I have decided to devote my first Health Alert of the New Year to “tolerance” and “rational thought” — terms that are rarely conjoined.
The next time you are in an argument with someone over a public policy, stop and ask yourself: Can you summarize your opponent’s position in words that he would recognize and accept? If not, you are not listening. And if you are not listening, odds are your own position was not arrived by any rational thought process. If you feel the need to mischaracterize the views of those you disagree with, odds are you are secretly very insecure about your own beliefs.
What brings this to mind are two Christmas Eve columns: A “bah humbug” column in The New York Times in which Paul Krugman accuses Republicans, conservatives and just about anyone else who is right-of-center of being worse than Ebenezer Scrooge and a “reality check” column in The Wall Street Journal, in which Arthur Brooks reveals that right-of-center folks are more charitable by far than people who think the way Paul Krugman thinks.
Just the way you are
At the National Center for Policy Analysis, we sponsor the largest online program for high school debaters on the Internet. It includes evidence, sample cases, economic analysis of the topic, an ask-the-expert section and a student chat room. We devote a lot of resources to this project because we think debate teaches students skills they will use their entire lives.
In high school debate, students get no points for ad hominem arguments — nothing gained, for example, by questioning their opponents’ motives, attacking their character, etc. All that counts is the ability to construct a logical argument and defend it with reason and evidence. To make sure the students fully understand both sides of each year’s debate topic, half the time they are required to debate the affirmative side and half the time they are on the negative.
Contrast the skills high school debaters have to master with this gem from Krugman:
Consider the scene, early in the book, where Ebenezer Scrooge rightly refuses to contribute to a poverty relief fund. “I’m opposed to giving people money for doing nothing,” he declares. Oh, wait. That wasn’t Scrooge. That was Newt Gingrich – last week. What Scrooge actually says is, “Are there no prisons?” But it’s pretty much the same thing… As you can see, the fundamental issues of public policy haven’t changed since Victorian times. Still, some things are different. In particular, the production of humbug — which was still a somewhat amateurish craft when Dickens wrote — has now become a systematic, even industrial, process.
Okay, I realize this isn’t up there with Frank Rich comparing Republicans to Nazis and the Ku Klux Klan (see Joe Scarborough here), but Krugman hasn’t been at it as long. To make matters worse, he completely misreads A Christmas Carol. As David Henderson points out, Scrooge was always a believer in the welfare state. What changed in the story was his attitude toward private charity. See also Troy Camplin at Austrian Economics and Literature.
Now against Krugman’s emotional diatribe, consider Arthur Brooks’ explanation of the “charity gap”:
Your intuition might tell you that people who favor government redistribution care most about the less fortunate and would give more to charity. Initially, this was my own assumption. But the data tell a different story. Those who were against higher levels of government redistribution privately gave four times as much money, on average, as people who were in favor of redistribution. This is not all church-related giving; they also gave about 3.5 times as much to non-religious causes. Anti-redistributionists gave more even after correcting for differences in income, age, religion and education… Those who said the government was “spending too much money on welfare” were more likely to donate blood than those who said the government was “spending too little money on welfare.” The anti-redistributionists were also more likely to give someone directions on the street, return change mistakenly handed them by a cashier, and give food (or money) to a homeless person.
You wonder why Krugman and Rich write the columns they write. Most op-ed authors want to persuade people. And maybe these two are persuading folks who live in Manhattan or Princeton — where Republicans are very scarce. But everywhere else, one out of every two people votes Republican. Do Krugman and Rich really think an editorial equivalent to a temper tantrum — with name calling and mischaracterization — is going to change how we think about our neighbors, business partners, family members, etc.? Or, are these editorials more like a word version of a Rorschach test? You decide.