Arnold Kling  

Tone vs. Substance

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In a comment on the Don Boudreaux book, Jason Collins writes,

As most of Boudreaux's posts are in what you define as category (c), the book is not going to change the mind of your liberal friend. Contrast the comments at the bottom of a Cafe Hayek post with those in Marginal Revolution. Cafe Hayek's niche is not opening liberal minds.

This is an interesting point. I think that the substance of the posts selected for the book is often intended to change someone's mind. However, the tone, which echoes the sneering of one of Boudreaux' heroes, H.L. Mencken, has the opposite effect. It works well for those on the same side as the author but probably turns off those who might disagree.

Like Mencken, Boudreaux thinks that politicians deserve to be sneered at, rather than admired, and he wants to encourage readers to adopt such an attitude. However, this can backfire with some of the people that Boudreaux seeks to persuade.

COMMENTS (14 to date)
MikeP writes:

The best advice I ever learned about debating in a public forum came from, if I recall correctly, David Friedman on Usenet in the late 80's.

When you are debating someone on a public forum, you are not trying to convince that someone: you are unlikely to change his mind. Nor, of course, are you trying to convince someone who agrees with you.

You are actually trying to convince the unseen person reading the debate who hasn't made up his mind.

That perspective should always color one's arguments and debating tactics. Especially when arguing libertarian positions, if you can get the undecided person over a hump or past a resistance in his thinking, the rest of the position follows rapidly. People basically can end up convincing themselves.

But tones that are sneering or mean or cheerleading are less likely to lead the undecided person to listen or think and more likely to make the undecided person resist and reinforce existing misconceptions.

Another point from the same advice was that you should assume as much of your opponent's worldview as you possibly can while still arguing your side. Again, this allows you to convince the greatest undecided middle.

MingoV writes:
... Like Mencken, Boudreaux thinks that politicians deserve to be sneered at, rather than admired...

Most politicians are illogical, unreasonable, unprincipled, liars, panderers, and power abusers. They do not change their stripes after hearing or reading politely phrased and accurate arguments, advice, or constructive criticism. They are not the target audience for Boudreaux's letters.

Those who routinely vote a party ticket and elect stereotypical politicians are not the target audience for Boudreaux's letters.

Boudreau has two target audiences: libertarians and independent or undecided potential voters who read Boudreaux's letters and recognize their truths. The former group gets entertained while having their viewpoints reinforced. The latter group may try to eliminate stereotypical politicians and vote for better political candidates.

Bill writes:

The greatest benefit I get from reading Don's words (and those of others like Walter Williams, Mark Perry, and David Henderson) is examples of how to frame arguments that I might latter try out on others, including students. That's not to say that I don't often learn something new from reading these people. I do. But the larger benefit comes from illustrations of how to structure arguments.

Tom West writes:

Somehow, I'm don't think I'd look to a book titled "Hypocrites and Half-Wits" for a nuanced view of things.

Besides, as far as making a living goes, there's not a whole lot of money to be made in trying to persuade others. I think Mr. Boudreaux realizes that and realizes that selling to the choir is a whole lot more lucrative (and choir appreciates it more anyway).

I think those like MingoV who knows where he stands are his target audience. It's also why I wondered where Bryan was at in recommending it for liberal friends. I'm not sure how many liberals are going to appreciate having to choose whether they're stupid or actually evil for holding their beliefs. (For that matter, I personally dislike books whose political direction I agree with that operate on the premise that those who disagree with me are stupid, evil, or stupid and evil.)

RPLong writes:

IMHO, this is an unfair criticism of Boudreaux.

Imagine someone you know claims that all lemons are blue. Imagine what sorts of arguments you would prepare in order to "persuade" your acquaintance that lemons are actually yellow.

There are limits to tact, aren't there?

Joe Cushing writes:

Government people, elected and otherwise are so good at telling us lemons are blue that at least 50% of the people believe it. It's very hard to convince these 50% that they are wrong about lemons being blue, no matter how much evidence there is that they are yellow. Their whole world view is colored by the misunderstanding of facts.

Andrew writes:

Tho I have only been exposed to CafeHayek and EconLib for the past two years, I would say that Don has given up on trying to convince those that disagree with him.

CafeHayek is still my first stop every morning.

No offense intended Arnold, David and Bryan

Lord writes:

He may be successful at persuading those who don't do much thinking and rely on reinforcing their biases as a substitute but not beyond that. Certainly a follower of no one ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American people.

Nate writes:

I don't think the effect is necessarily limited only to people that with different viewpoints. Personally I am very turned off by the tone of Boudreaux's "letters" even though I do agree with the substance on most of them. They're the single biggest reason I no longer read CafeHayek regularly; I couldn't imagine reading a whole book of them.

John Roccia writes:

The following is purely anecdotal, so of course can't be taken as anything more than a single example, but none the less:

I was a hard-core Republican for most of my life. I believed in "just wars," I believed that Mexicans "stole our jobs," and a host of other garbage. I was pro-gay rights, but that's about the only part where I differed from the norm.

I read the Wall Street Journal as my main source of news, and one day I saw one of Don's letters in the opinion section. I loved it; I don't even remember which one it was. I loved it enough to click on the link to his blog, and from there, a link to this one. These two blogs are what started me on the path to the libertarian I am today.

Since then, I've read Hazlitt, Rothbard, Hayek and Mises; I've donated to the Ron Paul campaign (even got my picture taken with him!), and a host of other things.

So it might not be often, but every once in a while, you DO get to convert someone with wisdom. :)

Mike Rulle writes:

Don't underestimate the benefit to the choir of those who preach for their benefit. DB is a very great clarifying force. He may not change other people's minds, but he reminds libertarians why they believe what they believe. He is the guy who prevents the loss of market share.

Ken B writes:

Whilst we're discussing tone and content, let me toss in praise for Steven Landsburg. He manages to affront, confound, and amuse all at the same time. The amusement is important; humor requires and rewards perspective so can work well on Mike P's undecided reader. It can also provoke useful over-reactions in response!

Daniel Kuehn writes:

I don't think many people who disagree with Boudreaux are concerned about the sneering at politicians. I don't know anyone that has a problem with that.

The problem is (1.) he doesn't stop at sneering at politicians, and (2.) he's often quite wrong on the analysis.

If he avoided those two things and just stuck to sneering at politicians he'd be much more appreciated by non-libertarians.

Tom West writes:

> I don't know anyone that has a problem with that.

Perhaps this is a Canadian thing, but I don't think sneering at politicians is a universal sentiment.

I think the widespread assumption that politicians are venal and corrupt tends to breed politicians who are... well, venal and corrupt.

No doubt some are, but those I've met are people somewhat braver than myself: not saints, but generally having a vision that they're taking steps to follow.

In fact, not a lot unlike many entrepreneurs for whom the product is in fact more important than being enormously successful, although they'd be delighted to do both.

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