Bryan Caplan  

Pax Libertaria

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As a rule, I dislike shouting matches.  But I especially dislike shouting matches between people I largely agree with.  As a libertarian, this puts me in an uncomfortable position, because many libertarians seem to relish shouting matches - even, or especially, with other libertarians.

What is so bad about shouting matches?

First, they aren't persuasive to people who don't already agree with you.  In other words, they aren't persuasive at all.

Second, giving into anger makes it harder to tell truth from falsehood.

Third, as someone other than Buddha said, "Holding onto anger is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die."  The main person who suffers when you're angry is you.

Fourth, assuming both sides share worthwhile goals, shouting matches have a clear deadweight cost.  The time you spend shouting at each other could have been spent cooperating to accomplish something good.  (Or at least independently accomplishing distinct good things).

If my assessment is correct, why do people ever engage in shouting matches?  While I can imagine someone defending shouting matches on their merits, the main excuse I hear is: "The other side started it." 

One problem with this story is that both sides usually have some reason to point fingers.  Take the recent debate on the shortage of libertarian women.  While I disagree with much of Thomas Woods' reply, this passage resonated with me:
Julie's critics can't conclude their attack without unbosoming the lasting trauma of the whole episode for them: today, because of Julie's video, they're "a little embarrassed to admit" they're libertarians. Poor babies. To my knowledge, they have not expressed any embarrassment when libertarians have (for example) gratuitously insulted the religious beliefs of tens of millions of Americans in crude and ignorant ways. I suppose that's designed to bring people into the fold?
The sensible lesson to draw, of course, would be that libertarians should stop gratuitously insulting anyone.  But if you stick to, "Who started gratuitously insulting people?," Woods could easily be correct.  (Indeed, in the past I have personally been guilty of gratuitously insulting common religious beliefs, for no good reason.  I apologize).  If you're really going to persist in a shouting match on the grounds that the other side started it, it's quite possible that detailed historical investigation will reveal that your side started it.  Worse, much depends on how you define the "sides."

In any case, if shouting matches are as counter-productive as I claim, it makes little difference who first left the path of civility.  It really does take two to tango.  If you find yourself in a shouting match, search your own words and behavior to see if you have needlessly provoked your opponents.  Perhaps an apology is in order.  If you're ambivalent, the wise err on the side of contrition.  If, after a healthy adjustment for self-serving bias, you find yourself above reproach, it still pays to turn the other cheek, to talk to your opponent as if he were your best friend.  While you'll still probably fail to persuade, you drastically increase your prospects.

You might reply, "The point of the shouting match isn't to persuade the other side.  It's to persuade spectators that I shouldn't be blamed for the other side's embarrassing words."  Perhaps.  But if spectators are that easily confused, it's probably more effective to get the other side to stop embarrassing you.  If so, which sounds more effective to you?

"Stop embarrassing me, you horrible excuse for a libertarian!"


"Two of my opponents' seven complaints about me are fair, and I'm going to stop doing these two things."

Note that I say "more effective" not "fully effective" or even "highly effective."  As far as I know, there are no highly effective methods of persuasion in these matters.  But some remain better than others.

My claims about shouting matches are completely general.  But of course I'm most eager to end shouting matches between people close to me.  Accordingly I propose a Pax Libertaria - a Libertarian Peace.  The terms of the peace: Individual libertarians unilaterally pledge to defuse shouting matches by (a) meticulously searching their own words and actions for shortcomings, (b) erring strongly on the side of making amends for their arguable shortcomings, and (c) turning the other cheek when the other side shouts at them despite their blamelessness.  This could mean ignoring the other side, or politely responding to their substantive arguments without further comment.

To avoid misunderstanding, the Pax Libertaria certainly doesn't follow from libertarian principles.  People have every right to engage in shouting matches, no matter how destructive.  But as libertarians often say, the fact that you have a right to do X does not mean that it is right for you to do X.  The Pax Libertaria is a roadmap to peace for libertarians.  It's an attempt to increase the effectiveness of libertarian persuasion by reducing the frequency of libertarian infighting.  If the Pax Libertaria seems like it's asking a lot, I say you have nothing to lose but your anger.  Give Pax a chance.

