Category Archives: Argumentation

Different Attitudes Towards Life

In today’s polarized discourse, there is a stark difference between thinkers who spend most of their time being for something, and those who spend most of their time being against something. One attitude is healthier than the other, and is more likely to lead towards truth, and is likelier to succeed in persuading others and getting its policies enacted.

Think of it as the difference between between favoring liberalism, openness, and dynamism on one hand; and owning the libs or the cons, depending on one’s tribal affiliation, on the other.

Which makes this passage from near the end of Evelyn Waugh’s 1943 novel Brideshead Revisited especially poignant (p. 383 of the Back Bay Books edition):

I said to the doctor, who was with us daily: “He’s got a wonderful will to live, hasn’t he?”

“Would you put it like that? I should say a great fear of death.”

“Is there a difference?”

“Oh dear, yes. He doesn’t derive any strength from his fear, you know. It’s wearing him out.”

Best Books of 2020: Virgil Henry Storr and Ginny Seung Choi – Do Markets Corrupt Our Morals? (Palgrave MacMillan, 2019)

Most people see markets as dens of greed and moral corruption. In their new book, Do Markets Corrupt Our Morals?, Virgil Henry Storr and Ginny Seung Choi, of the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, argue the opposite. In fact, they go one step further: Markets make people more moral. Make that two steps further: Because markets have moral benefits, restrictions on markets have moral costs. They back up their argument with a healthy mix of theory and evidence. Along the way, they make a case for rethinking how people approach markets. Their arguments, rather than traditional “markets are efficient” arguments, are the liberal movement’s best hope for the future.

Storr and Choi describe their main thesis on p. 225:

But the evidence suggests that the consensus is wrong. Markets do not corrupt our morals. Not only are people wealthier, healthier, happier, and better connected in market societies, market activity makes us better people. Markets are spaces where we discover who is virtuous and can expect many of our vices to be revealed. Additionally, markets reward virtue and punish vice. As such, markets are moral training grounds.

In short: Less of Alfred Marshall’s supply and demand graphs, and more Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments. Less Homo economicus, more Homo sapiens.

Their phrase “moral training grounds” is important. One of the most common mistakes in economics is the Nirvana fallacy. This says that because markets are not perfect, government can make things better. Storr and Choi know that perfection does not exist. Markets fail, but they also have a built-in improvement mechanism. Markets are an ongoing discovery process. People have to learn from experience what works and what doesn’t. They make mistakes, learn from them, and make changes. But because conditions are always changing, the adaptation process never ends.

People use markets to learn how to trust and to be trustworthy. This takes practice. It takes trial and error. The feedback people get from profit and loss help. So does learning what it takes to earn someone’s trust or their repeat business. Evidence from experimental economics shows that people who participate in markets learn these things more quickly than in other systems.

In one-shot games in lab experiments, people can cheat and get away with it, like doing a dine-and-dash at a restaurant in a town you’ll never visit again. Despite this, people in these studies who come from market-oriented societies cheat far less than one would expect from a traditional blackboard-economics model. They also cheat less than people from non-market societies who play the same games.  

Repeat-play games give the opportunity for cheaters to learn from their moral decision. Other players can punish cheaters in future rounds. They will often do so even when punishment also comes at a cost to the punishers. Upholding honesty is important enough that most people are willing to pay for it. In the long run, this reduces cheating. In fact, it happens almost automatically.

Without coaching, players often spontaneously settle on a tit-for-tat strategy. You start by assuming the other players are trustworthy, but if they cheat, return the favor. Depending on a game’s rules, this may mean punishing cheaters, or simply refusing to do business with them again. Regardless of whether the players come from countries with free markets or not, they tend to behave better in repeat-play games than in one-shot games. And again, players from market societies cheat less often than players from non-market societies.

Storr and Choi also take a tour of the different ways in which markets affect morals. The obvious one is that because people in market societies are richer, they can afford to be more moral. They can afford to give to charities. They can also afford a fuller life. Education, literature, the arts, and world travel all cost money. Dollars are nice, but they aren’t really wealth. Wealth is being able to treat others well, to have leisure to spend time with family, and to pursue friendships, hobbies, and to try new things. Market societies can afford far more of these life enrichments than non-market societies—and these experiences positively shape people’s characters.

Moreover, people in market societies have longer life expectancies, lower infant mortality, are more respectful of women’s rights, minority rights, and LGBT rights, are more religiously tolerant, go to war far less often, and have lower crime rates. All of these are moral outcomes. All of them are backed by abundant data. All of them are made possible by embracing markets. The moral conclusion is obvious.

Storr and Choi represent the future of the liberty movement. The Cold War is a generation in the past now. People still throw around the word “socialist,” but usually just to mean they don’t like something.

But markets are still very much under attack in the current political realignment. The in-groups and out-groups people are using are different now; capitalism-vs.-communism is out, and populist nationalism-vs.-liberal cosmopolitanism are in. Yet, most libertarians are still using the same materialist arguments.

Yes, markets are efficient and create more wealth than other systems. That’s important, but that also isn’t the main point. Markets have other positive effects that are ultimately more meaningful—and more persuasive in today’s society. Not only is Storr and Choi’s moral defense more versatile in today’s intellectual climate, it is more in tune with most people’s values. As CEI founder Fred Smith argues regarding values-based communication, it is important to speak to people in their language.

