that you can have socialism, not call it that, and keep your freedoms too. In fact, he loved freedom so much he invented two new ones. Freedom from want and freedom from fear. And since the government was here to keep you free, we needed some collectivist thinking to make sure you weren’t afraid and had no wants. So, whether you start with guns and butter, the new deal, or even earlier work on the federal level, we’ve been trying to get socialism to work here for over a hundred years, at least 80 of which have been serious attempts to take from someone who has and make it enough for all to share.
I grew up in a house where Roosevelt was idolized. He was a hero. He saved my parents’ families. He won the war. He saved the country. He saved the world. It never occurred to me growing up, learning from my parents, that history had another side. At school too, collectivized government solutions were lauded. Everyone I knew was a Republican or a Democrat. The word socialism was a dirty word, yet somehow both big parties got to practice it, while deriding it, and pretending they hated it.
And I’m not the only one. Everyone in this room who was born here was raised pretty much the same way, with the same stories, the same ideas. Generations have been born and generations have been educated to believe these ideas. Americans are attached to these ideas. Hold that thought.
It’s time to say something about why I’m giving this talk. Why is a physician who specializes in addiction giving a talk about American voters and who they trust, and why is he talking about socialism? I think you’ll understand in a minute, but I need to tell you a little about addiction. Just as you and I and the rest of the country were misinformed growing up about rights and freedoms, we were also misinformed about the nature of what we call addiction, so I want to spend a few minutes setting that right. First, the word itself.
The first use of the word addiction is from Shakespeare. In Othello, Act II, Scene 2, the town crier enters the stage and delivers one paragraph. That’s the whole scene. The backdrop is that the people of Corsica had been expecting an attack by the Turks, and their general Othello was missing. They were very scared. Then news arrived that the Turkish fleet was destroyed in a storm, and then Othello returned, and announced his marriage. There were a lot of reasons to celebrate. So, the town crier enters the stage and says that Othello orders “every man put himself into triumph: some to dance, some to make bonfires, each man to what sport and revels his addiction leads him.”
Why did Shakespeare make up a word? Why didn’t he just say, to what sport and revels his choice leads him? What did he know about the word addiction that made him use it here instead of choice?
Shakespeare knew a Latin word, “addicere,” which was a Roman legal sentence. If you owed someone money and couldn’t pay, the magistrate would declare that you were attached to that person against your will: debt slavery. “Ad” means to bring together like our words, “adduction” or “addition.” “Dicere” means “I declare.” “Addicere” is “I declare these two together.” Our word “attachment” comes from the same root, and we still use the word in our legal system as in “there’s an attachment out on you.” We don’t require slavery, and it’s for more than just owing money. But the idea is the same: attachment against or beyond the will.
And Shakespeare, though he didn’t know any of the neurobiology we know today, was a good observer of himself and those around him. He knew that people don’t choose to like what they like. He knew they didn’t choose to attach to something. He knew that our attachments were beyond our will. We like what we like. We might make up reasons later like, “Well, I would dance, but bonfires are much more moral than dancing, you know.” Shakespeare knew that this was not a choice, but a rationalization, and he needed a new word.
So now you know more about the word addiction than 90% of the doctors treating the illness. I need to tell you a little more about addiction, a bit about the biology. The basic symptoms of the illness have nothing to do with drugs. The part we see on the outside is the effect of addiction, not the cause. The cause is in the brain, and I’m going to tell you something else 90% of the people treating the illness don’t know. I’m not going to get into the weeds or show you the science to prove my point. If you want more on that, see me later. I’m just going to tell you what Libertarians need to know.
The primary problem is a low level of tone in the reward center of the brain. This is in the midbrain and is so old, every mammal has the same reward center. It’s part of a survival mechanism that has been keeping mammals alive for over 100 million years. And you can get this biological low tone in 3 ways.
First, you can take drugs. That’s the way Americans think everyone gets addiction; but after treating thousands of people, I can tell you that very few normal people give themselves addiction this way. The second way is to be born that way. Some people have low tone at the reward center because of varied genetic influences. They walk around not getting much attachment at all from normally rewarding things, and then someone gives them a cigarette or a quarter to play the slots, and wham: for the first time in their lives they feel normal, and they attach to that act. The third way, the way most people who are born normal get addiction, is to be put under two very specific forms of stress. Those two stresses are physical isolation and feeling as if you are less than others. Remember those two things: we’re going to come back to them later. I know I keep asking you to hold thoughts in your head, but you are libertarians. You can do it.
