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Preaching Beyond the Choir

Old opened book with characters flying out of pages

In addition to building and orienting FEE’s media and marketing operations, YEAR research is reorienting and refocusing FEE’s editorial strategy.

Our Publishing Legacy

The medium of the written word has played a major role in FEE’s promotion of liberty since its founding in 1946. FEE reprinted, disseminated, and even translated works in the classical liberal tradition. Our popular translation of “The Law” by Frédéric Bastiat has been widely influential, for example. FEE also published new pamphlets and books: for example, “Roofs or Ceilings?: The Current Housing Problem” by Milton Friedman and George Stigler and Anthem by Ayn Rand. FEE also played a crucial role in the publication of Human Action by Ludwig von Mises.

And FEE’s The Freeman: Ideas on Liberty was for decades the only nationwide literary forum for believers in liberty. The Freeman published new articles clearly explaining the ideas of liberty and applying them to contemporary issues, as well as classic articles and excerpts. Some contemporary articles became classics, like “I, Pencil” by FEE’s founder Leonard E. Read.

FEE’s written works, in the tradition of Frédéric Bastiat, shed the light of economic reasoning on the unseen negative consequences of government intervention, and, in the tradition of Adam Smith, illuminated the invisible order of the market economy. These lessons were made appealing by Read’s emphasis on friendly, non-overbearing delivery.

In the digital age, FEE has continued to promote liberty with the same dedication to principle, reason, clarity, and civility. As a result, FEE.org has a massive archive of articles applying the freedom philosophy to 21st century issues.

This approach played a vital role in preserving and strengthening the country’s liberty community. However, it did have its limits. Principle, reason, clarity, and civility more than suffice for people of a certain temperament: especially cool-headed older individuals who already lean libertarian. But principle, reason, clarity, and civility alone do not speak directly to the heart enough to move the masses: especially warm-blooded younger individuals who are new to the ideas of liberty. This placed limits on liberty’s prospects, because social movements need a substantial youth component to be successful.

As a result, the pre-digital FEE was unable to go beyond bolstering a small “remnant” of liberty-lovers. And even today, most of FEE.org’s large article traffic comes from an older, more libertarian audience.

But now, advances in market research, moral psychology, and digital technology allow us to find ways to reach both the minds and the hearts of the young. In doing so we can help develop a broad-based movement that can change the world for the better. That’s what FEE’s YEAR Project is all about.

Understanding Our Audience

To reach the hearts of the young, we must speak to the matters they care about. Market research can help us understand what those issues are. As discussed above, our 2017 FEE/MarketLab survey identified key issues (our “YEAR Topics”) that are on the minds of today’s youth.

To reach the hearts of the young, we must use the media that emotionally resonate with them. Video is the preferred medium of today’s youth. Video has the most potential for emotional appeal, since it can use imagery, music, and voice acting. And the digital democratization of video means FEE can use that to reach our audience at scale. After a video navigates any emotional barriers to new ideas, it can send viewers to articles to explore the issue in more depth and to “close the deal” in terms of changing the person’s mind.

Video’s potential to appeal to the hearts of many young people at once also affords us the opportunity to do larger-scale youth market testing. That is what the “message testing” portion of the YEAR project has been about. And the insights from that research can inform our textual offerings as well.

As discussed above, our video message testing research focused on the youth issues identified in our survey. The results validated the usefulness of Arnold Kling’s 3AM model, as well as Jonathan Haidt’s “Moral Foundations” model, for fine-tuning messaging to appeal to non-libertarian audiences.

FEE has been using these findings to pivot our editorial coverage away from serving older, libertarian-leaning audiences and toward younger, newcomer audiences. We have increased the proportion of our articles that address YEAR Topics. And we have adjusted our messaging to integrate 3AM and Moral Foundation insights.

Validation by Political Developments

Since our survey, political developments have further validated our YEAR findings, especially in the 2018 midterm elections and the 2020 Democratic primary season.

Politicians have energized political engagement among young Americans by addressing the same issues identified by our survey as that audience’s priority concerns. Alexandria Ocacio-Cortez, Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and Andrew Yang have risen to superstar status by stressing these issues.

