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Have the argument anyway – and keep on having it

Buried in among the comments on this SQOTD is a disagreement between Jaded Voluntaryist and Rob Fisher.

Jaded Voluntaryist:

There are certain positions that it is unwise to try and debate rationally – specifically because they are not rationally held positions. … nothing you say is really likely to change the minds of such people.

Rob Fisher:

But have the debate anyway. Those who overhear it might then be prevented from joining the wrong cause.

I agree with Rob Fisher entirely. Jaded Voluntaryist says, and then repeats, that the people (“such people”) you argue with are beyond argument, which may be so. (Alternatively, they may just not want to argue with someone who keeps telling them they are being irrational.) But JV seems to me to ignore the point about those onlookers. Onlookers, particularly the silent ones, are what propaganda is all about.

Closely related to the point about arguing with those whom it is impossible to argue with, so to speak, is the virtue of repetition. Keep on having the arguments.

Repetition is actually humility. Repetition is recognising that what you say won’t reach the whole world, the very first time you say it. If others won’t repeat it for you (which is actually what reaching the world consists of), then if you think it deserves to reach at least a bit more of the world than it did first time around, you will have to repeat it yourself.

In the comments on this excellent posting at Counting Cats (a posting which restates some ancient truths about incentives but puts them in an academic rather than an “economic” context – highly recommended), you will observe commenters, many of their names being familiar from here, repeating to one another (as is entirely appropriate) many of the above truths about the need to keep on arguing. Are they talking only to themselves, echoing in their own echo chamber? No. One hitherto silent reader joins in, to say:

Keep it up guys, well done. … Every little anecdote helps.


I and many others have said all this many times before, which is because it deserves to be said again and again.

20 comments to Have the argument anyway – and keep on having it

  • Jaded Voluntaryist

    I think an understandable attachment to impartial debate is one of the reasons both conservatives and libertarians have been losing ground to collectivists over the last 60 years. There are many people who are not looking for a debate, and will not thank you if you bring them one. They are looking for agreement. When they voice their opinions, they are testing to see if you are one of them. The notion that opinions should be continually evaluated and open to question doesn’t even enter their minds. And I’m not talking about the great unwashed here. Many a career politician is almost entirely ignorant of the principles of debate, because frankly his job does not require them.

    Public policy today is decided (at least in the public sphere) by populism, demagoguery, reductio ad absurdum attacks and appeals to emotion. Debate only works when both sides understand and are willing to play by the rules. The statists, even where they know the rules, are unwilling to obey them. And unless you are willing to get down in the mud with them, you’d be as well taking your ball and going home.

    The best counter to an emotionally loaded appeal is an even more emotionally loaded appeal. That’s why people like Alex Jones are so comparatively successful compared to others of his political persuasion. It doesn’t matter that his arguments often don’t wash. Simple, emotive appeals, repeated over and over, have the power to change the perceptions of a society. Even a comparatively rational libertarian media figures like John Stossel always wrap their arguments in an emotionally loaded package – because it works.

    Perfectly crafted “if p then q” arguments have no traction in the wider media. However, I have no stomach for the sophistry required to actually get noticed, so I content myself with debating with people who want to be debated with and then holding my peace with everyone else.

  • Absolutely, and in itself a point worth repeating.

  • Dyspeptic Curmudgeon

    JV makes a good point. But Fisher’s point is stronger.

    “Repetition is recognising that what you say won’t reach the whole world, the very first time you say it.”

    Which in a way, is a paraphrase (without the cynicism) of Goebbel’s line about telling the big lie and repeating it often.

    It’s about telling the big truth and repeating it often.

    Anecdote, not data. I was talking to an acquaintance who dropped a line about global warming into the conversation, (which veered sharply at that point!). He was convinced that “WE’RE ALL GONNA COOK!” etc. yadda, yadda.
    I squelched him with 2 questions: What IS the optimum temperature for the Earth and how do you measure that? and,
    If the ‘proper’ temparature is, say the average over the last million years, do you realize that for 90% of that period, most of Canada was under a couple of kilometres of ice and that I doubted he really wanted that.
    It took a while, but I forced some wedges into the monolithic granite of his mind.
    He was a little shaken when he learnt that even Jim Hansen has admitted that his projections on ‘forcing’ are wrong.
    So drip, drip, drip.

  • RAB

    Thanks for the Pingback Brian.

    And a fine point as usual from JV.

    I don’t tell people I am a LIbertarian anymore, because the two typical responses I get from casual aquaintances is… Blank stare, never heard of it… or, Oh so you’re a Right wing nutter then eh? accompanied by the shutters coming down on an already closed mind.

