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The Horwitz Challenge

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On Facebook, Steve Horwitz writes:
The next time you're engaged in a political discussion with someone who has very strong views different from your own, ask them if they can name two famous thinkers or politicians whose politics are opposed to theirs who they also think are very smart and genuinely concerned with making the world a better place. If they can't, it's not clear they are able to grant the good faith such discussions should have.
My top two picks: Bill Dickens and James Fitzjames Stephen, author of the neglected Liberty, Equality, Fraternity.  Yours?

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COMMENTS (42 to date)
Steve writes:

Dennis Kucinich

liberty writes:

Living or dead? I often have a hard time determining intentions of living people--with a historical perspective you have a lot more data (correspondences, actions over time, etc).

Dead: Lenin, Bukharin. Totally disagree with them, believe they were smart and well-intentioned.

Living: probably some market socialist economists comes closest. Also some "libertarian" economists who rely too much on neoclassical techniques. Many other economists I doubt whether they really want to do good, rather than just have fun and get ahead in their discipline. I don't trust living politicians at all.

liberty writes:

Also, lots of lefty think tanks etc. Also (although they are not "major" thinkers) most all of my friends (all lefties who are neither evil nor stupid).

Really, one should have a lot more than two.

Joey Donuts writes:

Tony Blain

John Kenneth Galbraith

Quote from Galbraith

Faced with the choice between changing one's mind and proving that there is no need to do so, almost everyone gets busy on the proof.

Zac Gochenour writes:

John Rawls, Edmund Burke

Like liberty I think it is difficult to judge the intentions of the living. But in general I take utilitarian arguments in good faith and I think a solid chunk of the economics profession is smarter and more well-intentioned than many hard-line libertarians believe despite their social democratic conclusions.

Grant Gould writes:

For thinkers -- Fernand Braudel's Civilization and Capitalism and Heidegger's Being and Time both influenced me profoundly, although the authors were respectively a Marxist and a Nazi.

For politicians -- I can't even come up with any politicians whose policies are in line with mine whom I like. I'm sure that they are nearly all concerned with making the world a better place, and intend to do so. But concern and intention are just cheap talk and hardly worthy of respect.

David R. Henderson writes:

My top two: Brad Delong and Paul Krugman.

Seriously, though, I have way more than two:
John Kenneth Galbraith, James Tobin, Franco Modigliani, Charles Schultze, Alice Rivlin, to name a few.

Steve Horwitz writes:

If there's a Wikipedia entry on "arguing in bad faith," DeLong's picture ought to be there.

BZ writes:

Hobbes is my top pick by far. A great mind trapped in a bad time and place driven with good intentions to a terrible analysis.

A more modern pick is Noam Chomsky. Definitely sincere, bewilderingly intelligent. His analysis is both deep and dazzling, and wrong in so many ways.

John Jenkins writes:

Isn't this a trivial exercise? Wouldn't a more informative question be, famous politicians and thinkers whom you think *are* evil?

(My short list would be Rawls & Singer. Famous politicians would be necessarily disqualified because they are almost certainly cynically doing what it takes to remain in power.)

I mean, Hitler didn't get up in the morning and say, "I am going to do evil today." He legitimately believed in what he was doing and that it was for the good. How does that make it less monstrous?

David Ricardo writes:

Daniel Patrick Moynihan, possibly William Proxmire, both deceased, unfortunately.

Mark Thoma is an economist that I would put on the list (living, fortunately).

pj writes:

John Maynard Keynes and Daniel Patrick Moynihan.

I must say, however, that I think Horwitz's logic is unsound. Everyone has a myriad of opponents, since there are many more than 2 possible views; and if you admit all of them, it's extremely easy to find many opponents whose intelligence and good intentions you respect.

