Careful Wording

One of the things I've learned relatively recently, say, over the past two or three years, is the value of phrasing things carefully and not overreaching in my arguments.

I think David Henderson is particularly good at this, and one of the reasons I think he is so careful in what he says is that his style of persuasion is extremely modest. He doesn't try to turn a non-libertarian into a libertarian. Instead, he focuses in on a narrow but important point, and finds something about that point that his interlocutor can agree to. This is almost never enough to win over someone completely to his point of view, but it's usually enough to get someone to think twice their own position. That alone is a very powerful thing to do, and one shouldn't miss out on an opportunity to do this in a futile pursuit at arguing against a person's entire ideology. Don't let the good be the enemy of the perfect; keep your eye on the prize.

This endeavor is not without its own set of pitfalls, though. For one thing, people can be suspicious of my motives. If someone knows that I'm a libertarian, they can be highly suspicious about my reasoning for making a modest point, and thus refuse to give any ground at all. If I make a point that tax collection rates don't respond much to increases in tax rates, for example, my interlocutor may be reluctant to admit that this is true, even though it is a well-documented empirical fact. My interlocutor might mistakenly believe that if he/she gives even a little bit of ground on the modest point, I'll have a death-blow waiting right behind it. It's not as if a simple fact about tax collection rates completely refutes any argument for higher taxes, but some people approach debates from the standpoint that they must win every point in order to win the whole debate.

I have two responses to this. First of all, that's an awfully Manichaean way of looking at the world. In reality, a belief I favor is often mostly good and always involves a few negative trade-offs I'm willing to bear. Nothing is one hundred percent perfect, so we shouldn't expect it to be. We ought to seek out the negative trade-offs of a strongly held belief and be forthcoming and realistic about dealing with those trade-offs. Second, it's childish not to be willing to give any ground or concede any point whatsoever. Those who choose to behave that way are, ultimately, doing their position a severe disservice by making it appear to be unrelenting. Nice people, friends and family, who discuss and debate any sort of issue, large or small, will tend to want to give their friends and family credit for making a reasonable point. It's the mark of someone who doesn't care at the moment to be particularly nice who refuses to concede any point at all.

Meanwhile, what one discovers when one focuses on careful wording of modest claims is that most people who passionately argue for or against something argue against the "larger something," not the "smaller something." That is, people who, say, favor higher tax rates argue for higher tax rates in a "macro" sense. They will take any excuse to make these arguments, and a carefully worded, modest claim will only serve as a springboard to get them going on their "larger something." Again, such people aren't interested in truth-seeking, they're interested in forming a diatribe. They're entitled to do so, but we don't really learn new things that way.

What new things do we learn when we make carefully worded, modest claims? Well, mostly we learn the best reasons underpinning our beliefs. We learn to discard the bad reasons, the poor arguments, and the false claims. We gain a little good faith with members of the opposition, who might start to view us as being more pragmatic and less quixotic. And we gain a great deal of confidence in our own position, since we know exactly how far it can be taken.

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