Love Liberty? Learn to Argue.

After spending Thanksgiving with my family, a group consisting of one liberal democrat, one moderate, one libertarian, and one “Rush Limbaugh” conservative, I had the chance to think about how people argue when they disagree. (To answer your question, yes, our dinner conversations are always interesting and contentious at some point, and no, I don’t know how we all have such radical differences of opinion.)

Have you ever observed how people argue with each other without paying particular attention to the content? If you have not had the pleasure, many “arguments” usually go something like this:

“I think X.”

“Well, I think Y.”

“Y is stupid.”

“You’re stupid!”

This may be a bit of an exaggeration, but not much. From my observation, when two people don’t agree on an issue, their “discussion” often quickly devolves. This is particularly true in my observation of college students when they hear counterarguments and alternative views for the first time. But it’s not just “young people.” Every year we hold elections. Every year we are bombarded with “debates” in which the norm is to “answer” a question by slandering one’s opponent or switching topics completely.

But this isn’t just a trait of the millennial generation. How many times has a younger person disagreed with the position of an older adult who replies with, “well, when you’re older, you’ll understand,” or, “I’ve been doing X for 30 years and let me tell you…”? For the record, these are not arguments. Maybe a person will change his mind with age, maybe someone’s experiences can inform another’s opinion. However, appealing to age or experience as the sole basis of validity is the polite equivalent of “you’re stupid.”

Put simply, people don’t know how to argue.

Being able to carry on a conversation with someone with whom you disagree is a valuable skill. For those of us who value individual liberty, it’s an absolute necessity. Let’s revisit the argument above with some modifications.

 “I think markets are the best way to allocate resources.”

“Well, I think the government should decide.”

“That’s ridiculous! You’re a statist!”

“Markets exploit people! You obviously hate poor people!”

How very productive. What happens in this sort of scenario? Nothing. No information is shared, neither party examined their prior convictions, and nothing is gained by either person.

In the courses I teach, we discuss issues where I know people disagree. We talk about minimum wage, the War on Drugs, the War on Terror, animal poaching, and selling human organs. I tell my students that I expect and encourage them to argue with one another. But first, we learn how.

I explain to them that, when speaking with someone with a different opinion, the goal is not to annihilate one’s intellectual opponent. The goal is get him to understand an alternative perspective. In order for this to be effective, it requires each person to examine their own prior assumptions and listen to their opponent rather than rip them apart.

I tell my students that, if they are truly passionate about an idea, they should want to be its best possible ambassador. This means having an intelligent conversation, understanding what’s important to the “opposition,” and adjusting one’s points accordingly. It’s a skill. This skill, like any other, only comes with practice.

Advocates of liberty are often incredibly passionate. This passion is an asset. But I think our passions may sometimes get the best of us. We want to completely convert our intellectual opponent. We want them to leave the discussion with the same passions and opinions we possess. But think about how many times a single conversation has completely changed your mind on a topic. My guess is either zero or very few.

This is important to remember when speaking with someone who doesn’t agree with you. Chances are, one talk won’t cause someone to change course completely. But one talk can do a great deal. One debate—a real one—can illustrate how markets better allocate resources than central planning. One debate can show how the minimum wage harms workers with the lowest skills. One debate can articulate the problems with drug prohibition. One debate can open the door to additional discussion.

Debates can change opinions and open up individuals to new ways of thinking. This should be our goal. In this way, we take small, but very real steps toward a freer society.

Abigail R. Hall is a Research Fellow at the Independent Institute and an Associate Professor of Economics at Sykes College of Business at the University of Tampa.
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