On the other hand, I could imagine a radical leftist saying to me, "Keynes and Moynihan are centrists who barely oppose you. Name someone on the far left who you respect. If you can't then you lack the good will to be admitted to political conversation." This would be an essentially fascist demand: If you believe far leftists like Lenin and Bukharin to be evil, you are unfit for society and should be ostracized. Or is one supposed to believe that men may be so deluded as to support murder and tyranny out of good intentions? This belief alone is already part of the left's ends-justify-the-means utilitarianism.

So Horwitz's argument is either empty of content (since "opponents" casts a universal net) or implicitly accepts some of the very claims that are at issue in political disputes.

Tristan Band writes:

Living or dead? Here's mine in no particular order:

Karl Marx: I think he's a good embodiment of Rothbard's Law: That people specialize in the area of least competence. Some of his non-economic writings (particularly on religion) are beautiful pieces. Plus, his diss of bourgeois socialism in the Manifesto is very funny.

Walter Benn Michaels: His book "The Trouble With Diversity" constitutes the best critique of affirmative action from the left. Indeed, it would make the left's job far easier (and less arbitrary) if they focused on the gap between rich and poor, rather than complicating things by including race into the mix.

Eugene V. Debs: Seriously, opposing WWI should make him everybody's hero.

Paul Kurtz: Secular humanist, social democrat, all around smart and great guy

Andrew Bacevich: A conservative, but one in the realist tradition. There aren't too many conservatives I respect, the only other one being...

Jack Hunter: Also known as the Southern Avenger, for his antiwar stance. His articles are always a treat.

There are others, but that is what comes to my mind.

Steve Horwitz writes:


For what it's worth, the context that prompted that was a discussion with a left-liberal friend who was bashing conservatives. I challenged her to name two prominent ones who she thought were very smart and concerned about the greater good. She could name only one, and it was a local Congressperson whose conservative credentials aren't even all that solid and who is hardly "prominent." I believe the kids today call that a FAIL.

Of course there are all kinds of "opponents" for any view, but when someone is attacking a particular view and can't satisfy that challenge with respect to people who hold that view, I think then it's fair to make a rebuttable presumption that they can't argue in good faith.

That's all I was trying to say.

Phil writes:

Almost all people think they're trying to make the world a better place. Think of some of the evilest people in history, and probably at least half of them thought they were doing good things for the world.

The 9/11 perpetrators, for instance.

William Barghest writes:

mtraven at

pj writes:

Steve - Thanks.

An alternative way to establish good faith, I think, is to ask the person to re-state their opponents' arguments. If they can't do that accurately, it indicates a lack of willingness to understand the opponent - or an ignorance that should be quickly remedied.

Steve Horwitz writes:


That is also an excellent suggestion. I would add "and to do so with the most charitable interpretation possible."

Roger Koppl writes:

Steve blogged this (with a link) over at Coordination Problem. I noted there that Robert Heilbroner is a great example. After the fall of the Soviet Union he came out -- in the New Yorker -- and said explicitly that Mises had been right all along. Leonard Rapping is another good example. He was an early ratex-er who was radicalized at an anti-war protest in the Vietnam era and stuck to his new found convictions firmly, notwithstanding the heavy professional price he paid.

Hume writes:

Joseph Raz

John Rawls

Jules Coleman

Dain writes:

She could name only one, and it was a local Congressperson whose conservative credentials aren't even all that solid and who is hardly "prominent." I believe the kids today call that a FAIL.

That just goes to show that even identifying who is on the "other" side is itself part of the argumentative process that is supposed to be aided by Steve's thought experiment.

If you can't even agree with another that their supposed opponent is actually an opponent, good luck with trying to hash out the question of good or bad faith.

Hume writes:

Let me also add G.A. Cohen.

Lee Waaks writes:

To Roger Koppl:

It's true that Heilbroner did concede that Mises was right; but, as my left-wing brother-in-law later informed me, Heilbroner later said that "Mises was right, but for all the wrong reasons" (I think that's an exact quote). In other words, Heilbroner never did fully grasp the economic calculation argument.

