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Wisconsin, Reason, and the National Conversation

February 26, 2011

My latest Forbes piece is about the ongoing strife in Wisconsin. Here are a couple of additional thoughts based on what I’ve observed:

1. Disagreement is not evidence of corruption. Ad hominem attacks are not arguments. They’re exercises in intellectual laziness. Slurs aimed at “Koch Heads” and “Koch Whores” are clever, but they don’t add much to the discussion. In this post, Sean Malone dissects the case against the Kochs and finds it wanting (HT: Steve Horwitz). If we’re going to have a constructive national conversation, we need to move past sneering and slander and start talking about theory and evidence.

Alas, however, sneering and slander pass for argument in some circles. The great irony is that some of this sneering and slander passes for argument among so many self-styled thinking people. As I get ready to start teaching Marx again in my “Classical & Marxian Political Economy” class, I’m reminded of this quote from pages 208-209 Thomas Sowell’s excellent Marxism: Philosophy and Economics:

Much of the intellectual legacy of Marx is an anti-intellectual legacy. It has been said that you cannot refute a sneer. Marxism has taught many-inside and outside its ranks-to sneer at capitalism, at inconvenient facts or contrary interpretations, and thus ultimately to sneer at the intellectual process itself. This has been one of the sources of its enduring strength as a political doctrine, and as a means of acquiring and using political power in unbridled ways.

2. If you insist on referencing thinkers’ biases rather than refuting their doctrines by tenable arguments, though, there’s a kids’ rhyme about rubber and glue that’s relevant here. Everyone can play the “find the corruption” game. For example, I referenced a study published by the Economic Policy Institute in my Forbes article. Between 2005-2007, they got 29% of their money from labor unions. Most of us learned what we know about labor history from our K-12 teachers. Why should we trust heavily-unionized teachers to give us an objective history of labor unions?

See how easy that is? I’ve spared myself a lot of intellectual effort by simply implying that the people who disagree with me have less than honorable motives. I can go to the barricades for my cause comfortable in my knowledge that scholars associated with left-wing or progressive think tanks and governments are on the take and that teachers who know the side on which their bread is buttered will distort history in the service of their own material interests.

That (obviously, I hope) didn’t buy us much in terms of meaningful conversation. It’s a vice that cuts in all directions. Turn on your local Christian talk radio station when they’re doing political or public issues programming, for example, and you might hear–as I did a few months ago–that a study of children raised by homosexuals is wrong not on the basis of its scientific merits, but because of its funding sources.

And so we get to my earnest plea: let’s stop thinking that we get to play by different rules because our efforts are in the service of a righteous cause. Have I been guilty of it in the past? Almost certainly. When I was a child (or a grad student, or a younger man), I thought as a child. I struggle every day to put aside childish things. Is it difficult? Yes. Do I owe it to my students, my friends, my family, my children, and my children’s children? Also, yes.

Addendum: here’s the disclosure that went with the Forbes piece:

Disclosure: I run student programs at Rhodes College that are funded by a grant the Charles G. Koch Charitable Foundation. I have done work in the past for organizations that have received money from the Koch Foundation and a veritable legion of other donors, and I expect to do additional work for them in the future. If I were looking to sell out, though, I would probably follow Arnold Kling’s advice.

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