Category Archives: Argumentation

Ten Hard Questions for Libertarians

Over at the Bleeding Heart Libertarians blog, Jason Brennan has a brilliant bit of satire that reminds me of one of my favorite Voltaire quotations: “I have only ever addressed one prayer to God, and it is very short: ‘My God, please make all our enemies ridiculous.’ God has granted my wish.”

Of the ten questions Jason poses, I was saddened to realize that I have been asked at least four of them, without irony, in various contexts, including on air.

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How to Shut Off a Great Debate

Aaron Ross Powell has an excellent, thought-provoking  post over at libertarianism.org on how many of classical liberalism’s opponents tend to argue against libertarian caricatures that have very little to do with the real thing. This talking past one’s target instead of to it hurts both sides. Progressive and conservative thinkers would benefit from testing their ideas against quality opponents. And libertarians/classical liberals are unfairly tarred. Ad hominem attacks are getting in the way of what could be an enlightening intellectual discussion for everyone involved.

Aaron held his fire to one common attack fallacy, that state equals society. But there are more. One of them has been around for at least 80 years, when Hayek made his first public lectures in the 1930s at the London School of Economics. One of those lectures later became the title chapter of volume 3 of his collected works, The Trend of Economic Thinking. His familiar lament appears on pp. 14-15 of that book:

 No serious attempt has ever been made to show that the great liberal economists were any less concerned with the welfare of the poorer classes of society than were their successors. And I do not think that any such attempt could possibly be successful.

Instead, (classical) liberal apathy towards the poor is simply assumed. The argument can be summarized as follows:

  1. The primary concern of many progressives is helping the poor.
  2. Libertarians tend to favor different economic policies than progressives.
  3. Therefore, libertarians do not care about the poor. QED.

This is not a rigorous argument. Steps 1 and 2 are mostly true. But an Olympic-caliber long jumper couldn’t make the leap to step 3. It denies the possibility that the two sides simply prefer different means to similar ends.

This is a shame. There is a wonderful debate just waiting to be had on a number of fronts. Are the poor better served by letting economic processes emerge from the bottom up, or by expertly managing the economy from the top down? Which focus is more important to bettering the lot of the poor, absolute poverty or relative poverty? Is it better to approach the economy as a biologist, seeking merely to understand evolving market processes, or is it better to be an engineer, with an aim to tinker, fix, and improve specific outcomes?

Classical liberals tend to prefer the first answer to each of those questions; progressives tend to favor the second answer to each. But to the extent that the two sides engage each other at all, it tends to be of roughly the same tenor and quality as the “they don’t care about the poor” argument outlined above. An honest debate requires the end of such reflexive ad hominem attacks.

Adam Smith himself, painted by people who haven’t read him as the ultimate atomist individualist, based his whole defense of free markets on his belief that they would bring the masses out of poverty and into prosperity. This was his highest priority. His belief in the deep interconnectedness of people across the world, brought together by our shared natural tendency to truck, barter, and exchange, is also why economics is inherently a social science.

But reading Adam Smith can be a chore, which is why few people bother. Let’s look instead at the raw data, as provided by Jim Gwartney and many others in the annual Economic Freedom of the World report. They find that, in absolute terms, poor people are far less poor in relatively free-market countries than in more controlled economies.

This opens up an entirely new area for honest intellectual debate. Nothing close to a pure free-market economy exists on Earth. So is this free-market prosperity due to the free-market elements that do exist, or is it due to the mixed economy’s more constructivist elements? To my knowledge, this debate has not happened. This is largely because of thought-closing fallacies such as Powell takes on in his post, and the ones I discuss here and elsewhere.

How to Lose an Argument

Thomas Erskine defended Thomas Paine after authorities decided to persecute him for the radical ideas contained in his Rights of Man. Here, Erskine tells a story that explains to Paine’s prosecutors why someone who threatens force during an argument is almost surely wrong:

You must all remember, gentlemen, Lucian’s pleasant story: Jupiter and a countryman were walking together, conversing with great freedom and familiarity upon the subject of heaven and earth. The countryman listened with attention and acquiescence while Jupiter strove only to convince him; but happening to hint a doubt, Jupiter turned hastily around and threatened him with his thunder. ‘Ah, ha!’ says the countryman, ‘now, Jupiter, I know that you are wrong; you are always wrong when you appeal to your thunder.’

Quoted from J.B. Bury, A History of Freedom of Thought, pp. 130-31.

He’s right. An argument can only truly be won on the merits.The world would be a better place if more people realized that.

Bad Negotiating Tactics

As debt-limit talks heat up, President Obama told Rep. Eric Cantor, “Don’t call my bluff.”

This implies that he was bluffing.

If the President wants to win the negotiations, he would be better off keeping that information to himself.

 

Schumpeter on Why People Are Bad at Arguing

It’s because people rely on ad hominems and straw-man arguments. These leave the opponents’ actual arguments untouched, and resolve nothing.

So true is it that, in science as elsewhere, we fight for and against not men and things as they are, but for and against the caricatures we make of them.

-Joseph Schumpter, History of Economic Analysis, p. 90.

Like, Totally

Overuse (and misuse) of the word “like” is an obstacle to clear speaking and clear thinking. It is also a signal to the rest of the world that one need not be taken seriously.

Christopher Hitchens has an amusing article on the history of “like,” pointing out that “in some cases the term has become simultaneously a crutch and a tic, driving out the rest of the vocabulary as candy expels vegetables. But it didn’t start off that way, and might possibly be worth saving in a modified form.”

I largely agree. Read the whole thing over at Vanity Fair.

Responding to Media Matters

Apparently the folks at Media Matters didn’t care for my July 12 article in the Daily Caller debunking the cell phone cancer scare.

The trouble is, I’m not quite sure why. They never say. Jamison Foser’s blog post doesn’t touch a single argument I made in the article. Instead he attacks me personally, as well as CEI. For all I know, he agrees with everything I said. Or maybe he disagrees. I don’t know.

His main point is that corporate funding makes arguments untrustworthy. Since CEI receives some corporate funding, we are therefore suspicious. This is not a rigorous line of thought. Arguments are either right or wrong. The presence or absence of corporate funding has nothing to do with whether an argument is right or wrong.

There is also the matter of Media Matters’ own very generous corporate donors, which Foser does not address.

Media Matters’ fixation on corporate funding is an easy way for them to avoid genuine intellectual engagement. It is a diversion. If you are unable to attack the argument, then attack the person making it.

This ad hominem attack deserves a rebuttal. The Daily Caller was kind enough to run mine this morning. I hope you will take a few minutes to read it.