Essay:Honey and vinegar debate

From Mises Wiki, the global repository of classical-liberal thought
Jump to: navigation, search
Essay.svg This essay contains the opinions of one or more authors and does not necessarily represent the views of Mises Wiki or the Mises Institute. Mises Wiki essays may sometimes contain opinions that are not widely accepted by Austrian school thinkers, but nonetheless reside on the site to help stimulate critical thinking, constructive dialog, and an open-minded process of creative problem-solving furthering the growth of the body of Austrian school thought.

There is an ongoing debate as to what sort of approach is most expedient for winning adherents to the libertarian cause. One argument is, "You catch more flies with honey than with vinegar." That is, libertarians should frame their arguments in ways that avoid offending the sensibilities of their listeners. Thus, they should refrain from bringing up the more extremist or unpopular stances of their doctrine that may turn off the listener, and should instead focus on telling what the listener has to gain from libertarian ideas. The libertarian should, according to this view, avoid being confrontational, but instead focus on points of agreement between the two.

Is is questionable whether this approach is actually more effective than the more confrontational approaches. As listeners become more well-informed, they will eventually realize that the libertarian worldview conflicts with their own worldview, and that the libertarians are saying that worldview is wrong. There is no getting around this.

Indeed, an approach that attempts to sugarcoat or avoid points of disagreement could be regarded as dishonest or misleading. It could be regarded as similar to the approach of a salesman who does not reveal the "catch" or disadvantage of his proposal until the end of his pitch. It would save the listener time to hear a balanced view from the very beginning, so that he could decide to terminate the pitch early if it seemed to be a disadvantageous deal.

Empirically, the evidence suggests that the vinegar approach may be at least as effective as the honey approach, or that the two approaches may complement one another. There are many religions whose adherents tend to be kind, polite, peaceful, friendly people who do not push their dogmas on others. Examples that come to mind are the Unitarian and Buddhist religions. The Unitarians have noted that they have had a great deal of trouble making headway in bringing less affluent people into their faith.[1] One theory is the working class, having experienced limited choice and harsh conditions in life, find a harsh theology of one chance and one way to avoid eternal hell to be more believable than a theology of many chances and many ways to be good.[2] In contrast, the New Atheist movement has taken a very confrontational approach[3] and seems to have scored successes, at least in terms of the percentage of Americans who are willing to self-identify as atheist.[4]

If a person does not believe that an ideology is supported by evidence and logic, he will tend to not support it, no matter how nice the ideology's advocates seem to be. There is, therefore, no alternative to making an effort to correct and refute opposing arguments, which requires being confrontational to some degree. It can even mean putting forth views that might be regarded as extremist and offensive to the sensibilities of those who hold certain values dear. As Friedrich Hayek points out, "Those who have concerned themselves exclusively with what seemed practicable in the existing state of opinion have constantly found that even this has rapidly become politically impossible as the result of changes in a public opinion which they have done nothing to guide." Or as Murray Rothbard notes, there is "an important reason for stressing the ultimate goal: the excitement and enthusiasm that a logically consistent system can inspire. Who, in contrast, will go to the barricades for a two percent tax reduction?"[5]

However, there is evidence that verbally aggressive argumentation can turn off listeners.[6] Obviously, using ad hominem fallacies and such will tend to discredit a speaker. And protestors who refuse to allow speakers to be heard may be rightly accused of unfairly suppressing viewpoints with which they disagree, rather than engaging in constructive argumentation.[7] However, there is not necessarily reason to believe that a person who is merely a trenchant advocate of a viewpoint will be disfavored because of his confrontational style. It could be argued that certain causes, such as the GLBTQ and Latino movements, have benefited from their willingness to apply a great deal of pressure to politicians through high-profile protests.[8]

One argument is that sometimes it is most effective if a movement employs a mix of both radical and moderate tactics. For example, the Suffragist and anti-racial discrimination movements had highly-respected spokespeople, such as Susan B. Anthony, Booker T. Washington, and W. E. B. Du Bois, who attempted to work within the system, at least some of the time. However, they also had radical firebrands such as Kitty Marion and Bobby Seale (of the Black Panthers). Abolitionist movements of all kinds had had many people who were willing to engage in civil disobedience and other radical tactics in order to demonstrate their commitment, garner attention for their cause, and pressure the powers that be to accede to their demands.


  1. Large, Jerry. "Faith In The Mix -- Rainier Valley Unitarian Church Finds That With Worshippers' Different Styles And Needs, It's Hard To Get Everyone In The Same Multicultural Pew". Seattle Times. "They are mostly college-educated, intellectual, liberal in politics and religion, middle-class, often upper-middle-class. They look for earthly solutions to earthbound problems and experience the world through their brains more than through their souls. Unitarians inviting blue-collar folks, blacks, Hispanics and poor white people to join is like inviting cats to a vegan feast." 
  2. Muder, Doug (Fall 2007). "Not my father's religion". UUWorld. 
  3. Loxton, Daniel. "The Debate Between Confrontational Activism v. Educational Outreach". Skeptic 16 (4). 
  4. Bloomer, Jeffrey (14 August 2012). "Poll Shows Fivefold Increase in Ranks of U.S. Atheists". The Slatest. 
  5. Rothbard, Murray. "A Strategy for Liberty". For a New Liberty. 
  7. "Iowa activist group say they won’t back off confrontational style". The Gazette. 4 September 2012. 
  8. Greenwald, Glenn (15 June 2012). "The Imperatives of Political Pressure". Salon.