Essay:How to argue with a libertarian

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Attack libertarians for their motives. Advertise your own in the process.

Example: "You just recite propaganda against high taxes and social programs because of greed! I support such things out of a concern for those in need." This particular example is most effective if "need," "greed" and "propaganda" are left undefined.

Arguments are like taxicabs. Take them as far as you actually plan to go and pay no mind to wherever else they might lead.

Example: "When you drive on government roads, you enter into a social contract with the government and that contract obligates you to pay any tax that the government demands." Don't worry about the implications of this argument when an IRS agent drives on a privately paved road or pulls up in a privately paved driveway.

Conflate the positive concept of capability with the normative definition of rights. This way, you can deny most libertarian claims about rights.

Example: "If there were a natural right to absolute ownership of property, there would be evidence of it. But what makes it possible for you to own anything is the reality of government force that can be used to defend your property." Continue as though this undermines any and all normative arguments based on people's rights.

Criticize capitalism by its worst cases. But do not (ever!) compare these to the worst cases of statism.

Example: "The Enron scandal was the product of unfettered profit seeking under capitalism." If a libertarian replies that Stalin's brutality was the product of a statist program, change the subject or claim that your brand of statism precludes such abuses. Better still, try to argue that Stalinism was actually a kind of capitalism.

Always interpret any criticism of government programs as a demand for perfection and attack such a demand as unrealistic.

Example: A libertarian might argue that the benefits of the FDA keeping some drugs off the market are outweighed by the costs of keeping other drugs off the market. Engaging this argument directly can be a real quagmire. Instead, accuse the libertarian of using perfection as the standard for evaluating government activities.

Be a pragmatist. Avoid "theory" in favor of what "works."

Example: "Theoretical arguments for libertarianism are no basis for policy selection. We have to go with the policies that work in practice, the ones that are most productive." Do not get caught up in discussing the ends toward which any policy ought to work or the outcomes that productive policies are to be producing.

Diversity of beliefs about a subject imply that no beliefs about that subject are objectively true.

Example: "Libertarians argue that taxation is immoral. But countless groups claim to know what true morality is but their beliefs vary widely." Continue as though this shows that claims about ethics are a poor basis for policy selection.

Criticize libertarians for whatever interaction or noninteraction they have had with the state.

Example: "Yet another libertarian that went to a state school. What a hypocrite!" Alternately: "Yet another libertarian that went to a private university. Of course the super rich can afford to be libertarian." Since the government is involved in just about every aspect of our lives, it should be easy enough to find a similar charge to make against any libertarian. Whatever the personal activities of a libertarian may be, be sure to find fault.

No policy should ever be tried until it has already been tried.

Example: "Let libertarians point to a successful example of their policies being implemented before we consider implementing them." Be sure to use this argument like a taxicab, however, as it implies that no government program should ever have been implemented in the first place.

Claim to favor whatever policies generate the best outcomes. Never explain the method by which you make the comparison.

Example: "A purely free market in health care might result in the development of better technologies, but they would only be available to those who could pay for them. A system where everyone had guaranteed access would be better even if it meant less development of new technologies." With regard to either availability or technological advancement, more is better than less so avoid these simple comparisons. When there is a tradeoff, insist that the option involving government invention is better. But never explain your method of comparison.

The complexity of the world is always and everywhere an argument in favor of government intervention.

Example: A libertarian might argue that price ceilings will lead to shortages. Do not waste time discusing the interplay of supply and demand. Istead, try an argument like "Society is too complex for simplistic supply and demand arguments to be taken seriously. So the government should implement price ceilings." Characterizing libertarian arguments as simplistic is helpful too, as it makes statists seem to be the more sophisticated group.

When all else fails, claim that a government intervention is justified because it promotes some unquestionable goal.

Example: "This tax increase may seem unpleasant, but we have to remember that taxes are necessary as a way to promote the greater good. Sometimes individuals need to sacrifice for the benefit of society." Sometimes it helps to define "greater good" and "benefit of society." Other times it's better not to do so. Decide based on the particulars of the situation.

Make whatever mixed behavioral assumptions best support your claims.

Example: "Private theft is bad not because of any libertarian argument based on rights. It's bad because if people are free to just take the belongings of others, the consequences would be terrible." Alternately: "The government must be able to collect taxes because the consequences are so good." Do not be afraid to have it both ways.

Disregard the possibility that libertarians make tradeoffs in their own lives.

Example: "You claim to oppose taxation but you live in a place with taxes." The libertarian in question will argue that he opposes taxation but remains in his present place of residence to avoid other things that are worse than taxes, such as even higher taxes or the costs of leaving the country. Disregard any such protest. Call the libertarian a hypocrite.

Use logic, but do so with discretion.

Example: If a libertarian points out that there is an inconsistency in some statist argument, argue that, "Libertarians are too axiomatic. That's fine for mathematics but not for real world issues that don't fit precisely into neat logical categories." Needless to say, the same kind of thinking need not apply if a libertarian even appears to be guilty of some inconsistency.

Call policies by names that presuppose their effectiveness.

Example: "I can't believe that libertarians oppose Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC). How could they be against programs that aid these people?" The same approach is suitable for "anti-discrimination" laws, "foreign aid," "affirmative" action, price "controls," "guaranteed access" to health care, "fair lending" laws and so on.

Claim that libertarians just want to have legal access to drugs.

Libertarian: Look, I care about children as much as you do, but I don't see how it benefits children to have police running some fool's errand locking up drug users. It doesn't help children to ban substances and create an underground market dominated by organized criminals. And it certainly doesn't benefit children to impose a massive tax burnden on their parents to pay for all that nonsense.

Response: So you are willing to sacrifice our children's future just so that you can legally get high? You libertarians should just call yourselves the Pothead Caucus of the Republican Party!