Tips for Libertarian Activists


Last updated 1995-09-14 by Tom Isenberg

Here are some tips from a professional political debater:

It's crucial to remember that "people want to know how much you care, before they care how much you know." You need to establish common ground (show that you both value the same ends) before you can explain why you think your means are just and work best.

Over the last 10 years of campaigning, giving interviews, and being a talk radio host, I've developed a four-part formula for responding to most questions, criticisms, and concerns in a way that builds bridges (as opposed to burning them.)

  1. State your credentials.
  2. Share his goals.
  3. Show how government has screwed things up and who benefits from these unjust policies.
  4. Show the libertarian solution.

Here's an example.

HIM: You libertarians don't care about the poor.


  1. As the grandson of poor immigrants,
  2. I care about poor folks and want to see them prosper the way our family did.
  3. The problem is that many government policies trap people in poverty. For example, why should it be illegal for a single mother to start her own hair-braiding business in her apartment? Why should government keep the poor down just so established businesses won't have to face her competition?
  4. So a good first step would be to legalize self-employment. Our immigrant grandparents were able to pull themselves out of poverty in an age of very few regulations on start-up businesses. Of course, there's a lot of other changes we need to make too.

Here are some tips specifically for debating online...

Don't use all-caps. It makes you look rabid and kooky. It makes it look like you don't have confidence in the power of your ideas and you have to make up for it with SCREAMING. Ever seen ultra-right-wing propaganda? It's full of random all-caps.

Don't use extreme punctuation, either. As with all-caps, it makes you look like you've lost self-control !!!!!!!!!!!!! If you use standard punctuation, good grammar and spelling, and are polite and restrained, you are much more likely to win respect (and perhaps reconsideration) from your "opponent" and you will impress other readers. Especially on the gun issue, where opponents already assume that you're a rabid nut.

Make sure your grammar is perfect. You should make it a point to check all your e-mail before you send it. Nothing screams "I'm uneducated and don't care" more than misspellings and sloppy grammar.

Consider saving "boilerplate" arguments you've made on e-mail so that you can recycle them easily without having to retype. For example, I have an e-mail folder called "debate ammo" where I keep messages arranged by topic, e.g., "gun control." And in that message, I store sound-bite answers from past messages (mine and others') that I want to recycle. For example:

Q. Guns are dangerous and should be outlawed.

A. This is a dangerous line of thinking. If we start outlawing "dangerous" objects, where will it end? We have already heard calls for violent video games to be restricted and for pornography and certain ads to be outlawed. So-called liberals are often leading the charge. I'm not a fan of these products, but the erosion of your rights means the erosion of my rights. I can well imagine that things I hold near and dear will be next.

That way, whenever someone uses that argument with me (and you know it comes up a lot) you already have a snappy answer that is exactly what you want. Then you can cut and paste it in, edit as needed, and it saves lots of time.