COMMENTS (32 to date)
Eric Evans writes:

That would be great advice if the argument were even about the issue at this point. Now we're at who, through force of egotistical will, can force the other side into submission. Bodes well for the future of libertarianism.

Tim writes:

Bodes well for the future of libertarianism.

I'm pretty sure libertarianism will survive an internet spat.

Joe Cushing writes:

Whenever the comment level reaches that many on this blog, I usually don't read them all. Almost everything that can be said, will be said in the first 20 comments here. Although I did post a comment of my own at around the 85 mark.

I have to say I am slightly guilty of entering a shouting match although I rarely do petty insults and I also don't do ad hominem attacks. If I disagree with somebody, It means I can attack their idea.

john hare writes:

Sometimes winning becomes more important than discovering the truth. I know quite a few people that feel that their side is so obviously right that anyone that disagrees is a moron. With that as a basis, they feel that all is fair from then on.

I am currently trying to figure out if it is worth my time and effort to devise a method of communicating this to a local 912 group, or to give up on them entirely. At the last meeting a speaker went on for ~30 minutes on the evil of Mohamed a dozen centuries ago, apparently unaware that his specific examples (rape, massacre, enslavement)were fairly standard for conquering armies until fairly recently. None of the 50-70 members there called him on it or seemed aware of the irony to a visitor like me.

How do you get a point across to those that have their minds made up while remaining receptive to legitimate opposing viewpoints?

Jacob AG writes:
"giving into anger makes it harder to tell truth from falsehood."
Very Yoda. Yoda was a good debater.
RPLong writes:

The only advice any libertarian debater needs to follow is "Be more like David Henderson."

ssh writes:

If shouting matches create stasis that should be the dominant strategy for those who favor the current equilibrium.

Glen Smith writes:

One thing I've seen in all "sides" but especially among libertarians is that people tend to take the side that benefits them most usually arguing that it is an exception or convince themselves that when the free market gives rise to a different result than they want, it is because of intervention by government. Also for a group who attracted me because future outcomes cannot be known, many libertarians are certain that their forecasted outcomes are certain. For instance, in the debate about big business, certain people are certain they would exist in the libertarian ideal world while others are convinced they wouldn't. Neither side has made a compelling argument that they are certainly correct but tend to argue as if their position is a 100% certainty.

Brian writes:

People engage in shoutng matches because it makes them feel good about themselves. It gives them the illusion that they have vanquished their opponent. It plays a similar role, therefore, to going to a football game and verbally abusing the opposing players and fans.

Whether effective or not, shouting matches are wrong because they are acts of self-delusion.

Bryan says "As a rule, I dislike shouting matches."

No doubt Bryan dislikes some shouting matches, but probably not "as a rule" given his admitted penchant for gratuitously insulting religious beliefs. This penchant is not surprising--it makes him feel good about his particular religious choices.

Brian writes:

People engage in shoutng matches because it makes them feel good about themselves. It gives them the illusion that they have vanquished their opponent. It plays a similar role, therefore, to going to a football game and verbally abusing the opposing players and fans.

Whether effective or not, shouting matches are wrong because they are acts of self-delusion.

Bryan says "As a rule, I dislike shouting matches."

No doubt Bryan dislikes some shouting matches, but probably not "as a rule" given his admitted penchant for gratuitously insulting religious beliefs. This penchant is not surprising--it makes him feel good about his particular religious choices.

David R. Henderson writes:

Great post, Bryan.
Thank you so much.
No doubt Bryan dislikes some shouting matches, but probably not "as a rule" given his admitted penchant for gratuitously insulting religious beliefs. This penchant is not surprising--it makes him feel good about his particular religious choices.
But notice, Brian, that Bryan did see that in himself and did apologize.

Bob Murphy writes:

But if we ban shouting matches, only the criminals will have them.

John Strong writes:

When we are doing something virtuous, we are full of self-congratulation and we set our hearts on the table for everyone to admire. When we are doing something wrong, we don't ask embarrassing questions about the state of our hearts; our entire focus is on the external, the object of the illicit hatred or pleasure.

Bryan, it is very nice to see that you can step back from an argument and ask questions like the ones you ask above: "Why am I getting angry? What do I expect to achieve?"

