Wednesday, May 23, 2012

The Tipping Point

"In matters of fashion, swim with the current.
In matters of conscience, stand like a rock."

Thomas Jefferson

Important lessons and a glimmer of hope for liberty activists can be found in the conclusions of research conducted at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, as well as in the work of Malcolm Gladwell.
Scientists at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute have found that when just 10 percent of the population holds an unshakable belief, their belief will always be adopted by the majority of the society. The scientists, who are members of the Social Cognitive Networks Academic Research Center (SCNARC) at Rensselaer, used computational and analytical methods to discover the tipping point where a minority belief becomes the majority opinion.

To reach their conclusion, the scientists developed computer models of various types of social networks. The initial state of each of the models was a sea of traditional-view holders. Each of these individuals held a view, but were also, importantly, open minded to other views.

Once the networks were built, the scientists then “sprinkled” in some true believers throughout each of the networks. These people were completely set in their views and unflappable in modifying those beliefs. As those true believers began to converse with those who held the traditional belief system, the tides gradually and then very abruptly began to shift.
It's important to note that these results are based on a core of "true believers," completely set in their views, but that the traditional-view holders were open-minded to other views. Those assumptions hold two important lessons for liberty activists.

The first: As Thomas Jefferson argued, "In matters of fashion, swim with the current. In matters of conscience, stand like a rock." Know your principles, stand firmly in support of those principles, and don't get distracted by secondary issues.

The second: Remember the assumption that "traditional-view holders were open-minded to other views." Don't waste your efforts on other "true believers" who are as committed to the growth of the state and the curtailment of liberty as you are to freedom. Leave that fringe to their own devices; the only power they have over you is the power to distract you from the education of the open-minded.

Gladwell's The Tipping Point

The RPI study parallels the conclusions of The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference, by Malcolm Gladwell, which argues that "ideas and products and messages and behaviors spread like viruses do." Liberty activists, whether promoting their cause through individual influence on society or through political action, can find much of value in Gladwell's Three Agents of Change.

First, The Law of the Few argues that "The success of any kind of social epidemic is heavily dependent on the involvement of people with a particular and rare set of social gifts." He applies the Pareto Principle to conclude that 80% of the work will be done by 20% of the participants. He then divides that group into three distinct subgroups.

The Connectors are those with broad social networks who have a knack for making friends and acquaintances. The Mavens are those "people we rely upon to connect us with new information." The Salesmen are charismatic people with the ability to get others to agree with them. Combined, Mavens to Salesmen to Connectors becomes fully as powerful a team as Tinkers to Evers to Chance.

The second agent of change that Gladwell recognizes is The Stickiness Factor. Briefly stated, the more memorable the presentation of an argument, the more likely it is to have a lasting influence.

Finally, Gladwell points to The Power of Context, summarizing it as "Epidemics are sensitive to the conditions and circumstances of the times and places in which they occur." There is little the liberty activist can do to influence "the conditions and circumstances of the times." However, governments at all levels are doing an excellent job of promoting the cause of liberty with every new regulation limiting individual's pursuit of their own happiness, every person they taze for obeying too slowly, every home they invade and family member or pet they slaughter in pursuit of the War on Drugs, every economic decision they make that further destroys people's trust in the dollar. Liberty activists can rely on government to promote conditions that make their message more important every single day. It falls to us only to point out how those actions impact people's everyday lives.

Gladwell shows the importance of becoming one of the Pareto participants, one of the 20% of the liberty-minded who do 80% of the work. Determine your skill set when it comes to promoting the cause of liberty, and become a Maven, a Salesman or a Connector, rather than just singing to the already-committed choir. However you choose to reach the open-minded, keep the stickiness factor in mind as you craft your message. And don't hesitate to use the power of context; it's important to not only sell the message of liberty, but to illustrate that restricting liberty benefits only the politically-connected.

