Preaching to the Choir

We Can't Change Minds without Engaging Our Opponents

Dr. Skousen is an economist at Rollins College, Department of Economics, Winter Park, Florida 32789, and editor of Forecasts & Strategies, one of the largest investment newsletters in the country.

“Love your enemies, for they tell you your faults.”
—Poor Richard’s Almanac

This past summer I attended the annual meetings of the Eris Society, an organization created by investment writer Doug Casey. The purpose of the Eris Society is to expand our horizons, meet new people, make us think, and challenge our views on politics, economics, science, and philosophy. Most of the members of the Eris Society are, like Doug, libertarians. And so, not surprisingly, 18 of the 25 speakers were libertarians, even though the format of the Eris Society is officially nonpartisan. Libertarians are not alone in seeking out their own. People seem more comfortable among friendly voices. Agreement among friends seems more agreeable than argument among critics.

And yet, like many of you, I enjoy a good argument. Contending with those who disagree—sometimes violently—teaches me far more about the weakness of my arguments than talking to colleagues who nod their head. And there is nothing more satisfying than convincing an opponent of the truthfulness of a theory or policy.

Undoubtedly one of the reasons the Chicago School of free-market economics has been more successful than the Austrian School is because members of the Chicago School have traditionally addressed the entire economics profession in mainstream journals and books, while Austrians typically spend most of their time writing and chatting among themselves.

In the early 1950s, Ludwig von Mises was invited by a major Ivy League university to give a one-hour lecture on his vision of free-market economics. He declined the invitation, arguing that it would be “impossible for me to present the operation of the market economy in a short lecture.”[1] What a pity! Surely he could have countered the anti-capitalist mentality on this major campus, even if he were limited to an hour lecture. He might have changed the minds of only one or two students or faculty members, but that’s a beginning. Eventually one or two become a group and a group becomes a school and a school becomes a movement. . . .

I always make it a point of talking, corresponding, and reading the works of nonbelievers and critics. I enjoy reading John Kenneth Galbraith, Robert Heilbroner, Paul Samuelson, and Alan Blinder. I’ve made a point of seeking them out at annual meetings of the American Economic Association. You may have noticed that I frequently cite critics in my columns, not because I agree with them, but because they offer a useful counterpoint. And maybe I’ve even had an impact. Sure, I gain much from reading Milton Friedman, Ludwig von Mises, Henry Hazlitt, and other free-market economists, but it’s not enough to preach to the choir.

I know many of you have a hard time listening to the opposition. They make your blood boil and you may be tempted to throw their book aside, walk out of their lecture, or make a snide remark. It’s hard sometimes to be civil to a speaker you strongly disagree with. R. M. Hartwell, former president of the Mont Pelerin Society, urged members to be “masters of the art of civilized discourse, eschewing rudeness and what Adam Smith called ‘the insolence and brutality of anger.’”[2]

Reading the Critics

In addition to books, there are several publications I read on a regular basis to find out what market critics are thinking and saying. Bernard Saffran writes a column in The Journal of Economic Perspectives, “Recommendations for Further Reading,” which summarizes interesting articles written by economists of all schools of thought.

Another publication I read regularly is Challenge magazine, published bimonthly by M. E. Sharpe (80 Business Park Dr., Armonk, New York 10504, (800) 541-6563, $45 a year). Most of the contributors are what we might term “social democrats,” economists who favor various forms of government intervention. A recent issue included “The Case for Subsidizing Wages,” by Edmund Phelps; “The Future of Macroeconomics,” by James Tobin, Alan S. Blinder, and James K. Galbraith; and an article on how privatization of Social Security hurts women. Challenge occasionally includes an article from a free-market economist, but invitations are definitely limited.

Creating a Dialogue

One of the best publications offering a dialogue among economists and social thinkers across the spectrum is Critical Review, published quarterly by a foundation established by Howard and Andrea Rich, who also operate Laissez Faire Books (Critical Review, P. O. Box 1254, Danbury, Connecticut 06813, (203) 794-1312, $29 a year). The editor, Jeffrey Friedman of Yale University, selects a subject in each issue and invites a variety of viewpoints. For example, a past issue (Fall 1991) devoted to “Big Business” included a negative review by industrial organization expert F. M. Scherer of D. T. Armentano’s Antitrust and Monopoly: Anatomy of a Policy Failure. Another issue (Summer 1996) highlighted “Critics of Capitalism” and included a debate between Steve Horwitz and Greg Hill on Keynesianism and market failure. Critical Review offers a delightful “interdisciplinary” forum for market advocates to take on market critics, and vice versa. The result is always a lively, yet scholarly, debate.

  1. 1.   Ludwig von Mises, Planning for Freedom, 4th ed. (Libertarian Press, 1980), p. 166. Mises declined to identify the name of the university.
  2. 2.   R. M. Hartwell, address before the Mont Pelerin Society meetings in Vienna, Austria, September 1994.

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