The present author is not a keen debater, whether this be face-to-face or in online conversation. In responding to comments or endorsements that others make I find it very difficult to suppress the urge to blast them with everything I know (or think I know), drowning them in a flood of refutation leaving neither of us with much time to draw a breath. The futility of such an approach should be obvious. With those who possess convictions that are as firm as one’s own then you are only likely to encourage an equal and opposite deluge in return, the conversation then descending into ever deeper levels of minutiae that leave the original topic forgotten. On the other hand with those who have not thought about the matter, however, and have made, perhaps, a casual or emotional comment, overwhelming them is likely to turn them off rather than engage them. At some point, with either type of person, it might even descend into a battle of reputations with each side simply eager to outdo the other for the sole purpose of saving face and pride, with no actual truth ever realised at all. Indeed one great risk with such a method of debate is to leave the other person feeling somehow unworthy or stupid, turning him off entirely to any future engagement of such questions even if he concedes his immediate point.

In some ways it is important to distinguish between these two different types of person with whom one might debate. Ideological leaders are always a bare minority of the population and it is their ideas that shape those of others. To survive, any regime only depends on, at the very least, its mere acceptance by the majority of the population and does not require their overwhelming support. It is only able to achieve this passive acceptance if it has, for the most part, the upper hand in convincing them that it is on the right side of the ideological battle. It is, therefore, these people, the masses, who will be the deciding factor in any outcome between individualism and statism, or between liberty and tyranny and not the intellectual bodyguard themselves. Our task as libertarians is to convince these people that our way of thinking is the correct one. It is not to engage them in mental warfare as if they are all devoted Marxists and ultra-statists. The road to liberty will not be paved with the skulls of ideological enemies but will be trodden by the boots of the masses.

Nevertheless there is a sensible method of argument that is, I think, more effective in meeting both types of person than tit for tat retorts. It is, in fact, not to argue at all but to ask questions of what the other person has stated. Why do I think that this is a sure tactic for convincing the other person that liberty is right, to perhaps modify his views? And why even might it achieve the ultimate pinnacle – to become a passionate supporter of liberty himself?

  • Questioning requires him to speak first; he therefore sets the scope of the discussion as everything you ask in each question must in some way relate to his previous statement; he therefore feels in control of the debate;
  • You are permitting him to show what he knows rather than simply throwing arguments back at him to challenge; you are therefore according him more respect as a contributor to the debate than you would be if you were simply shouting back at him;
  • It requires him to concentrate on justifying his position rather than on challenging yours; as each pair of exchanges are based on what he says then the crucial elements of truth are introduced by him as he answers your questions; his argument must therefore be justified in terms that he sets rather than you; then, if he is truly wrong, there will come a point when his argument leads to an absurdity or an incorrect conclusion;
  • If he is wrong then it will be by his own demonstration and realisation; it will make him feel as if he has worked out the “correct” position himself. At the very least he might go away with food for thought.

So next time, when someone says something like “Government should ensure a higher minimum wage for low paid workers”, instead of firing a cannon of arguments about how the minimum wage leads to unemployment, is an unjustifiable interference in self-ownership and contract, etc. etc. ad nauseam, simply ask him “How will this make workers better off?” He might then say  (perhaps thinking you’re a little stupid) “Because they will get more money!” To which you can then add the question: “But I don’t understand – doesn’t that mean that the employer will have to have more money too? How does he get it?” And what might unravel is not only the whole body of truth concerning the economic effects of minimum wage laws but – more importantly – how leaving the wage rate to the free market and free exchange is, in fact, the best deal that employees will get.

It is true of course that this tactic might take a long time to reach a conclusion. It might also take place in stages and not in one go. Further, it might not ever reach a conclusion at all if the other person decides to abandon the debate. But at least you’ve tried your best in according him the air to express and justify his opinions. If this does not cause him to realise the truth then he will at least walk away with his pride intact, and may be in a state that makes him more receptive in a future debate.

View the video version of this post.

Advertisements