Many of us like and admire Prof. Russ Roberts in part because he has the ability to question himself in precisely that manner.

Why shouldn't libertarians be *wise* as well as *right*?

johnleemk writes:

"People have every right to engage in shouting matches, no matter how destructive. But as libertarians often say, the fact that you have a right to do X does not mean that it is right for you to do X."

My personal observation is that whatever their words, by revealed preference many libertarians often seem to embrace the view that "if you have the right to do X, it is right (or all right) for you to do X". Immigration restrictions are a good example of this; even if one embraces the view that national governments have the right to exclude any foreigner they like from their territory, that hardly means it is morally right for them to do so.

When I was in university, the libertarian-leaning student newspaper on my campus frequently made gratuitously insulting remarks about all manner of groups on campus (women's advocacy groups, leftist groups, Native American groups, etc.), and when called to account for it, defened themselves simply on the grounds that they *had the right* to do so. The libertarian worship of individual liberties is all well and good, but the exercise of individual liberty demands that one responsibly consider how to exercise it.

Maximum Liberty writes:

I pledge the Pax Libertaria. When arguing with fellow believers in freedom, I will meticulously search my own words and actions for shortcomings; I will err strongly on the side of making amends for my arguable shortcomings; and I will turn the other cheek when the other side shouts at me despite my blamelessness.


Philo writes:

I’m having trouble connecting up your parenthetical remark: “[I]n the past I have personally been guilty of gratuitously insulting common religious beliefs, for no good reason. I apologize,” with the main body of your post, which concerns *shouting matches*. Are you saying you have engaged in (public) shouting matches about religion? That seems very unlike you.

As for merely insulting the religious views of your interlocutor (without shouting), you notice that perhaps "[t]he point of the [insult] isn't to persuade the other side,” but I don’t think you take the point seriously enough. For every died-in-the-wool religious person you insulted you may have awakened some other young, inexperienced religious person to the fact that an intelligent, knowledgeable, thoughtful person (you) viewed his accustomed beliefs as not just false but ridiculous. This may have given him the impetus to a more critical assessment of the views into which he had been indoctrinated. To that extent, you did something good.

It is only reasonable to look beyond the people who are (or claim to be) insulted to the others in your audience.

Vipul Naik writes:

I think there's one single simple rule that, if followed by any of the major participants, would cut down on at least half the hostility. Namely: don't use snark or sarcasm, and don't put words in people's mouths. I generally also put a lot of emphasis on the principle of charity. However, I think that it's possible to be unintentionally uncharitable simply because the charitable interpretation doesn't strike you. But avoiding snark and sarcasm is relatively easier, and it means that you have still left open the possibility of being corrected.

Snark and sarcasm seem to end up signaling that there's no point even having a debate, minds are already made up, and the other side is worthy only of contempt. This may not be the intention of the person using snark. May be they just thought up something clever and wanted to use it. But it comes across that way to a lot of other people. Cutting out on snark and sarcasm is like cutting out on unhealthy but addictive eating. It feels bad at the time, but yields long-run benefits.

[I'm not saying that snark and sarcasm are never appropriate. But they're least appropriate when used along side serious discussion. If you're a cartoonist, then snark and sarcasm are part of your trade. It's when you're writing an ostensibly serious critique and you use snark that it comes across as really really bad. It indicates that the other side is so unworthy that you consider them worth mocking in a serious forum. The same way that a professor in a suit saying "<insert expletive here>" at a conference to a presenter sounds much worse than a teenager shouting the same out of a bus at a passerby.]

Steve Horwitz and Sarah Skwire's piece "No Girls Allowed" set a bad tone here with a snarky title and picture. Tom Woods' "The Central Committee Has Handed Down Its Denunciation" was also snarky.

I've been guilty of uncharitable and hostile interpretations in the past, but snark is one thing that I have (at least in the last few months) tried to studiously avoid, and that has meant that it's been easier to recover from any damage caused by an uncharitable interpretation. A principled commitment to never be snarky also reduces the need for others to figure out whether I am being serious, or sarcastic. I wish I'd avoided snark right from childhood -- but better late than never.