I’m almost done with addiction and getting to the point, but I need to tell you one more thing about the addiction treatment industry. The entire industry - all the treatment centers, all the doctors - are all competing for just 16% of the people who need treatment. Why are they competing for such a small percentage of their market? Because we’ve been told our whole lives that addiction is a choice, that it’s a human issue, a problem of the human cortex; and all of our treatment is aimed at the cortex. We talk, we think, we reason with our cortex. We want to think that it’s running the show. That’s why we lie to ourselves about why we like bonfires more than dancing. The entire industry is based on the lie that our cortex decides what to do, so if we want to change that we should stop and think differently. And why is everyone competing for the 16%? Because those are the ones who have had enough pain, enough loss, enough misery, to do whatever you tell them to. You want this guy to go to treatment for 60 days. He’s lost his family. He’s lost his job. He’s been kicked out of school. His calendar is free. Sure, he’ll go. You’ve all heard the term “hit bottom.” That’s the patient everyone wants, they guy who has hit bottom. He’s done. He can listen to reason. He’s the easy patient.
You’ve been holding so many thoughts in your heads now, it’s time to put you out of your misery. I told you Americans are attached to socialism, and the idea that government has to be the fix, that something has to be taken from someone and given to someone else. I told you that the word addiction and the word attachment is the same thing. I told you that addiction isn’t a cortical phenomenon of the will and a deliberate choice, but a midbrain phenomenon based on a very old survival mechanism. I’ve told you one way to give people addiction is to make them isolated or feel “less than,” and I’ve told you that the whole addiction treatment industry is waiting on the few people who hit bottom, so they can treat it by talking to the cortex.
We, the people in this room - we Libertarians - we’re those people. We hit bottom, and like those that started the addiction treatment industry, we think that everyone who is still attached to the idea of a collectivized fix will have to have the same process that we had. That the way we got sober is the only way to get sober. That’s a good strategy if your goal is to get a small minority like 16% or 3%. But it isn’t going to win elections; it isn’t going to get Americans to trust us with their futures; and it isn’t going to increase liberty in America, much less set the world free in our lifetimes.
You’ve all seen the commercials on TV. The rehab guy says, “Come to our rehab and we’ll get you to stop drinking and you’ll feel great.” And the guy with addiction sitting on the sofa at home thinks, “I’ve tried stopping drinking. It makes me feel worse. These guys don’t know what they’re talking about. I don’t trust them.” The rehab guy says, “Come to our treatment center and we’ll get you to stop using cocaine.” And the guy on the sofa thinks, “Why would I do that? My life without cocaine is a gray mess with nothing in it. Cocaine is the only thing that gives me any pleasure in life at all. These guys don’t know me. I don’t trust them.”
The entire addiction treatment industry is talking cortex to a bunch of midbrains, and the midbrains are calling bullshit. Remember, the midbrain has been keeping mammals alive for over 100 million years. The cortex has been around, what, a million? We value the cortex, we love the cortex, and we continue to claim that the cortex is the be all, end all. If we were right, we’d have solved this thing. Look around. You have a room full of brilliant Libertarians, some of the best cortex arguers in the world. If it was going to be solved by arguing with cortexes it would have been solved by now.
So, when we say, “We’ll get rid of the Department of Education,” the guy on the sofa thinks, “How would that work? Who would educate the kids? Would they just be running around causing trouble? Being stupid? It would be chaos. Those nuts will get us all killed. I don’t trust them.”
When we say, “Let’s cut defense spending by a lot,” the guy on the sofa thinks, “Wait, who will protect me? We thought the Soviets were ten feet tall, and then we thought Al Qaeda was ten feet tall. And OK, neither of them turned out to be that big, but someone is 10 feet tall, and they’re going to come and get us. These nuts are going to gut our defense. I don’t trust them.”
We are speaking the logic of the cortex to a part of the brain that feels. It not only just feels, it only feels two things: everything is OK, or nothing is OK. That’s the function of the midbrain survival system, to send an OK signal to the cortex and let us know it’s OK to be a human. It’s OK to plan, to think, to build a fence, to cooperate with a neighbor. And when there’s not enough signal, the cortex turns off. We don’t cooperate; we don’t think about the future. Everything changes from all of us, everywhere, forever, to me, here, now. And it doesn’t matter what’s better for us in 10 or 15 years. We only think about what we need now. And anyone who is talking about the future or logic is just distracting us from how to save our lives now, and is a threat. We don’t trust those people.
I make it sound kind of hopeless, don’t I? But it’s not.
When we started our treatment program, we aimed for the 84% that no one else could get. And we were pretty successful. There are ways to treat addiction that don’t require coercion and force. We found ways to improve the midbrain tone of the reward system so that people didn’t want to use the drug anymore. The potential for growth of the business based on those ways was so successful that someone bought it from me.
I’ve learned a lot treating addiction. One of the things I learned is that if you wait for people to hit bottom, most people will die first. The bottom is a myth. It is politically, too. Trying to increase someone’s pain doesn’t make them hit bottom. It just makes them avoid you. Trying to speak cortex to someone’s midbrain doesn’t work either. Talking about the future or talking about a philosophical point to someone with a real problem today just makes them react as if you are distracting them from an important survival action. They won’t trust you.