Chris Koresko writes:

I was going to say Moynihan but David Ricardo beat me to it. So instead I'll just list Bryan, David, and Arnold (can I insert a smiley emoticon here?) as three good, smart, and arguably famous guys I disagree with at least some of the time.

chris writes:

This is a great exercise. For Bryan - If you check, I think Keith Hennessey ran a little contest last year that was roughly the same as yours.

My picks, for what it's worth:

Karl Marx - he is basically the man who tried to systematically think through the opposite "vision" (as Thomas Sowell would call it) to my own.

Martin Heidegger - on the right, he outflanks me by systematically thinking through a vision that I guess I would call metaphysical national socialism (as opposed to biological national socialism).

My own "vision" is very close to Burke's and Stephen's, as a reference point.

In a more contemporary context, my two picks would be John Rawls and John K. Galbraith.

Roger Koppl writes:

Lee Waaks:

Sure, Heilbroner did not become a Hayekian or something. He saw Mises as an ideological visionary who was right about socialism by a kind of coincidence. These facts about Heilbroner only go to underline his intellectual integrity. He was pretty far to the left and never gave up his basic intellectual vision. But he could not deny that "capitalism" had outperformed "socialism" and that this "triumph of capitalism" was attributable to the difference of systems, not something extraneous such as bad weather. He faced that fact squarely and did not hide from it. That makes him a good example for the Horwitz Challenge.

Tracy W writes:

Henry Farrell.

Tony Blair.

Tracy W writes:

Actually it's interesting that my list are both non-Kiwis. I'm probably too close to the NZ political game to be objective about it. Although if you want me to list people from both the NZ major political parties National and Labour, who I think are idiots, I'm game.

fundamentalist writes:

I'm surprised that Hayek's "Fatal Conceit" didn't enter the discussion. He wrote that intelligence is highly overrated, especially by the intelligent. The most intelligent people on the planet have frequently held to stupid ideas. Arrogance makes intelligent people stupid. The beginning of wisdom is humility, which is why Hayek and Mises were equally intelligent and wise.

libfree writes:

I think that most of the names I would have come up with have already been listed (possibly Eugene V Debs but I agreed with his anti war stuff so maybe that doesn't count), but I would like to suggest that asking someone to rate the chances that their own views are incorrect is a better way of determining their ability to argue in good faith. Most people give an answer in the range of 1 in a million.

libert writes:

Friedrich Hayek and Karl Marx.

(Note: I'm not joking)

I would put Bryan Caplan on my extended list as well.

I didn't find this hard because I have a particular love of reading thinkers/blogs/etc. that I disagree with. I can't stand reading things that I already agree with. No offense to this blog, of course.

Noah Yetter writes:
...politicians...who they also think are very smart and genuinely concerned with making the world a better place.

"Thinkers" I'll grant, but the above is an empty set.

Jacob Oost writes:

Karl Marx. Tony Blair (perhaps he isn't nearly "opposite enough" of me to satisfy the requirement, but I'm a solid Hayekian pro-life Chicago-schooler anti-war immigration-amnesty-favoring pentecostal Christian who loves Eraserhead, so you tell me who the heck is my opposite).

fundamentalist writes:

Jacob, Interesting self-description!

Eric writes:

Sorry but I think it is a meaningless challenge. Certainly there are intelligent people who have opposite views from mine and are intelligent and have good intentions - or at least think they has good intentions - I'm not sure the two things are equivalent. Everybody in any kind of sane moment knows this. The reasons we sometimes seem convinced that no one who holds such views can be intelligent and/or have good intentions, comes from an inability to comprehend how people we know to be intelligent and have good intentions can have come to the conclusions they have come to. The evidence of their intelligence and good intentions is completely contradicted to the evidence given by their beliefs. That is a paradox that I still can make no sense of.