Most people don’t care about adding an extra decimal point to this quarter’s GDP growth, even though that is important in the long run. They do care about their kids growing up to be decent people. They don’t care that subsidies and taxes cause market distortions. They do care about having a well-rounded life.

Many market liberals only speak a niche language of efficiency. This is one reason why they remain a curiosity. Their disconnect is a major reason why so many people continue to oppose markets despite their moral benefits—hardly anyone makes the moral case.

Storr and Choi are not the only thinkers trying to correct this oversight. CEI Julian Simon Award winners Deirdre McCloskeyJohan Norberg, and Steve Horwitz are among them. But Storr and Choi just might be the ones to do it best. They deserve far more company.

Don’t Trust Political Memes, and Don’t Share Them

Think of this post as a public service message.

In some ways, memes are the 21st century version of the comic strip or the political cartoon. They can be quite funny, and they make their point in just a second or two. Memes have been a boon for comic-strip-style humor. Someone needs to fill the void left by Calvin and Hobbes and The Far Side, and a lot of people have ably volunteered. Anyone with a joke and basic computer skills can make a funny meme, and millions of people can share the fun. National distributors no longer serve as gatekeepers and censors, allowing some unique talents to shine that would have remained dark just a decade or two ago. This has been a wonderful development.

But for many reasons, political memes are typically riddled with factual errors and offer little more than confirmation bias. They should be shunned, not shared.

Here is a quick statistics lesson from one political meme I saw making the rounds recently. That’s not to pick on this meme specifically. There are millions like it, just as bad, floating around the Internet. This is just one I happened to see, though I should note that Turning Point USA has a poor reputation, even by its genre’s low standards.

Also keep in mind that this meme is on the correct side of its issue. Imagine how wrong the wrong ones can be! As Frederic Bastiat wrote, “The worst thing that can happen to a good cause is, not to be skillfully attacked, but to be ineptly defended.”

Here is the meme:

turning point meme

Here is a list of things it gets wrong.

1: This meme is undated and cites no sources.

2: There is no publication titled “World Economic Freedom Index.”

3: For indexes that do exist, their data do not go back 60 years. They go back to 1970 for the Fraser/Cato index, and 1995 for the Heritage/WSJ index.

4: Venezuela does rank 179th in the 2018 Heritage/WSJ index. But it gives no rankings from roughly 60 years ago. If the 4th place figure comes from a different index, that is not a valid apples-to-apples comparison. But we don’t know where that figure comes from. None is cited. Google doesn’t turn one up, either. For all we know, some intern could have just made it up, and now people are sharing it.

5: Hugo Chavez was first elected in 1998. His brand of socialism was 14 years old when Turning Point USA was founded in 2012, not 10 years before this undated meme was created.

That’s five errors in one meme that took less than ten minutes to dig up. That says more about Turning Point USA and political memes in general than it does about Venezuela’s ongoing tragedy.

Don’t trust unsourced political memes, don’t share them, and take people who heavily rely on them as seriously as they deserve–even, or especially, if they share your ideological priors.

Aristotle – The Poetics

Aristotle – The Poetics

A shorter work with useful insights for appreciating storytelling in general, and Greek drama and poetry in particular. Aristotle offers a key insight for making a character believable: a character’s every action and every word should be based on either necessity or probability.

The plot necessitates some actions on the character’s part. What the audience knows about the character’s personality dictates the probability that his reactions are believable. To use a lowbrow example, the reason it’s so funny when Homer says something intelligent on The Simpsons is that is so out of character.

Some of Aristotle’s other ideas about what makes good drama or good poetry seems to be his personal taste. This being subjective, it need not be taken as gospel.

Aristotle – On Rhetoric

Aristotle – On Rhetoric

Rhetoric is a morally neutral tool that can equally be used for good or bad purposes. It is important to use it wisely and only towards good ends. Athens having no professional lawyers, On Rhetoric was Aristotle’s guide to pleading one’s case in court, and to persuasion in general.

Aristotle first goes over the different elements of rhetoric, than turns his attention to the structure of an effective persuasive speech. Aristotle’s main concepts are the three pisteis of logos (logic and truth; basically the facts of the case), ethos (audience emotions about the orator as a person) and pathos (audience emotions about the orator’s arguments).

Another key Aristotelian concept of argumentative structure is the enthymeme, which has many forms, but always leaves at least one of its premises unstated. This is both a strength and a weakness. It can hide vulnerabilities, if only by failing to mention them. But to hide a weakness, it must have one in the first place.

The most famous example of an enthymeme is Hegel’s structure of thesis, antithesis, and synthesis—with the unstated premise being that the synthesis is, in fact, plausible. This is often not the case.

This is the first place a skilled rhetorician should attack such an argument. But few people can identify such an argument on the fly when it is being made, let alone know where that weak spot is.

So in many cases, especially in ancient Athens’ non-professional legal system, enthymemes can be used on offense with little fear of having to play defense. Again, Aristotle stresses, rhetoric by itself is morally neutral. Its powers can be used for good or for evil, depending on who wields it. Use it wisely.

Rhetoric and Emotion

The beginning of Aristotle’s On Rhetoric has a lesson for staying informed despite today’s dominant political strategy:

Appeals to the emotions warp the judgment.

One of Aristotle’s main points is that rhetoric by itself is morally and ideologically neutral. A skilled rhetorician can use this weakness in human cognition for either good or evil. To do sound policy analysis, one must be aware when the emotional appeal strategy is being used, especially towards illiberal ends.

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.

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.