Bryan Caplan  

Conversion: The Quantity/Quality Trade-off

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Confession: Whenever I write, I'm looking for converts.  I don't just want to share some information.  I want to change how my readers think - and how they see themselves.

When I read other proselytizing thinkers, however, I cringe.  I cringe not merely because I disagree with their conclusions.  And I certainly don't object to the conversion motive itself.  I cringe, rather, because my competitors seem far too focused on the quantity of their converts rather than their quality

How can I tell?  If your main goal is to convince as many people as possible, you naturally focus on emotional appeals - especially to anger, fear, and disgust.  Everyone feels these emotions, so everyone's a potential convert.  If you bother making arguments at all, build your case around vivid stories, not step-by-step arguments.  Don't bother trying to pass an Ideological Turing Test for opposing views; you'll just confuse your audience.  In fact, don't bother anticipating and answering the best objections to your views.  Just troll and move on.  Why respond to arguments most of your potential converts have never even heard?

In contrast, if your main goal is to improve the intellectual quality of people on "your side," you do the opposite.  Start by urging your allies to calm down, because anger, fear, and disgust impede careful reasoning.  Then, review popular arguments for your allies' views - and point out flaws in said arguments.  Finally, offer better arguments - and more reasonable conclusions.  Along the way, you'll eagerly address the best objections you've encountered - and try to present them as skillfully as their best advocates.  By the end, most of your potential audience will have wandered away in anger, fear, and disgust.  But the few who remain will be better thinkers and better people.

I can't honestly claim to focus solely on quality.  Frankly, it gets a little dull.  But from where I'm standing, most public intellectuals focus almost exclusively on quantity.  This is hardly surprising for slower-witted pundits; maybe they can't do any better.  But when I see brilliant minds demagoguing, I'm aghast.  Even if they made converts by the boatload, I'd be ashamed to emulate them.

Admittedly, you could accuse me of sour grapes.  My quantity-conversion skills are, at best, weak.  My quality-conversion skills, in contrast, are pretty good.  Give me an hour with someone who sympathizes with my general views, and I can reliably inculcate more reasonable versions of those views.

And if you give me ten minutes every day on EconLog, I can do much more.  You will not be numerous, my readers.  But you will be marvelous! :-)




COMMENTS (8 to date)
J writes:

I enjoy your point. I see the truth in what you wrote. You have the 10 minutes.

Thank you for your time.

Thaomas writes:

This reminds me of my frustration with most of the arguments against a higher minimum wage. Opponents seldom address the best argument, that a higher minimum wage might be a fairly low-cost, both in total lost output and in unemployment, way of raising the incomes of low-wage workers given the apparent political infeasibility of an equivalently higher EITC. Rather they address the populist idea that there are no costs at all and draw attention to the costs being highest for the most marginally attached or lowest skilled workers.

Andrew writes:

What little I know of game theory suggests that quality over quantity should gain more of an edge in the long term.

Philo writes:

We *are* marvelous! Thank you for noticing!

Hazel Meade writes:

Case in point: Murray Rothbard, Lew Rockwell, and right-wing racists.

Many libertarians argue that Rothbard and Rockwell were attempting to lure white racists into the libertarian fold by emphasizing issues like anti-discrimination law vs. private property rights. Maybe after being introduced to libertarian ideas (the logic goes) these people would come to support the benefits of a free market small government philosophy.

But what did this buy libertarians in the long run? Instead of little proto-libertarians, we got the alt-right. Instead of Rand Paul, we got Donald Trump. We never sold these people on the ideas of liberty. They were just hitching a ride until they could find a fuller expression of their racist philosophy.

MikeDC writes:

It seems to me that hardly anyone is writing to directly persuade non-believers. Rather, they're mostly writing to persuade co-believers to keep believing. And occasionally they might engage in an effort to suppress non-believers, which is very different than persuasion.

Brian writes:

Who is the smartest pundit that is also a demagogue?

Dr. Krugman has the most twitter followers and influence compared to any other economist (second place is significantly lower). Does he seek "converts" ? With his caustic style, almost by definition, he seems to only preach to the choir. He insults everyone who isn't already firmly in his "camp." But with his credentials, he is smarter than you and smarter than everyone. So if you don't agree with him, this first confirms your inferior intelligence. Then, on your way out the door, you get insulted, your motives are questioned, and yes, while you're at it, you are also evil.

He seeks quantity, clearly, with his readership in the New York Times, and eager disciples who want a "smart" voice to profess liberal views.

How is this post not directed at Dr. Krugman?

Hazel Meade writes:

@Brian,
I wonder how Dr. Krugman feels about the number of syncophanic commenters on his blog and opinion pieces. Does it feel good to have so many people constantly praising one's correctness, or does it feel kind of wierd and icky?

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