All Commentary
Saturday, July 29, 2017

How Not to Fight Rotten Ideas

We must make the building of a free society once more an intellectual adventure, a deed of courage.

Impressionable young people are picking the worst ideas these days. Go to most college campuses and you’ll find ideologies not far different from socialism on the left and not far different from fascism on the right.

This generation is not especially bad about chasing bad ideas. Like most young people, we’re motivated by novelty and purpose and adventure. In the absence of better options, we’ll find the worst possible intellectual routes to get those things.

We’re fortunate to have many great intellectual opponents of fascism and socialism to speak truth to us. But sometimes it’s hard to say that the people who (should) know better are doing a good job of combating the appeal of these ideologies.Rotten ideas seem to come repackaged in bright colors for every generation.

People who should know better assume that ideologies like socialism and fascism will always repel people with disgust. The evidence suggests otherwise. Rotten ideas seem to come repackaged in bright colors for every generation, and every generation seems to get another bloody spin on the evil ideology wheel.

Along with good and inspiring alternatives, good counter-arguments are one of the most important ways to check the growth of rotten ideologies. Totalitarian and authoritarian systems are usually intellectually and morally bankrupt, but it’s hard to see that until someone points out a contradiction.

The way forward seems pretty clear. But what’s the best counterargument you’ve seen from authoritarianism’s mainstream opponents lately? There’s rarely a solid refutation to be found. Instead, young people are told that the ideas of socialism and fascism are “dangerous,” “unacceptable,” or “evil.” In other words, we’re told simply to avoid them, without much reason why.

This is the equivalent of asking young thinkers to bury their heads in the sand. It’s one of the worst things that intellectuals can do to prevent the slide back into new forms of the same rotten old ideas.

Of course, fascism and socialism and the like are dangerous and unacceptable. But we’ve repeated this theme of “X idea is dangerous and unacceptable” more than enough, and young people continue to move toward the far left and the far right.

We shouldn’t be surprised. After all, what is it about calling an idea “dangerous” or “unacceptable” that would actually make it less attractive to courageous young intellectuals?

To call an idea dangerous is to confess that you fear it. It’s also to confess that you do not know how to counter it with good arguments. It’s to imply that the ideas are off limits. You will know this is not a good strategy if you remember that forbidden fruit is a favorite delicacy of humans. With all of the bankruptcy of mainstream political options, warning cries of “danger” or calls to political correctness will not keep young people from embracing rotten ideas.

Hannah Arendt showed us the banality of evil men in her profile of a Nazi like Adolf Eichmann. What if we showed people – especially young people – the banality of authoritarian and totalitarian ideas? After all, these ideologies are nothing really new in human history. They’re about the same old murder and manipulation and slavery that have gotten us nowhere for thousands of years.We need better ideas to counter them.

We all know ideas like these would be better off dead. But we need better ways to counter them than appeals to fear and shock and social shame. If we stop our critiques of fascism or socialism at simply calling them “dangerous,” we only excite bold young people to think more highly of what we criticize.

There’s a better way.

As new forms of evil, and yes, “dangerous” ideas emerge, we have to explore them more fully, challenge them more openly, and provide real alternatives. We can follow the advice of Friedrich Hayek. We can make the pursuit of just alternatives the good, powerful, and even “dangerous and unacceptable” calling that it is:

“We must make the building of a free society once more an intellectual adventure, a deed of courage…. Unless we can make the philosophic foundations of a free society once more a living intellectual issue, and its implementation a task which challenges the ingenuity and imagination of our liveliest minds, the prospects of freedom are indeed dark. But if we can regain that belief in the power of ideas which was the mark of liberalism at its best, the battle is not lost

                                                                     Republished from


  • James Walpole is a writer, startup marketer, intellectual explorer, and perpetual apprentice. He is an alumnus of Praxis and a FEE Eugene S. Thorpe Fellow. He writes regularly at