The Power of Argument

In philosophy, we view arguments as quite valuable, because they help us recognize flaws in our own thinking, and to arrive at further understanding by strengthening arguments that are in opposition to us. In short, we try to understand both what is plausible and implausible about others’ positions. Unfortunately, this often makes commentary rather dull, but simultaneously aids in understanding and furthers knowledge. So I do my best to at least represent conservative and libertarian arguments fairly, though I admittedly may not spend as much time as I should strengthening and revising them.

Arguments go wrong when people decide to inject them with emotion and misrepresent the other side, for instance, by creating a straw man of the opponent’s argument. We do this because we want to win arguments, and it’s easier to defeat a less sophisticated interpretation of an argument than the argument’s actual content let alone a stronger version of the argument. Philosophizing takes time, and we are becoming less a society of focused, linear thinking and more of a society of dismissing things that don’t align with our world view out of hand. I’m guilty of this as well. Once Rick Perry, Michele Bachmann, or Ron Paul says something ridiculous, my twitter feed lights up with pundits telling me how ridiculous that is. Fortunately, I try to follow a range of people with differing views. But there’s still a large degree of group-think in the blogosphere/twitterverse.

It’s nearly impossible to convince others of anything ideologically, especially once they’ve settled on their beliefs. I can quote John Rawls or J.S. Mill, but chances are that the person I’m arguing with has already seen a YouTube video or a blog post reinforcing their rejection of Rawls/Mill, and they won’t even consider the remote chance of either thinker having something positive to contribute to the history of knowledge or philosophy. The response is to get at people while they are still relatively open-minded, probably their late teens and early 20s. Of course, there are exceptions. Many thinkers, such as Tyler Cowen and Alex Tabarrok of Marginal Revolution have come around to the standard macroeconomic thinking that higher inflation now would be a good thing.

Other people go further down the rabbit hole. I hate to continue to use libertarianism, but it’s the philosophy I’m most familiar with. Let’s say you’re a libertarian trying to deal with what policy response you’re going to advocate as an appropriate government response. Well, you hate big government, so fiscal stimulus is out the window. You also hate inflation, so it seems like the Fed lowering interest rates or “printing money” is a bad idea. Now, there’s a tension between two schools of libertarian thought: monetarism and Austrianism. Monetarists like Scott Sumner and Milton Friedman admit there’s such a thing as aggregate demand, and think the Federal Reserve should do unconventional things like quantitative easing, or inflation/NGDP targeting. Austrians like Murray Rothbard say the Fed printing money is automatically inflationary and will just lead to another boom and won’t help the economy. Instead, we should cut government spending and let rates rise. Whose side do you pick? Well, it seems like Friedman and Sumner are at least partly admitting that the progressives are right, so it might be better just to throw them under the bus, deny there’s such a thing as aggregate demand or any use for macroeconomics, and fully embrace market anarchism. You sacrifice reasonability, but at least you’re consistent.

Libertarianism is the example I give, but of course, this is happening in other circles as well. We’re becoming more and more entrenched in particular circles where we hear the same talking points regurgitated over and over. We’re less willing to recognize that we often have common assumptions and that our disagreements are about the way the logic plays out, or whether the evidence supports our view. We’re moving away from having shared assumptions, period. For instance, libertarians seem committed to a teleological view of what the “purpose” of government is and what it’s functions should be, while progressives think the government should just adopt whatever policy makes people better off.

We won’t be able to get at those differences, and whether they are justified unless we listen to each other, and continue to argue, but in a productive way.

2 Comments on “The Power of Argument”

  1. A truly great post. Well said.

  2. Thanks! A lot of rambling, but I’m happy you could make sense of it.

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