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.