Chris H writes:

You know I think one thing that might help with keeping a Pax Libertaria is maintaining a social circle where you're in the political minority. The advantages of this are three-fold. First, it helps keep disagreements in context. It tends to be harder for me to really demonize an opponent of mine when I realize I have a bunch of friends who have (from my perspective) WAY crazier or poorly thought out ideas. Beyond that, having a bunch of friends you deeply disagree with about politics give you practice in being civil and understanding to other people. While there are some people who in an argument you can hurl all the abuse you want between each other and still be fine once it's done, that doesn't seem to be typical. Have friends for whom getting out of hand in an argument hurts the relationship and you'll tend to learn to control yourself (or end up without many friends, but at least you tried right?). Finally, having a bunch of friends you think are politically crazy helps a person internalize the idea that otherwise well-intentioned and intelligent people can and will disagree on politics. If you can realize that with liberals, conservatives, even socialists, then you can certainly then realize that with fellow libertarians.

If you don't have a lot of friends you disagree with take the chance to go get more friends. Alternatively if you have a bunch of diverse friends and find yourself still mostly agreeing with them on politics, you may not be radical enough in your thinking. ;)

Vipul Naik writes:


I think that a lot of people are pretty rude, but libertarian rudeness usually sounds worse to common people mostly because it cuts in politically incorrect directions. Nobody likes a rude person, but when somebody heaps abuse at (purportedly) privileged classes like rich people, white people, elites, bankers, etc., then this doesn't sound as bad as heaping abuse at heaping abuse at poor people, black people, rednecks, people in low-income countries, and mortgage defaulters. Libertarians generally don't pay a lot of attention to these social cues.

In general, I think it's good to avoid social conventions of political correctness, but it's even better to combine that with a commitment to not be rude to anyone, regardless of whether such rudeness is politically correct or incorrect. Even in the face of provocative rudeness from the other side, it's better to stay mum than respond in kind.

There are some libertarians, however, who go beyond merely being oblivious to social conventions, and seem to actively relish politically incorrect statements, not because they are racist/sexist/whatever, but simply to get a trollish sense of satisfaction out of offending politically correct sensibilities. Patri Friedman has been guilty of this. I think it's unfortunate that an individual as accomplished as Friedman would think things like this, let alone say them in public:

Now, I don't know that this fact has any substantive or interesting content, and I'm not claiming it means anything. It's just that people get ticked off by any discussion of race, and people get ticked off by any claim that Obama is Muslim, and it is fun to tick people off by saying true things, so pointing out that by a non-unreasonable (or only slightly-unreasonable) definition, Obama really is a Muslim, is fun. At least, fun for me, and I suspect the original author, and perhaps some of you. YMMV :).

I'm not going to feign outrage here, but I do think that resisting the urge to troll and be snarky, even if it means you get fewer laughs, is the ethically correct thing to do. I don't think that Patri Friedman's attitude as demonstrated here is an ideal model for libertarians or anybody seeking to seriously discuss issues of race or religion or anything.

ajb writes:

As someone who has critiqued Bryan for his occasionally thoughtless asides and unwillingness to consider how his words offend others, I commend him for his apology re: gratuitous attacks on common religious beliefs.

guthrie writes:

I believe the commentator David has a point. My theory: The reason for raising one's voice is because one feels their relative status threatened in some way. Most 'discussions' or 'debates' are really attempts by the various parties to assert or establish a particular position in the pecking-order (typically 'higher' than that of their opponent), and these transactions rarely have anything to do with the topic at hand or the soundness of the solutions advocated. No matter how much confidence a person places in his/her own ideas, they may find it very difficult not to abreact in some way to the perceived threat (Russ Roberts and David Henderson are examples, given above, of persons practiced in suppressing this impulse). This theory supports Bryan's assertion that these encounters are counter-productive. If we learned these kind of transactions as 'games to be played' instead of 'serious discussions' then those involved might actually advance the discussion and their various ideas in some way.

Ken B writes:

I can think of gratuitous religious comments I hear all the time. Some examples:
"According to the Bible ..."
"According to the Quran ..."
"According to the Torah ..."

Seth writes:

Correlation is not causation.

