Why Activists Should Learn to Think on the Margin

Why Activists Should Learn to Think on the Margin

Leaders of liberty must sometimes take a step back and reflect on the best ways to use their limited resources and local knowledge to reach their ultimate goals. Students For Liberty’s mission is “… to educate, develop, and empower the next generation of leaders of liberty.” To strive for this goal as efficiently as possible requires applying certain economic concepts, specifically marginalism.

The Law of Diminishing Marginal Utility states that every additional unit of a good consumed yields less utility to the consumer than the unit before it (assuming all other factors are held constant). This is important when considering the nature of value and helps to resolve apparent paradoxes.

Why does water, which is necessary for survival, cost so much less than diamonds, which only are only valued for their aesthetic appeal? Given the option of a single bottle of water or a diamond, a human being would choose the water since they could not live without it, but by thinking on the margin it’s obvious that eventually, if you keep giving them the same option, they will have enough water to survive and be healthy, at which point they will choose to take the diamond since the the utility of the diamonds outweighs the utility of that unit of water at the point of that decision. 

Water isn’t very expensive because most of us have plenty of it. The vital role it plays in our lives has already been filled, and then some, by previous units of water. However, we don’t have many diamonds so an additional diamond will provide us with more satisfaction because the satisfactory functions of a diamond have not yet been fulfilled by previous diamonds. This law is crucial to understanding and explaining economic decision making because it means that individuals consider the utility of the marginal unit of a good when making trade-offs, not the utility that type of good provides them in general.

peace-love-liberty-This principle is important to activists because just as there are decreasing marginal returns from goods consumed, there are decreasing marginal returns from activism. If we think of activism as a market, in which the public and future leaders consume education, development and empowerment in the ideas of liberty (utility), and activists supply materials, events and information (goods and services) which yield that education, development and empowerment, then we can see how marginal thinking matters when trying to accomplish our ends. The public and future leaders gain less education, development and empowerment from each additional unit of a type of activism they “consume” than they did from the last unit.

The implication is that when a leader is considering what to put their resources towards, they should not simply think of what issue or idea is important in general, but what efforts will provide the greatest benefits on the margin. Activists should consider how many resources have been put towards the issue already, by them or by other groups, and consider the benefits that additional resources will yield.

Practically, this means that the big issues that people care a lot about have already had a lot of resources devoted to them and the public has already been exposed to them. As a result, additional activism, everything else equal, will have diminished impact, relative to other kinds of activism.

You may be able to make a larger impact on someone by putting resources into an issue that has less significance in the grand scheme of things, but has not seen as much attention. The significance of changing minds on that issue may be smaller in general, but you may be able to make a greater impact on the margin than you would have on a larger issue. Thus, activists can increase their impact on the world by introducing people to fresh ideas, even if they aren’t as important as other ideas in terms of general significance.

For instance, ending the War on Drugs, a terrible systematic injustice, is probably more important than eliminating any given distorting intervention into the marketplace. But the “consumers” of your activism have probably heard the case for ending drug prohibition before and many of those who are prone to change their mind have likely already changed it.

On the other hand, people probably haven’t heard too much about the economic intervention, and your efforts will be more likely to change minds and motivate them by exposing them to a fresh issue. They are impacted to a greater extent, but towards a smaller end. Marginal thinking means considering the ultimate ends, and determining whether a small push to a big goal or a big push to a small goal is more valuable given the context.

Leaders of liberty should encourage activists to act as entrepreneurs and discover undervalued ideas to engage with, or find new ways to engage with old ideas, and should remember that an activist working on a small issue can make just as much, or even more, impact with the ideas of liberty than an activist working on a big issue. Likewise, activists working with big issues should be encouraged to innovate and find new ways of presenting their ideas to make their case fresher and more effective.


This piece solely expresses the opinion of the author and not necessarily the organization as a whole. Students For Liberty is committed to facilitating a broad dialogue for liberty, representing a variety of opinions. If you’re a student interested in presenting your perspective on this blog, visit our guest submissions page

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