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Thursday, December 17, 2009

The Low Road and the High Ground

Advocates of freedom should set a good example.

Complaints about the nastiness and viciousness of American political discourse have been around as long as such conversations have taken place.  As with so many other institutions, many people imagine there was a time when people debated controversial political issues with quiet reason and evidence.  One look back at that nastiness in congressional debates and newspapers from any bygone era should dispel such nostalgia.

Even so, when things get nasty in our own time we shouldn’t just shrug our shoulders and say things never change.  Such nastiness can and should be avoided, and those of us in the freedom movement can take the lead by setting a better example.

The last week has given us examples of two such bits of nastiness, both from the political left (which has no monopoly on this behavior, but happens to provide the most recent examples).  Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid argued that Republican opponents of ObamaCare are akin to those who opposed eliminating slavery or enactment of civil-rights laws on grounds that rushing into those changes was unwise.  Never mind that Republicans favored both changes and Democrats filibustered civil rights in the 1950s and ’60s. What’s relevant here is that turning a legitimate difference over public policy into a moral failing by the other side — especially when 61 percent of Americans oppose Obama’s plan — is the height of destructive political dialogue.

Blogger Ezra Klein’s comparison of Senator Joe Lieberman to a mass murderer – because his opposition to ObamaCare makes him “willing to cause the death” of hundreds of thousands — is another example of the same phenomenon.

These sorts of statements really are on the political low road.  The most obvious problem is that they impugn the motives of the other party. They assert that opponents of ObamaCare are at best only interested in handing President Obama a political defeat and at worst are equivalent to supporting slavery and Jim Crow.  Each of those alternatives denies the possibility that the other party has good-faith objections to the proposal.

Less obvious, perhaps, is the degree of intellectual laziness that such statements represent.  Granting Reid and Klein a degree of good faith that they are not willing to grant others, one possible interpretation is that they have not even bothered to imagine what the objections might be or what an alternative plan might look like.  It’s a lot easier to attack one’s opponents’ motives than actually investigate their arguments and come up with reasoned responses.  People of all sorts of political views engage in this sort of intellectual laziness all the time.  Assuming bad faith and being intellectually lazy really are the low road of political discourse.

Those of us in the freedom movement need to take the high ground in political debates like these.  When we debate those who would extend the State’s control over our lives in all kinds of ways, we should follow a rather simple list of rules to make sure we don’t descend into the sorts of behavior described above.

  1. Until confronted with serious evidence to the contrary, assume the other person’s intentions are good and that they wish to make the world a better place.
  2. Do not allow others to monopolize the moral high ground; insist that you too want to make the world a better place.
  3. Know as many of the other sides of the argument as you can and know them as well as you can.
  4. Practice what the economist Ludwig Lachmann called the “Principle of Charitable Interpretation.”  That is, read other people’s arguments in the best, most generous light possible.
  5. Make reasoned arguments of your own and back them with relevant evidence.
  6. Acknowledge where your arguments or evidence are weak or possibly biased; this demonstrates your own open-mindedness and your ability to think critically about your own argument.
  7. Finally, do all of this with a smile and a gentle sense of humor.  Milton Friedman was the master at this and was, I would argue, the most effective debater for freedom in the twentieth century.

Can I guarantee these will always be successful in convincing others?  I cannot. However, with so many Americans fed up with the nastiness of the major parties, we have nothing to lose by taking the high ground of civil and reasoned discourse.  What I can guarantee is that you will feel a lot better about yourself for being an ethical defender of freedom and, more important, you will be a role model for the sort of respect for others without which a free society cannot function.

  • 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.