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Thursday, July 21, 2011

The Importance of Doing It Right

There's no substitute for sound argument and accuracy.

Libertarians, especially younger ones, are always on the lookout for “intellectual ammunition.” We want to find arguments and evidence that support our view of the world, and we want to bring it to others, whether in our own writing or on blogs or social networks or in conversation. Certainly one of the motivations for me to write this column every week is that it can serve that purpose for others.

But there’s also a danger in viewing everything we read as potential intellectual ammunition: We start to judge people’s work by how well their conclusions line up with our priors rather than how well they’ve made their case. Finding that perfect article that appears to make an argument you’ve long thought was right but could never articulate well, or didn’t know evidence for, is a wonderful feeling, but it’s important not to let that adrenaline rush get in the way of your better judgment. Just because you agree with an author’s conclusions doesn’t mean he or she has done the job well, and it does not help the libertarian cause to make arguments based on erroneous theories, bad data, or incomplete evidence. In fact it is ultimately counterproductive because those who do know the facts will eventually find those errors and will rightly dismiss the conclusions, even if those conclusions might still be right and capable of a better defense.

Revisionist History

This problem is particularly challenging for libertarian revisionist history. To take one example I know well, consider the Great Depression. When libertarians want to argue that Herbert Hoover was a proto-New Dealer, or that FDR’s policies did not really improve matters much, or that World War II did not end the Great Depression, or that laissez faire didn’t cause it, it’s not enough just to make those claims. We had better back up our arguments with unimpeachable statistical and documentary historical evidence. After Keynesian economics won the day, many classical-liberal writers criticized it, but it wasn’t until Milton Friedman and Anna Schwartz’s A Monetary History of the United States in the early 1960s that the tide began to turn. That book did the trick because it was meticulously researched and documented, and was able to convince many people that their view of the Great Depression was wrong. We libertarian economists and historians need to bring the same commitment to research excellence to our work.

When libertarians offer revisionist histories of even more controversial topics, such as the Civil War or the origins of the Fed, we have to have that same commitment to doing it right. When we are sloppy with the historical sources, when we distort quotes to serve our priors, or when we ignore sources that challenge our views, we set ourselves up for failure. Our books and articles will eventually be read by our critics, who will properly take us to task for violating the canons of good scholarship. The damage to our reputations, both individually and for libertarians generally, will linger.

Many libertarians are also tempted to dismiss criticisms of scholarship as disguises for disagreement with an author’s conclusions. Others wonder why we should worry about what seems like “nitpicking” if the broader argument is correct. The answer to both is that the details matter. The way to persuade people is to have truth on your side, and if we play fast and loose with arguments and evidence, those we are trying to persuade will not trust anything we have to say.

Cultivating Critical Thinkers

I spent last weekend talking about teaching with a group of libertarian faculty and grad students. A recurring issue was how “out of the closet” we should be about our libertarianism in the classroom. The experienced faculty said it’s okay to be honest about what one believes, but the first responsibility is to cultivate students who are good critical thinkers and who have a commitment to finding truth. If we believe libertarian ideas are true, then students who care about truth and who are good critical thinkers will find them eventually. We don’t need to “force” them on our students. The same goes for what we write.

So how can you as readers know what’s good and what’s not? One answer is to read the other side. Read books critical of libertarian views and see if libertarian authors seem to have it right. Read reviews of libertarian books both by other libertarians and by nonlibertarians. See what flaws they find, especially when fellow libertarians find them. See what sources they point to. And most of all, don’t think that one author has all the answers or that libertarianism is a finished system of truths. We don’t have all the answers, which is why being committed first and foremost to finding truth is so important. Anything else is a recipe for failure.

  • Steven Horwitz was the Distinguished Professor of Free Enterprise in the Department of Economics at Ball State University, where he was also Director of the Institute for the Study of Political Economy. He is the author of Austrian Economics: An Introduction.