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Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Cannibals and 401Ks – Reed’s Feed

Laws and policies inimical to liberty produce so much more than bad numbers; they crush the dreams of real people who want to improve their lives and the lives of those they love.

A weekly roundup of thoughts on the passing scene by FEE president Lawrence W. Reed.


Last Thursday, I sat down with a voracious cannibal from the jungles of Borneo to discuss my 401K plan. Personally, I’m a tolerant chap so it was easy to overlook the bone in his nose. But I have to admit that it was a challenge to keep his attention.

“Come on, stay with me!” I insisted. “What do you think of my distribution of funds between fixed-income investments and equity? And keep those hands to yourself, please!”

I’m being facetious, of course, but have you ever had a similar conversation — one in which it quickly became apparent that you and your “dinner companion” were talking right past each other? I’m reminded of this old Abbott and Costello sketch about “loafing.”

In my line of work, this happens all the time.

Decide quickly just how incorrigible the other guy is and whether or not there’s any hope for common ground.You might think the degree of difficulty makes the cannibal analogy a poor one. It isn’t, really. I think I could get Bone-in-the-Nose to budge sooner than some other folks I’ve debated. But if you’re ever in a reasonably similar situation, remember first of all that time is limited. Decide quickly just how incorrigible the other guy is and whether or not there’s any hope for some common ground. If he’s not reasonably low-hanging fruit, it might be best to move on. It would be a mistake from the very start to talk to a cannibal about your 401K if it’s clear that he’s not even interested in his own retirement plan, let alone yours.

Are there angles or techniques that help get your point across in tough circumstances? In encounters with other people, I look for every opportunity to turn on a mental light that might prompt an interest in liberty and the free society, though it’s often a challenging task. So it’s with personal experiences and that particular mission in mind that I offer some tips below.


Humor and optimism are among the appealing character traits that can win others to your side. So are patience and a caring attitude. It’s been said that people don’t care what you know if they don’t know that you care. Focus on real people when you argue for liberty. Laws and policies inimical to liberty produce so much more than bad numbers; they crush the dreams of real people who want to improve their lives and the lives of those they love. Here’s a piece that elaborates on this theme.


Communicating clearly and convincingly frequently flows from good critical thinking skills. An excellent book that explains how to win an argument, see through a deception, recognize a fallacy and persuade a skeptic is Nicholas Capaldi’s The Art of Deception: An Introduction to Critical Thinking. Other excellent resources include Robert J. Gula’s Nonsense: Red Herrings, Straw Men and Sacred Cows: How We Abuse Logic in Our Everyday Language; Bo Bennett’s Logically Fallacious: The Ultimate Collection of Over 300 Logical Fallacies; and Ali Almossawi’s An Illustrated Book of Bad Arguments.


Over the years, FEE has published numerous articles and books pertaining to effective argumentation. Last year’s volume, Excuse Me, Professor: Challenging the Myths of Progressivism rebuts 52 errors employed to promote collectivism and socialist prescriptions. It was a best-seller for weeks in several Amazon book categories. My 1981 piece, “Seven Fallacies of Economics,” is as relevant today as it was 35 years ago. Other useful articles include James Hohman’s “Talking About Ideas With Friends: Lessons From Graham Greene;” Jeffrey Tucker’s “7 Habits of Highly Effective Libertarians;” and Donald J. Boudreaux’s “On Bad Arguments.”


From both recent weeks and the distant past come this small sample of specific, issue-focused articles published by FEE:

Darryl Johnson’s “17 Arguments Against Socialized Medicine

Corey Iacono’s “3 Popular (But Unconvincing) Arguments for Gun Control

Alex Nowrasteh’s “15 Common Arguments Against Immigration, Addressed

Robert Higgs’ “Ten Reasons Not to Abolish Slavery


For a hilarious digression on the matter of argumentation, see Monty Python’s “Argument Clinic” sketch.


Though liberals (of the statist persuasion) do a great deal of talking about hearing other points of view, it sometimes shocks them to learn that there are other points of view” – William F. Buckley, Jr. in Up from Liberalism.

“All men are mortal. Socrates was mortal. Therefore, all men are Socrates” – Woody Allen’s famous non sequitur in his movie, Love and Death.

It is very natural for young men to be vehement, acrimonious and severe. For as they seldom comprehend at once all the consequences of a position, or perceive the difficulties by which cooler and more experienced reasoners are restrained from confidence, they form their conclusions with great precipitance. Seeing nothing that can darken or embarrass the question, they expect to find their own opinion universally prevalent, and are inclined to impute uncertainty and hesitation to want of honesty, rather than of knowledge” – Samuel Johnson, in The Rambler, no. 121 (May 14, 1751).

  • Lawrence W. Reed is FEE's President Emeritus, having previously served for nearly 11 years as FEE’s president (2008-2019). He is also FEE's Humphreys Family Senior Fellow and Ron Manners Global Ambassador for Liberty. His Facebook page is here and his personal website is