    Now I just drop Libertarian ideas subversively into the conversation. You’d be suprised how many people agree with you when their prejudices are not aroused.

  • John

    I completely agree. I am what you might call a silent bystander. Through this and other blogs, and various youtube channels, I was introduced to libertarian thought, probably about a year ago. The arguments took a little while to get through to me, but eventually I was pushed enough to pick up some of the classics, Hayek, Rand, Freidman.

    I used to be an active member of the Labour party and a trade unionist. Reading these classics, and libertarian blogs made me realise that, being young(ish) and slightly naive, I had never questioned the basis of my politics; I never realised that I was a ‘statist’, because I didn’t know that such a thing existed. It’s not easy to work through ideas which challenge what you had previously taken for granted. You need a lot of repetition at first. From the perspective of someone who is very new to these ideas, that is the real benefit of sites such as this.

    What you’re doing here is chipping away at irrational ideas, so that there’s room for the more substantial stuff to get in. It works. Keep doing it.

  • Laird

    JV, I don’t disagree with anything you said here but I think you’re entirely missing Rob’s (and Brian’s) point. The purpose of debate is rarely to get the other person to change his mind (that’s just an extra benefit in the rare instances where it happens). Usually the point is to affect the opinions of others who are listening. Did you really think either Obama or Romney hoped to convince his opponent to change his mind on anything? Of course not; they were just trolling for votes from the non-participants.

    If one side of a debate resorts to cheap emotionalism and ad hominem attacks it’s not going to sway many people who weren’t already persuaded of his position. Pointing out the illogic and irrationality will affect any honest person listening. And if it doesn’t affect the dishonest or intellectually lazy there’s still no harm done; they’re lost already.

  • Sam Duncan

    Easier said than done, RAB, but a good point.

    One of my favourite Orwell quotes (and this is from memory, so forgive me if it’s slightly wrong) goes:

    True propaganda does not seek to persuade. It seeks to create a climate of thought in which dissent is seen as something akin to madness.

    Now I’m not suggesting we go that far. But our opponents certainly have – you only need to look at the European issue in Britain, the treatment of the Tea Party by the mainstream media in the US, or “gun control” worldwide – and pushing back against their efforts requires some alteration of the “climate of thought” as well as open persuasion.

  • Midwesterner


    We don’t need to create “a climate of madness”, all we have to do is shine a light on it.

    One way I do this when encountering one of those idiots who puts effort into their idiocy is to accuse them of wanting the terrible consequences of their advocacies. “Why did you want all of those defenseless people at Virginia Tech to die? Are you some kind of secret sadist?”, or “Why do you want to take away money from childrens’ education and give it to union fat cats? Do you hate children?”

    This puts them in the position of defending the indefensible. Accusing them of intent means they are either reduced to saying some variation of “that wasn’t supposed to happen” which is an acknowledgement of error, or arguing the logic of why they thought violent suicidal killers would obey a little sticker on the door that says ‘no guns allowed’.

    At some point they will say “Well, people abused the system”, to which the best response is “Well DUH! So your great plan is to give more power to the system so more abusers can their hands on it? Genius!”

    Keep the lost causes you run up against always on the defense and remember you are arguing for the gallery. If you happen to sway somebody’s opinion directly, that is a bonus prize.

  • Jaded Voluntaryist

    JV, I don’t disagree with anything you said here but I think you’re entirely missing Rob’s (and Brian’s) point

    I got their point, I just don’t agree with it. As I said, debate requires a certain level of adherence to pre-agreed rules. If one of the parties feels free to contradict themselves, back-peddle, lie, commit logical fallacies and then just change the subject when they feel like they are losing – then no-one is going to be persuaded by said debate. Not one of the interlocutors, and not any bystanders either. That kind of debate is not persuasive. It is stressful, grisly, confusing and extremely tiresome.

    What’s more the party that is trying to be rational often ends up looking like the bad guy because he refuses to back down, whereas the “cheater” can appear perfectly reasonable because they look as though they are giving ground freely. When the “cheater” is not wilfully dishonest, but rather just not very bright (the argument styles of both groups are remarkably similar), it can go even worse. The honest debater can come across as a bully picking on someone weaker than themselves.

    This applies when one rational person goes up against one sophist. As to the scenario mentioned when you’ve got two sophists arguing with one another (ala Romney vs. Obama) all you’ve got is a spectacle. It may well have the power to effect change, but not I think for very good reasons. As evidence for this I would point you to the original Kennedy/Nixon debates, where everyone listening on the radio to what the candidates actually said thought Nixon had won, and everyone watching on TV thought the much more photogenic Kennedy had won.