I can do w/o fallacies, whether they comes in calm conversation or shouting matches. But, I've had a good number of productive shouting matches, where either myself or opponent came back later, after the emotions subsided, and said that something the other said really struck a chord. So, I wouldn't throw the baby out with the bath water.

johnleemk writes:

Seth, I suspect that those productive discussions are typically held in person and/or between people who are already familiar with each other (and often, in a relatively private forum where the magnitude of disagreement/dissing is not publicly visible). My intuition is that relatively anonymous discussions held in public view online between relative strangers are less likely to result in such a meeting of the minds if insults are gratuitously exchanged.

txslr writes:

I am reminded of the old saw “If the facts are against you, argue the law. If the facts and the law are against you, pound the table.”

When I have been shouted at by my libertarian friends (of whom I have a large number) it has usually been because I questioned whether a position they held was really logically required by their political philosophy. There is a natural desire on the part of most people to believe that they have figured it all out, and libertarians are not immune to that desire. So, when I have suggested that the fundamentals of libertarian philosophy do not actually meaningfully inform us on issues like abortion, gay marriage or important parts of national defense I have more often gotten invective than reasoned discourse.

This conversation usually ends with my friends calling me a conservative, as if that simultaneously puts me in my place and explains why I keep raising these issues. This is why I don’t call myself a libertarian – I’m not interested in adopting a whole host of positions that seem to me orthogonal to the basic political philosophy, and I don’t like being treated like a heretic.

ajb writes:

txslr writes:

I’m not interested in adopting a whole host of positions that seem to me orthogonal to the basic political philosophy, and I don’t like being treated like a heretic.

Here here!

Both libertarians and Marxists annoy me by their view that one must start from a coherent and articulated philosophy and derive all positions from certain basic premises.

Why? I have a number of views which I believe cohere but I'm not particularly concerned with worrying about whether I have conscious awareness of what assumptions underlie all my positions or whether I can articulate them in a useful way for the benefit of hostile audiences. Nor do I care.

Mark V Anderson writes:

Vipul explains it all in his two comments. I have have nothing further to add.

Beth writes:


What you are referring to is the concept of consistency (which is different from hypocrisy.)

I personally am attracted to Libertarianism and libertarians due to a more general sense and practice of consistency as compared to almost all other ideologies/outlooks.

I used to feel the way you do, asking myself what was wrong with picking and choosing my different philosophies and views towards subjects. It got old and not satisfying after a while. Inconsistency is a logical fallacy.

There is something so refreshing about consistency combined with ethics...which is why I will probably remain a libertarian the rest of my life or until another ideology shows itself to be more consistent and ethical.

Lars P writes:

Like any anti establishment ideology, libertarianism attracts a disproportionate number of angry argumentative kooks.

Tom West writes:

It sounds like Bryan is privileging "truth-seeking" over Libertarianism.

Better be careful.

Anyone who claims X *is* the truth has already abandoned truth-seeking, and anyone who claims that X seems to me to be the truth at this time has already made clear their willingness to abandon their peers and colleagues in the event of new information or understanding.

For most (although Libertarians less than others), loyalty to the group is more important than what the group's actual beliefs, and shouting matches as well as denigrating one's opponents promote bonding.

RH writes:

"Shouting matches" are so common when people are debating that my instinct is to think that the propensity to engage in them is innate. And if they're innate, they probably serve an evolutionary function. The basis could be one of the following, or some combination of both

A) They increase in-group solidarity, and Bryan is correct that they do not convince anyone outside the choir; or

B) They actually do convince those not on your side, and Bryan is wrong on this point

If libertarians fight with each other, then (B) is likely to be the predominate force, as shouting matches split the group apart rather than bringing it together.

That being said, this innate tendency to be convinced by insults can probably be overcome by a culture that values civility, as our mainstream discourse does (unless one is classified as a "racist," "child molester," "terrorist" or some other kind of "other").

Jake Shannon writes:

Extravagant shouting matches can garner profits, action, and attention, see Vince McMahon's billion dollar success with body builders in feather boas. While libertarians should be all about profits, action, and attention, it is usually just rhetoric... What is needed is a muscular libertarianism, a pacifism that will punch you back.

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