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On Civilized Disagreement and Argument

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Here’s a letter to a new and very hostile correspondent:

Mr. P__:

Thanks for your e-mail in response to my defense of Phil Magness [2].

You think it “more than fair” for Nancy MacLean “to conclude from [Milton] Friedman’s radical laissez faireism that he was an enemy of people of color and other poor and unprivileged people or at most apathetic regarding them.”

I couldn’t disagree more. Milton Friedman – like many other scholars, from Adam Smith in the 18th century through Thomas Sowell in the 20th and 21st – offered a coherent theory of why the masses, and especially the poorest amongst us, are better served by free markets than by government interventions. I believe that Friedman was correct, but I concede that it’s possible that he wasn’t. You and Prof. MacLean believe that he was incorrect. Such disagreement, in addition to being normal, is healthy.

What is unhealthy, however, is to conclude that someone who disagrees with your preferred means of helping the poor is someone who really doesn’t share the goal of helping the poor. Such reasoning prevents productive conversation and argument. People who reason in this way simply presume that their understanding of how the world works is correct. They thus fortify themselves against learning – and, not incidentally, also against teaching.

What’s left to do once Prof. MacLean’s manner of argument reigns? Answer: Nothing but to accuse those with whom we disagree of being evil. Intellectual discourse disappears, to be replaced by assertions of dogma. Let me ask: Do you think it would be “more than fair” of me – who truly believes that policies of the sort endorsed by Prof. MacLean actually benefit the powerful at the expense of the poor – to accuse Prof. MacLean of therefore being a pro-oligarchical racist and enemy of the masses? Were I to play by her rules of intellectual engagement, that’s what I’d do, and I’d be as justified in my accusing her of having evil motives as she is justified in leveling the same accusation against Jim Buchanan and Milton Friedman.

But thoughtful and civilized people do not play by such infantile rules. I’m quite sure that Prof. MacLean genuinely wishes to promote the best interests of ordinary men and women, but I believe also that her preferred means of pursuing that goal is flawed. On this matter perhaps she’s correct and I’m incorrect. But her manner of arguing her case – namely, calling those with whom she disagrees names and accusing them of evil rather than of error – is constitutionally incapable of convincing anyone who doesn’t already share her understanding of reality.

Donald J. Boudreaux
Professor of Economics
Martha and Nelson Getchell Chair for the Study of Free Market Capitalism at the Mercatus Center
George Mason University
Fairfax, VA 22030