  • RAB

    John @ 6.58pm.

    Welcome. Your comment has confirmed exactly what this post is all about. We have to keep trying to get the truth out there, however repetitious and sometimes futile it may seem.

  • My comment above was about Brian’s post and Rob’s point.

  • veryretired

    It is generally pointless to argue with a collectivist if you allow them to set the parameters of the debate, and even more so, if, as so many high-minded intellectuals do, you tie your rhetorical hands behind your back by tying to maintain a reasoned, civil debate when your opponent is accusing you of racism or starving babies or whatever the latest form of blood libel against anyone doubting the omniscience of the state happens to be this week.

    It is worthwhile, however, if you play just as dirty as they do, and especially if you deny the validity of their intentions, as Mid mentioned above.

    Collectivist ideology is based on allegedly noble intentions, which justify everything they do, and which are considered to be fulfilled by their latest program/proposal regardless of its actual effects on the population. This is why any opposition is viewed as proof of a great moral failing, since opposing a collectivist idea is the same as opposing the good thing it is supposed to accomplish.

    So, like Mid mentioned, I simply deny their intention’s validity, and demand that they justify the actual effects of their policies, not what they were trying to do.

    Since collectivist policies rarely work at all, and certainly never fulfill all their proposed improvements and advances, these failures must be pointed out again and again and again, not for the sake of the ideologue, but for the edification of any listeners who are not committed to the ideology of the collective, and therefore might be hearing something they have never heard before.

    After all, people graduating from highly ranked universities in the western world have been found to be abysmally ignorant of any of the ideas of a non-collectivist view on life, and often have little or no historical, mathematical, or business knowledge with which to interpret the avalanche of collectivist proposals which fill the compliant media and classrooms of our world.

    I am not an intellectual, nor a libertarian, so I’ve been told, which happily allows me to be as mean and caustic as I want when dealing with idiots and fools. It also helps that I’m not a pacifist either, if it comes to that.

    Those of us who are adamant about retaining, and expanding, our rights and liberties had best be ready to get down and dirty when necessary.

    Surviving the present, and creating the future, is not a task for the dainty and fastidious.

  • Greg

    Echoing “John @6:58pm” –I love this web site. Wish I were 1% as smart or as well read as the dumbest people posting here! (That ! is for Alisa!) But I have a question: there’s no doubt about you all being “smart”, or “well read”, but what about politically active? What about pushing the statists in power in your corner of the world to effect change, now, on your terms, not theirs? I haven’t got a sense of that aspect of you all from the blog yet. It’s like talk radio in the US, great words, but at some point we have to move beyond words. And in the US, that point is well behind us. I can appreciate that writing here about your personal political activities may not be what this is all about, but I would expect some “action” to be reflected in the postings here. Maybe I just need to get up earlier and read more!

  • veryretired

    Greg—I think you underestimate many of the people here, and the activities of people who value liberty in general, if you don’t credit the formation of the Tea parties in the US, and the constant agitation that they have injected in the political process from the non-statist side for a change.

    Just the other day I was reading about a congresscritter’s public info meeting that was taken over by 2nd amendment proponents who repeatedly asked him about gun control rather than the sewer project or whatever was supposed to be spoon-fed to a compliant audience that day.

    Many of the people here don’t believe that the political process as it now stands offers much hope for fundamental reform, and I understand that belief, and can sympathize with it to a certain extent, but my own view, which I have expressed in several comments here and at Chicagoboyz, is that it will take many years of hard, gritty work at the lower political levels to begin the necessary reductions in the scope and power of the state.

    And so, I have often advised people who care to start by attending school board meetings, precinct caucuses, and city council hearings, and begin the process of asking the questions that need to be asked, and finding the people who are committed enough to the task to entrust with some of the representative influence that a true mass political movement can provide.

    The US has a history of political re-alignments, often accompanied by religious revivals or other social movements, and we are overdue for some restructuring, but nothing happens in some magical instant of epiphany.

    What is needed, anywhere in the world one cares to look, is the courage, energy, and committment to do the ditch digging of politcal and social reform.

    So go, and do what you think is best— nothing is stopping you but you’re own reluctance to get started. Surely you don’t need an old fool like me to tell you that…

  • Tedd

    Fifty or seventy-five years ago you could make a statement supportive of a principle — such as the right to own property, or the right of adults to make decisions about how to conduct their own lives, or the importance of taking responsibility for one’s choices — and assume it to be not just uncontroversial, but virtually axiomatic. Today, any one of those statements, and many others like them, is likely to be met by an accusation of demagoguery by at least one person in any random group of people. This has the effect of making reasoned debate seem less effective, for two reasons. First, the same arguments must be made over and over again, seemingly to no effect, because there’s always someone new joining the debate who brings a widely different perspective (and who may very well not have been exposed to anything like your argument, previously). And, second, the very diversity of opinion, combined with an increasing politicization of society, leads to a common sense of always being on the defensive.