Lee Waaks writes:

To Roger Koppl:

It's true that Heilbroner never surrendered his ideological vision (nor many other socialists, e.g. G. A Cohen, already mentioned above by another poster on this topic). But the USSR literally had to collapse before they began to rethink their positions. And before that? They accepted, albeit with minimal reservations about the lack of civil liberties, that the USSR was economically robust. I recall that Tom Palmer of CATO, writing on his personal blog, did a good job of showing that G.A. Cohen was a man of bad faith. I wouldn't be surprised if Heilbroner was of similar ilk. Contrast Heilbroner, Cohen, with the socialist philosopher Sydney Hook: he never surrendered his ideological vision either, but neither did he ever resort to disgusting apologetics for the USSR.

And let's not forget what anti-commie-in-residence Bryan Caplan has written re: Eugene Richter's book, Pictures of the Socialist Future:

"While the early socialists were indeed 'idealists,' their ideal was totalitarian. Their overriding goals were to engineer a new society and a New Socialist Man. If this meant treating workers like slaves - depriving them of the freedom to choose their occupation or location, forbidding them to quit, splitting up families without their consent, and imposing draconian punishments on dissenters - so be it."

The problem I have with allegedly well-intentioned contemporary social-democrats/socialists is that they believe in social engineering writ small, even when they don't endorse full-scale planning. For them, it's not just about helping the indigent; it's about improving the "welfare" of society as they see fit with little regard for individuals' own preferences.

Bill Drissel writes:

It isn't given to us humans to know what others are "genuinely concerned" about. Therefore, it can't be strategically important (however tactically important it might be).

What people are doing must be much more important in one's judgement than what they are "trying" to do.

Sincerity is a first value only in a society that has no values.

Bill Drissel

John Fast writes:

Bruce Ackerman
Isaac Asimov
Tony Blair
Jeff Greenfield
Sydney Hook
Arianna Huffington
Mickey Kaus
Sinclair Lewis
Matthew Miller
Mencius Moldbug
Markos Moulitsas
Daniel Patrick Moynihan
Ralph Nader
George Orwell
John Rawls
Carl Sagan
George Bernard Shaw

Jacob Oost writes:

Better than the Horwitz challenge (though less interesting and discussion-provoking) is the standard I use for gauging how seriously to take somebody--if their only explanation for how their ideological opponents operate is that they are either stupid or evil, then I don't take them seriously.

"You favor a large welfare state? The only explanation is that you're stupid."

"You favor the occupation of Iraq? The only explanation is that you're evil."

And so on. If you have such a poor understanding of other people's ideas, it tells me you don't have a great understanding of your own ideas either, or where they are in relation to other schools of thought, and that you can't really defend your ideas in a reasoned debate.

Roger Koppl writes:

Lee Waaks,

Well, there you go. You can't rise to the Horwitz Challenge. That's a FAIL.

Tom writes:

The problem with this litmus test is that it deals with making the world a better place. Who gets to decide what a better place is. I'm sure Stalin thought he was making the world a better place. So for one of my choices, based on your criteria, I'd have to say Stalin. So I think the premise is flawed and wrong. Better, I think, would be to say given a set a data name someone who could look at it and give a reasoned and logical analysis based on the data. That said, what's the use of talking to people when presented with conflicting facts to their view say "I don't care what the facts are"

Eric Hammer writes:

I think PJ really nails it with the idea to estimate good faith in a debate by having both sides restate the other's position or argument (and Horowitz polishes it with the requirement that it be in the most charitable way.)

The problem with the original Horowitz test is that it assumes one should consider the other person, and not just their idea. That is one should be concerned with the idea itself, not so much who puts it forward or their intentions. As previously mentioned, many people assume those who put forward ideas they disagree with are either stupid or evil and then dismiss the idea without further consideration. It seems strange to ask someone who they respect from the other side as a method to determine if they can avoid this, as it seems to me the best possible case would be someone who doesn't even know or care who is their "opponent" but simply knows the ideas and why they disagree with them.

Indeed, what one thinks of their debate opponent’s intentions is largely meaningless. It is difficult for me to know exactly my friend’s intentions in supporting a given idea, much less someone I have never met or known anything about outside their writing, and most likely impossible to actually know. Better to assume they mean well enough, and work to understand their ideas.

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