Here’s what did help. We focused on the midbrain. We focused on the now. We understood that the problem we faced was only the effect of a problem, not the problem itself. We sought to understand why anyone in their right mind would keep using when it hurt them. And this is key. We assumed that everyone was in their right mind. We Libertarians don’t always do that. We don’t assume that American voters are using good logic around their own assumptions. We think that voting for Rs or Ds is crazy. They know that. They know we think they are crazy. Do you trust someone who thinks you’re crazy?
You have to assume that the person you want to engage is in their right mind. That allows you to understand why they are doing something that is otherwise inexplicable to you. Then you see the presenting problem, not as the problem, but as an effect of a cause. That allows you to go after the cause. We did that with addiction, and it works. It works politically too. It works whenever change is the goal, whether you’re changing the behavior of putting something into your body or who you vote for. The problem isn’t the behavior on the surface, the real problem is the logical cause of the effect.
And we also discovered that you can get the same effect from a lot of different causes. Not everyone with addiction involving alcohol drinks for the same reason. Not everyone who voted for Trump did so for the same reason. So we can’t address everyone who voted for Trump with the same solution. We have to tailor the solution to the person we’re helping change. And before you think that that’s a hopeless mess, remember that’s exactly what Starbucks does. They take a bunch of building blocks and put them together in exactly the right order, exactly the way they meet the customer’s needs, at this point in time. Mass customization.
So, we had to figure out how somebody changes their thinking, and it turns out that there’s a set of cognitive levels that are in order, and that people move from active addiction to full voluntary recovery by these stages in this order. It turns out there are 5 cognitions and that when we accept a new cognition, we do so in four stages. So, 5 cognitions times 4 stages give us 20 different places a person can be on the road from active addiction to full voluntary recovery. We could give them a score and know where they were. Twenty different places, with 20 different interventions, all with the goal of just moving the person to the next score.
That’s another mistake we have in common with the addiction treatment industry. When they try to change someone, they are shooting for “perfect sobriety, recovery giant.” When we try to change someone, we aim for “10 out of 10, very principled Libertarian.” You can’t talk to a 5 about being a 20. The only thing that works is talking to a 5 about becoming a 6. Remember, it doesn’t help to tell someone who is thinking of moving to a 6 that they aren’t as good a Libertarian as someone who is an 11, because that makes them feel “less than,” lowers the midbrain reward tone, and will deepen their attachment to what they were attached to. But how often do we do that? How often do you see on Facebook, or videos that leading Libertarians put out, things that tell new Libertarians that they really aren’t real Libertarians. That won’t even get us to 16%. And it won’t get anyone to trust us to govern.
I’m giving this talk today because I’ve spent my adult life learning to help people with a midbrain attachment change their behavior. I’m talking to you because the attachment of the American people to collectivist government solutions is not logical or cortical. It is a midbrain attachment based on a perceived survival need. I’ve been successful at finding a way to help people with midbrain attachment to change, even without initial motivation, in large percentages that would have won an election if it had been an election. Our current path is not creating the change we want. But we can do better. We need to step back and look at our efforts from the point of view of the people we’re addressing. What do we look like to them? How do we sound? Do we look and sound like people they should trust with their vote? Do we look and sound like a group that would rather feel right and look down on them, than win an election and serve them in government? Do we look like an American political party or do we look like a debating society?
The American people are attached to the idea that someone has to take care of them. They feel their lives depend on that. They see friends and family who today need help, and they worry that it will be true for them some day if it isn’t today. They see people who can’t. People who can’t work, can’t have a gun without hurting someone else, even people who can’t be at liberty without violating the rights of others, and they have been raised to believe that a bigger government is the answer. Our efforts to lead them to liberty have not attracted large enough numbers to get a chance to actually change the system. Repeated appeals to logic have not and will not work. This isn’t a cortical issue. They feel the threat, and they won’t feel free to trust us until we provide a solution to those problems. When we say we’ll get rid of this or that government function and the market will provide, they have no reason to trust that. We are asking them to give up what they see as a functional solution without a big problem because of a problem that we see, in favor of a situation where they cannot imagine a solution to their problem. And we are surprised that they aren’t flocking to our banners.
There are many other thoughts I had that I could have included today in this talk, ways we don’t seem trustworthy to the average American voter. But I only have so much time, and you only have so much patience. I just want to leave you with this hopeful message. If you’ve heard me blame us for our failure to win elections, that’s good. I am saying that we are our biggest problem. I’m also saying that this is good news. If it wasn’t true, we wouldn’t stand a chance. If there really was a great conspiracy, an unfair system, an outside malign force that caused all our troubles, we’d be sunk. But it’s us; we’re the problem, and we can change. We are our biggest barrier to success, and the good news is there are identifiable ways to change. There is hope. We can be more than a 3rdplace also-ran. We can see an America with greater liberty than it has had in generations, and we can see a world set free in our lifetime. Thank you.