    But I suspect that if we could somehow quantify those effects we would discover that reasoned debate is more effective now than it has ever been. Indeed, the very diversity of opinion and perspectives suggests a widespread reduction in the status of received wisdom, a necessary early step in becoming open to reason. Don’t get me wrong: populism, demagoguery, and emotional appeals are still much more effective than I wish they were. But I think the percentage of the population that has intellectual defenses against them — other than rote acceptance of principles as norms — is probably greater than it ever was.

    That is why I usually argue against abandoning the high ground of reasoned debate to fight fire with fire, when others descend into emotional appeal, ad hominem argument, or any of the other unpleasantness that so often goes along with political debate. We can’t find truth (collectively) by abandoning reason. And short-term tactical “wins” are meaningless. Few of the issues I consider worthwhile will be settled in my lifetime, so I’m in no hurry for “victory.” What I want is progress, and that will only happen if enough people stick to the high ground of reasoned debate.

  • Charlotte Jackson

    Another silent, but devoted reader tentatively sticks her head above the parapet. Never comments as others generally seem to make ‘my’ point much better than I could. I totally agree that a debate, whether politely rational or aggressively emotional rarely changes the views of the participants on either side, but that the real targets are the silent onlookers – who may start thinking, or who, already sympathetic, gets a boost and leaves feeling happy that someone is on their side.

    I often despair at the state of things, but – sometimes – I detect a faint, but increasing trickle of hope in comments on major websites. The web does make a difference. I may belong to a small minority, but I now know it is not a minority of just one.

    So, with John above, I thank you for your hard work. It is not in vain.

  • Greg, many of us here are doing all kinds of things in our various necks of the big WWWood, we just don’t seem to like bragging about it too much. And as VR said, go forth, etc.

    Tedd: it’s is if you read my mind, and expressed it much better than I ever could.

  • Julie near Chicago

    Add one more who holds with Greg, VR, Alisa, Rob Fisher, Charlotte Jackson (the point about finding moral support is very important), etc., etc., and in particular with those who remember “that which is unseen”–the bystander.

    And remember the cumulative effect of tiny increments, in this case the sentence that sticks in the mind of the bystander, the comment on the libertarian-ish or anti-libertarian-ish (or even non-political–cf. RAB’s comment!) website, the person on the School Board who manages to get agreement on some important point of curriculum–the Lone Holdout in fact….

    Remember the movie Twelve Angry Men? Terrific. Henry Fonda as the Lone Holdout.


    The place where I disagree somewhat–somewhat–with the consensus here is as to the use of emotion in argument. “Cold logic” persuades mathematicians, as long as they’re discussing pure mathematics and providing they have some way of “picturing” the mathematical system, incorporating the new result into the “picture,” in their minds; and physicists, ditto. But emotions tend to accompany real-world situations, so they influence the degree to which we’re able to accept various arguments, seem they ever so logical. (And even mathematicians and physics may feel a mental lurch when they discover their previous idea fails, but on the other hand their whole psychic identity isn’t usually bound up with that idea. That is, they don’t usually have to re-do half the jigsaw of Reality that they’ve put together in their heads.)

    For many people you have to throw in a heavy dose of appeal to their emotions, if you are to get their attention sufficiently to consider your actual argument seriously. It seriously helps if you can show, honestly, how your logic supports their emotions on your issue. (Which is one reason for making utilitarian illustrations against the Welfare State, for example, even though one’s underlying political philosophy is based on what one considers “self-evident” morality.) And not everyone is moved to close analysis of the roots of matters anyway.

    If you give a speech before a crowd on Independence Day that stresses the importance to patriotism of understanding why, say, compulsory just-about-anything is unacceptable to true American patriots…and give some examples…–

    Dr. Ben Carson’s speech at the National Prayer Breakfast, which is for the moment “viral” on the Net, is a good example of this:


    Of course, in the end you DO need logic to back up your position. People like me will have a few minutes or hours of hearts bursting with pride and fervor, Yes that’s right! But in the morning–well, you just gotta make sure it all makes sense. Logical sense. 🙂

    PS. RAB–that’s an excellent approach too, especially for those of us who, contrary to possible appearances *g*, are not combative by nature….

    PPS. Ad hominems are an example of an appeal to emotion that we do have to avoid insofar as it’s possible.