Video: The Power of Fiction with Marc Sidwell

I don’t know who wrote this summary at YouTube for the video of Marc Sidwell’s talk, entitled The Power of Fiction, but he or she got it very right:

Marc argues that stories have a secret super-power. Properly formed, they can reach new audiences with world-changing ideas, and do so in a uniquely compelling way.

Towards the end of it, Marc himself supplied a slightly longer summary of what his talk was about:

Politics is downstream of culture.

Really, what I want to say mainly is just to make people think more about how powerful stories can be.  If they’re trying to talk to people and persuade them, it’s much better to say to them: here’s a story, here’s an example, here’s an anecdote, often, than: here’s a chart, here’s why you’re wrong, you’re an idiot, you’re evil, that’s a stupid idea.  But it’s quite hard to do that.  It’s quite counter-intuitive because, you know, data is better than anecdote, formally, as a proof, but not as persuasion.

The talk lasted only a bit over a quarter of a hour, but it covered a lot of ground.  It was topped by a story about 1980s Romania, involving Rocky 4, and tailed by another tale set in North Korea, involving Desperate Housewives.  The point of each story being that even shows that seem inconsequential and to present a rather negative view of life in the West can, for people living in less happy places, show that life could be lived better and more heroically.  We should be telling stories, rather than just offering arguments:

I think libertarians are people who have unusually good imaginations, because is the face of a world that’s very different from the one we’d like to see, and in the face of most people not seeing an alternative, we see a different way the world could be, how it can be even better, and also imagine ways to get there …

Other examples of influential stories that got mentioned included movies and TV shows like: Firefly, The Prisoner, Wonder Woman and Yes Minister; and writings like American children’s stories about inventiveness during the first half of the nineteenth century, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, The New Atlantis by Francis Bacon, a novel that inspired the creation of Israel, the writings of Ayn Rand, George Orwell, Robert Heinlein and Arthur C. Clarke

More recently, two libertarian-inclined academics, Russ Roberts (novels) and Glen Whitman (TV shows) have done some libertarian storytelling, but there’s not been so much of this lately.  There is a strong strain of anti-authoritarianism in popular culture, but there’s not beem much in the way of imagining a more specifically libertarian future.

The “narrative transportation theory” got a mention.  This means that when engrossed in a story you are transported into a different mental state, which often results in you being transported also to the wrong part of town because of you missing your stop on the bus.

But my absolute favourite moment of this talk, heavy with what was surely quite deliberate comic irony on Marc’s part, was when he referred to a chart:

This chart concerns those early nineteenth century children’s stories about children being inventive.  The chart shows a strong correlation, and at least implies a strong causative link, between the graph for when and in what numbers these stories where published and read, and the subsequent and similarly shaped graph which shows America’s actual inventiveness.  It is a chart about the limitations of charts, and the superiority of stories.

So if you are a libertarian and you think that logic and arguments and charts count for more, from the persuasion point of view, than storytelling, well, here’s a chart, here’s why you’re wrong, you’re an idiot, you’re evil and that’s a stupid idea.

Fellow libertarians: accept the logic of Marc Sidwell’s arguments for stories.  Follow Marc’s example and make stories as well as arguments.

If you are interested in persuasion by means both of arguments and of stories, you might like Marc’s book about Trump.  Because he always mentions it at the end of all his blog postings.


  1. No libertarian story is likely to be 100% accurate in its predictions – as we can not know everything that millions of free people would come up with. This is why I tend to use historical examples – basically “I do not know for sure what people will do after the state gets out of this area of life – but I can tell you what people used to do before the state got involved, and NO it was NOT lay in the streets starving to death or dying of easy-to-cure sickness and injury.

    However, if we can present no projection of the future at all, if we “can not tell a story”, about what a less statist future would be like then we are no better than Karl Marx – who when asked how socialism would actually work, just tended to reply “that is an unscientific question” or “I am not a utopian”. How anyone was ever taken in by the obvious fraud Karl Marx is baffling.

    This is why libertarian fiction is so important – it is projecting an image of a freer future a less statist future, how it would actually work in practice. Of course it will not be 100% accurate (see above for why) – but it is vastly better than no mental picture (no story) at all.



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