Real-World Impact

The real-world impact of the tipping point can be seen in the apolitical realm by the continual growth of the underground economy, as we've been exploring in the Phoenix Society series of essays. In communities around the world, people are finding ways to work around government, instead of acquiesing to its demands, and ways to bring production of goods and services back under their own control -- and those techniques are spreading thanks to the Three Agents of Change that Gladwell has described.

Politically, tipping point concepts are evident in the rise of the libertarian movement over the last half-decade or so. Prior to Ron Paul's smackdown of Rudy Giuliani at the Republican Presidential debate on May 15, 2007, few people challenged the meme that "the Muslim terrorists hate us for our freedom." Today, five years later, surveys regularly show that the American people consider Washington's foreign policy misguided at best, and want an end to the constant intervention in foreign lands.

Other, similar issues come readily to mind. The Federal Reserve System, sacrosanct five short years ago, is now under reconsideration by a wide range of politicians and opinion-makers. The sacrifice of civil liberties to the purported safety of the American people is itself now generating considerable blowback. In the latest Rasmussen survey, 56% of those surveyed say it's time to legalize marijuana. These are all issues that Ron Paul has been championing for years, and that members of the Ron Paul Revolution have taken as their own and actively promoted.


Whenever some particular assault on freedom makes it seem that the light of liberty is growing dimmer, remember the continuing growth of the Phoenix Society and the Ron Paul Revolution, square your shoulders, and determine what you can do in your role of Maven, Salesman or Connector to counteract that assault and use it to your advantage in the pursuit of liberty.

...and that's all I have to say about that.

A bonus for my tireless readers: video of the Paul-Giuliani blowback debate from 2007.


  1. What if 10% are true believers in "A" and 10% are true believers in "Anti-A"? Which idea will spread then? The one with the most active advocates? Or the one with the most emotionally appealing advocates? Or the true one?

    1. Tough call. The underground and the Ron Paul Revolution seem to be growing by using both sorts of appeals. Of course, for those who believe that emotion is a response to rational values, there's no dichotomy.

    2. That's exactly what I was wondering!

  2. Ron Paul smacked Giuliani so hard that he is still looking for the pieces of his career now in 2012. Giuliani is a non factor now a footnote in history. With Ron Paul, we haven't even begun to see how big of a dent he will make in history.

    The rEVOLution continues...

  3. I LOVE Ron Paul. The rest are just clowns in my opinion.

  4. Interesting, Don. I've used the phrase "tipping point" before, in reference to why there has been an apparent rapid movement of Republicans--in Congress--to "far right" positions, particularly fiscal ones and ones about the scope of government authority.

    I think there has been a backlash present for decades--the "limited government" crowd--and that the manifestation of the Tea Party movement is indicative of a tipping point being reached in this regard.

  5. I often have discussions with people who insist that they'd be happy if the country could, somehow, just "go back" to the original constitution.

    They are usually very uncomfortable with my response:

    Any such "constitution" presupposes that all the land and lives of the people somehow are actually the property of the state, at whatever level. Doesn't matter how much or how little the state assumes control, the bottom line is always the fiction that it is the final arbitrator by default, and no individual or group can opt out.

    It is that I won't abide, in any form. Such state ownership is slavery, however benign. Doesn't matter how benevolent or well intentioned the "state" might be... I own my life, totally, myself... no state required - or wanted.

    And if I'm doomed to be the only one who thinks this way, forever...

    So be it.

  6. ML- You are not the only one to think that way. That being said, I won't actively oppose those who want to "restore the Constitution" until they get their Constitutional republic back and refuse to increase liberty any beyond that. After all, that would get rid of almost ALL of the current US government. And, if their "restored republic" DOESN'T get rid of almost all the current US government, then they are lying about restoring the Constitution and have just exposed themselves.

  7. Each to his/her own, of course. I simply refuse to encourage anyone in the slave mentality.

    I'm sure going back is impossible anyway. How do you get the lava back into the erupting volcano, even if that were a really GOOD idea?

    Some folks may think up new ways to have soft chains and avoid personal responsibility, but the past is dead.