Aug 1, 2008

What is in-line activism?

The Summer 2008 issue of The Objective Standard carries an article by Raymond C. Niles, "Property Rights and the Crisis of the Electric Grid." According to his profile under the "Contributors" tab on the TOS website:

Mr. Niles manages an investment fund focused on the electric utility and related industries. Prior to initiating his fund, Mr. Niles was a senior electric utility analyst at Citigroup and Schroders. He has appeared on numerous industry and media forums, including the Edison Electric Institute, the NYMEX, the Wall Street Journal, Barron's, CNBC, and ABC News. Mr. Niles holds an MBA from the Stern School of Business at New York University.

Mr. Niles's clearly written and tightly edited article looks at the history of the economics of power generation and transmission. The article calls for a principled change toward a free market ("a liberated electric grid based on property rights and private ownership of the rights-of-way") and away from the crony-statism now controlling this industry. Mr. Niles's article is thus, in part, a project of intellectual and political activism. He is working as an activist from a broad base of philosophical, historical, and technical knowledge that he has accumulated throughout his career.

Mr. Niles has also taken his activism one step further than writing a substantial article in a prestigious journal. He has taken his activism directly to individuals in the electricity-generation industry, individuals who have some economic power and potentially some influential power of ideas with others inside and outside the industry. He writes (reproduced with permission):

I gave a speech based on my article to an industry trade group that represents owners of power plants and electricity traders who do business in California. I wasn't sure how they would react, especially after I told them that the 'deregulation' that they thought they were pursuing wasn't deregulation at all, and actually has made the industry worse. Also, when I told them that people should own rights-of-way underneath and above the city streets and that we should have competitive electric grids, I thought they would think that I had three heads!

Well, to my very pleasant surprise, they reacted with genuine interest in what I had to say. What I took from their reaction is that most people hold socialist/interventionist views only by default. Many people implicitly support a capitalist society but they have not been properly sold on it. When I presented my reasons, they 'got' much of it, to my great surprise.

To make things happen, the first thing required is the idea. For the electric utility industry, I presented that idea in my article, a way forward out of the morass of pseudo-deregulation and ratebase regulation. As far as I know, I am the first one to state it. However, until it gets said, it cannot happen.

Mr. Niles is an in-line activist. He is engaged in an activism that is a direct and natural application of his career and his central purpose in life.

As a student of history, especially of philosophical movements, I wonder about the comparative potency of various forms of philosophical and intellectual activism. As a working hypothesis, I would expect that in-line activism would be, all other factors being equal, more effective in disseminating ideas than off-line activism, that is, actions taken in one field by someone who is an expert in another field. Why would in-line activism be more effective? I can suggest four answers, as elements of a working hypothesis.

1. The in-line activist has the specialized knowledge required to back up his principles with technical and historical details. Principles and concretes together are objective; and, rhetorically, objectivity is far more persuasive than either principles or concretes alone.

2. The in-line activist knows his audience, not only their degree of knowledge, but also which individuals have power--the ability to make changes in one's world despite opposition. The in-line activist can tailor his argument to the appropriate individuals at the appropriate times and places. He can talk in their terms, understand their problems, and share their aspirations

3. The in-line activist is more likely to gain personal access to the most powerful members of his audience as individuals--at professional conferences, at lunch meetings, or at other events.

4. In-line activists can organize, lead, and participate in public discussions and debates more successfully than individuals outside the field could do. An in-line activist is more likely to have already heard the opposition's standard objections, usual fallacies, and conventional rhetorical tricks. The in-line activist is well-armed through experience.

A student of history or contemporary culture can test these elements of the working hypothesis for in-line activism. Such testing might mean (1) studying the records of successful movements of the past (for example, a movement to abolish tariffs) and (2) observing activists engaged in struggles today (for example, in the tiny but growing movement to stop statist monopoly medicine, that is, the politicalization of medical care).

A central topic of this post is the question of which type of activism (in-line or off-line) might be more effective in disseminating fundamental ideas for change in special fields and, cumulatively, in the general culture. However, whether a particular individual should choose one form of activism over another (or any form of activism at all) may properly depend on factors such as other personal interests and purposes besides his central purpose in life.

Based on my observation and speaking generally, I would say rational people act more intensely, persistently, and effectively when they are operating on their "home territory," which is the domain defined by their highest personal as well as philosophical values--including their central purpose in life.

Burgess Laughlin
Author, The Power and the Glory: The Key Ideas and Crusading Lives of Eight Debaters of Reason vs. Faith


Galileo Blogs said...

From Raymond Niles

Thank you, Burgess, for featuring my article. I completely agree with your assessment of the benefits of being an in-line activist. All of them are true. However, I am not sure that it is the most effective form of activism. Off-line activists have two key advantages over in-line activists:

(1) Off-line activism can be a full-time activity. In contrast, the in-line activist, by definition, spends the bulk of his time on his (non-intellectual) career. Intellectual activism can only be a part-time activity for him.

(2) The off-line activist, as a full-time intellectual, has more time to hone his intellectual skills. In particular, this applies to writing. The off-line activist has the opportunity to write more often on intellectual topics than the in-line activist. Obviously, this is not true for all professions, such as law. A lawyer may spend a considerable part of each day writing.

Writing is a difficult skill. The more an activist writes, the faster and more effectively he can do it.

Having made these points, I see advantages with both approaches. The in-line activist must work to overcome the challenges of time and to hone his writing skills. The off-line activist must work to overcome the disadvantages of being an outsider. He must do sufficient research to ensure that his ideas are grounded and fully account for all of the facts.

Burgess Laughlin said...

Comments are always welcome. They are stimulating. The comment here is so stimulating that my response will be a full-length post, appearing perhaps within a week or so.

Burgess Laughlin said...

On his weblog, Born to Identify, Adam Reed has written an exciting account of his own example of in-line activism. His account appears in his August 19, 2008 post, "InLine Activism: a University Policy on Free Expression."

The web address for Mr. Reed's weblog is:

Here is a link to the article.

Burgess Laughlin said...

Here is another example of in-line activism: Paul Hsieh, MD, writes the weblog We Stand Firm, at

Dr. Hsieh and his associates are fighting for freedom of choice in medicine--for patients, doctors, hospitals, pharmaceutical companies, and insurance companies.

Burgess Laughlin said...

The illustrator, cartoonist, and graphic designer Bosch Fawstin provides another example of in-line activism here, with his e-book, The Infidel:

RohinRoarkedForGood said...

Hi Burgess,
One more example of inline activist.

"I have 35 years of experience in the hydrocarbons industry, and draw on this experience to provide an objective answer to the four questions that have been raised. Hopefully, these answers will elevate the quality of debate."


Burgess Laughlin said...

Rohin Gupta, thank you for the example of an expert in a field acting based on his specialized knowledge in his own field.