The YEAR topics feature prominently in these politicians’ signature policies, for example: the Green New Deal for the environment, free college and debt forgiveness for higher education, Medicare for All for health care, Fight for 15 for employment, and the wealth tax for inequality.

The overarching narratives presented by these politicians are also consistent with our research. Our survey indicated that “corruption” is a primary youth concern. And the basic story being presented by progressive candidates is that of a “corrupt” economic system that is “rigged” for the benefit of the rich and against the interests of ordinary people.

And the way politicians are speaking to these issues are consistent with our analysis. As discussed above, we found that youth concerns tend to reflect “life stage” concerns.

For example, young people faced with high tuition costs and student debt are especially concerned with the costs of higher education. Young people faced with aging out of their parents’ health insurance coverage are concerned with the costs of health care. And young people faced with entering the job market are concerned with employment issues.

This “life stage” connection is not lost on progressive politicians. Indeed Bernie Sanders openly endorsed the strategy of appealing to such “life stage” interests with welfare-state giveaways when he said:

“We need to bring millions of young people into the political process in a way that we have never seen by among other things, making public colleges and universities tuition-free and canceling student debt.”

The Political As the Personal

These insights raise a viable hypothesis that would be worth testing in our future efforts. The hypothesis is that, with young people, the political is the personal: that, not only do political concerns correlate with “life stage” anxieties, but that the former are partly driven by the latter. This causation is easy to trace with the issues of higher education costs, health care costs, and employment as indicated above. But the analysis can also possibly extend to youth concern with corruption and inequality and their amenability to redistribution policies like the wealth tax.

In short, the “life stage” concerns of the youth all tend to involve anxieties over their readiness to launch their independent adult lives: preparing for their careers, landing good jobs, paying off their student loans, affording their own health care, etc.

Many young people may blame the “corrupt and rigged” economic system for their plight: for hoarding the economy’s resources for the wealthy to the detriment of the opportunities of ordinary people. Welfare-state policies to ameliorate their plight (free health care, free college, even guaranteed income, etc) and the progressive taxation necessary to fund them are seen, not as avarice, but as justice: the redressing of a wrong.

If this conjecture is true, it may be possible to effectively address the political concerns of the young by directly addressing the personal anxieties that drive them.

This approach could involve:

  1. Addressing topic of youth concern
  2. Addressing topic according to its relevance to youth in an empathetic way
  3. Using language that appeals to the audience that needs to hear the message, according to the 3AM and Moral Foundations models
  4. Using economics and philosophy to show how liberty addresses youth interest better

A further hypothesis worth testing is that the mentality underlying this narrative is one of extended childishness: a lack of self-reliance, an aversion toward real-world responsibilities, and a continued longing for paternalistic support. This would extend the analysis of how the personal may drive the political.

If this conjecture is true, it may be possible to indirectly sway young people away from redistributionist policies by changing their perspectives about responsibility, paternalism, and their own agency.

This approach could involve:

  1. Tapping into youth interest in entrepreneurship and careers (as indicated by our survey)
  2. Cultivating a sense of empowerment
  3. Casting entrepreneurship and work in the marketplace in a positive light
  4. Casting entrepreneurship and value-creation as an exciting and heroic endeavor

Future Directions

We are currently overhauling our editorial output to even more tightly focus our appeal to the young newcomer audience. And we are doing so in a way that will enable us to test both of the above conjectures by trying both of the above approaches.

Among our articles covering current events, the preponderance will address the YEAR Topics. In this coverage we will address the “life stage” concerns of youth around the issue, empathizing with those concerns, showing how big-government policies will not help, and showing how greater liberty would help.

We will directly counter the policy proposals of progressive Democrats in order to maximize the relevance of our articles to current interests.

We will continue to apply the YEAR-validated insights from the 3AM and Moral Foundations models in order to emotionally resonate with our audience.

And we will continue to adhere to principle, reason, clarity, and civility as we have since our founding.

In addition to our current events coverage, we will continue to produce “self-help” type content in order to more directly address the “life stage” anxieties of our audience in order to dissuade them away from supporting paternalistic government policies.


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