The War of Ideas

Writing popular press pieces, you open yourself up to a lot of criticism. If you write about economic topics, you might as well be waving a red flag in front of a bunch of Spanish bulls. Without a doubt, I’ve received my fair share of critical commentary, been accused of pushing all kinds of agendas and being the worst of both political parties. Some comments, though, are pretty creative. Some of my personal favorites include,

“The author probably isn’t smart enough to tie her shoes.”

“The author is clearly a socialist.” (I was writing a piece which, in fact, was highly critical of socialism.)

“Someone forgot her meds this morning.”

I am not alone in my experience. Though these types of comments are often worthy of a smirk or occasional chuckle, some aren’t as amusing. I was once discussing reactions to popular pieces with another colleague who writes a regular column for a popular outlet. He stated that most comments don’t bother him. The exception was one commenter who, in responding to a policy piece, stated he hoped my colleague’s wife and children would die in a car wreck.

In an earlier piece, I discussed how those of us who love liberty have to learn how to argue. Being able to critique those with opposing viewpoints without resorting to strawman arguments, red herrings, and personal (ad hominem) attacks is fundamental in the advancement of liberty.

I find I take the most criticism for pieces that criticize some fundamental idea, ones that takes people outside of their comfort zone. For example, in discussing the Pledge of Allegiance and issues of nationalism, I argued that cultivating blind reverence to the U.S. government results in a cultural shift, one which sits in direct opposition to America’s supposed ideals.

I received a lot of feedback on this piece. Many of the replies, however, had nothing to do with the actual issue I raised (many people stuck to calling me a communist and telling me to “move to Yemen”). I’d hit a big nerve, I’d taken a jab at what many consider to be a fundamental ideal of strong allegiance to flag and country–and got a lot of pushback.

The fact of the matter is, I’m happy to get this feedback, whether it’s productive or not so productive.

Why? It’s not because I enjoy being criticized. It’s because I believe these issues are truly important for those concerned with freedom.

More importantly, these kinds of comments illustrate a very important fact. That is, the first battleground on which we must fight for liberty is not one of policy, but one of ideas.

Remember how markets operate. Markets are exchange and discovery. Just as there is a market for goods and services like phones, bread, and therapists, so too is there a market for ideas. Just as MP3s demonstrated their superiority to CDs, and computers replaced typewriters, we want good ideas to replace bad ones.

Peter Boettke is a master at articulating the importance of ideas. I’ve heard him put it this way: “Bad ideas lead to bad policies. Bad policies lead to bad outcomes. Good ideas lead to good policies. Good policies lead to good outcomes.” As such, it’s important that we get the ideas right. This requires debate, observation of past events, and conversation.

As lovers of liberty, this is what we hope to articulate and achieve. We want ideas to be created, tested, and debated. If someone thinks of something a different way because of something I’ve written, sees an alternative point of view, becomes open to hearing more about a particular idea, or even becomes just irritated enough to reflect on his own position, this is a success.

Sometimes, it seems that those who advocate liberty let perfection be the enemy of the good. That is, they want one argument to completely convert the person with whom they are speaking. But this isn’t how it usually happens. Instead, it’s these small movements, these marginal steps in getting people to think about ideas, that ultimately turn the tide.

The battleground of ideas is an all-important one. Ideas matter. As lovers of liberty, it is our place to advocate ideas that will shape the way we think, work, and live so as to improve the overall condition of mankind.

So I’ll continue to write and relish reactions both good and bad. I’ll consider that trip to Yemen and, if needed, invest is some slip-on shoes, as long as it gets people to think.

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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