Adam Ash

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Sunday, February 05, 2006

How to win arguments about war, gun control, drugs, etc.

1. The Argument From Morality: Or, how we will win ... by Stefan Molyneux

The argument from morality is the most powerful tool in any freedom-lovers arsenal – but also the most personally costly, since it draws lines in relationships that can never be erased. The argument from morality can cost you friends, family, community – and so approach it with courage, and understand that, once you decide to use it, your life will never again be the same.

Simply put, the argument from morality is the most powerful approach to changing society because all major social decisions are made on the basis of ethics. If a population believes that a certain program is moral – i.e. war, welfare, social security and so on – then they may grumble, but they will also roll up their sleeves, get to work and support it no matter what their personal cost. Men will go off to war, mothers will turn their kids over to nannies, people will surrender massive portions of their income and freedom with nary a protest – all in the name of what is good .

Redefining "the good" is very, very hard. Throughout their lives, people make thousands of decisions based on certain moral principles – and it if turns out that those principles were wrong , then they will be forced to admit that their whole lives have been spent in the service of falsehood, or corruption, or evil – and that is more than most people can stomach. In order to preserve their illusions of goodness, they will fight any close examination of moral principles almost to the death!

Morality is a fairly complex subject, of course, but it suffices here to say that morality must be based on a universal and logically-consistent set of principles – if it is just a matter of opinion, then no course of action can be "better" than any other course of action – any more than liking blue is "better" than liking red.

Most people believe that their decisions are based on a consistent set of moral principles, but those moral principles – as Socrates discovered millennia ago – crumble within minutes under any rigorous logical examination. I have found that the most effective approach is to be curious and persistent – but not be afraid to call a spade a spade.

To begin, there are really only three principles to remember when using the argument from morality:

1. Nothing exists except people.

There is no such thing as "the government," or a "country," or "society." All these terms for social aggregations are merely conceptual labels for individuals. "The government" never does anything – only people within the government act. Thus the "government" – since it is a concept – has no reality, ethical rights or moral standing. Moral rules apply to people , not concepts . If anyone argues with you about this, just ask them to show you their "family" without showing you any individual people. They’ll get the point.

2. What is good for one must be good for all.

Moral beliefs, in order to rise above mere opinion, must be applicable to everyone. There is no logically consistent way to say that Person A must do X, but Person Y must never do X. If an action is termed "good," then it must be good for all people . If I classify the concept "mammal" as "warm-blooded," then it must include all warm-blooded organisms – otherwise the concept is meaningless. The concept "good" must thus encompass the preferred behaviour for all people – not just "Orientals" or "Policemen" or "Americans." If it doesn’t, then it’s just an aesthetic or cultural penchant, like preferring hockey to football, and loses any power for universal prescription. Thus if it is "good" for a politician to use force to take money from you and give it to me, then it is also "good" for anyone else to do it.

3. What is bad for one must be bad for all.

Conversely, if it is wrong for me to go and steal money from someone else, then it is wrong for anyone to go and steal money from anyone else. If shooting a man who is not threatening you is evil in Atlanta, then it is also evil in Iraq. If being paid to go and shoot someone is wrong for a hit man, then it is also wrong for a soldier. If breaking into a peaceful citizen’s house, kidnapping him and holding him prisoner is wrong for you and me, than it is also wrong for the agents of the DEA.

Thus far, the argument from morality is very similar to the argument from consistency. The argument from morality comes in by stating that, if it is wrong or evil for me to rob Peter to pay Paul, then it is wrong or evil for anyone – including politicians – to do it. Thus a man who defends state welfare programs, for instance, can only do so on the grounds of personal preference, but he cannot claim that it is moral. In fact, he must admit that, on the basis of any universal principles, the welfare state is immoral , since if it is wrong for anyone to steal, then it is also wrong for everyone to steal – including politicians!

Using the above principles, here are some examples of arguments from morality:

Gun Control

If owning guns is bad, then it is bad for everyone. Guns, then, should be banned. Thus policemen and soldiers must give up their weapons. If policemen and soldiers need guns to protect themselves from dangerous criminals, why not ordinary citizens? Does that mean that possessing guns is sometimes good and sometimes bad? What is the difference? Remember – there is no such thing as "a policeman" or "a soldier" – those are mere concepts. Only people exist, and if gun ownership is a good idea for a soldier, but a bad idea for a private citizen, what happens to the soldier when he goes on leave? Does his nature change somehow, so that now he no longer has the right to own a gun? What about when a policeman changes out of his uniform? Does he change in some fundamental manner, and so loses the right to be armed? Is it only his uniform that has the right to carry a gun? What if someone else puts on that uniform? Of course, these questions cannot be answered, and so the whole argument for gun control becomes logically foolish. People will then turn to the argument from effect – i.e. general gun ownership leads to increased violence – which can also be easily countered. If gun ownership leads to increased violence, then surely the cops and soldiers will become increasingly violent if they alone have guns. Since dictatorships and war are worse than crime (because you can defend yourself against criminals, but not governments), then surely that is an argument against only allowing people who work for the state to carry guns. Thus a person can only argue against gun ownership from a subjective "me no like" perspective – which is a perfect time to explain how the stateless free market can grant him his wish!


The ability to wage war requires that politicians retain the right to steal from certain citizens to pay other citizens to murder people. In other words, George Bush must be able to steal from some Americans to pay other Americans to go murder Iraqis. Of course, if Bush is allowed to do this, why is only Bush allowed to do this? Why am I not allowed to do this? Why does the government make it illegal for anyone else (i.e. the Mafia) to do this? Why is it only good for people wearing certain clothing to be hired on as murderers? Also – if the government can steal from citizens to pay soldiers to shoot Iraqis because Iraqis are a threat, then what about the stealing that pays for it all? Isn’t the government itself the greatest threat to me, since it robs me at gunpoint to pay for a war which encourages terrorism? If it is moral to rob me to pay people to kill those who threaten me, aren’t I morally required to hire mercenaries to shoot those who come to rob me in the first place? If it’s bad for me to do that, why is it not bad for Bush to do that? What is the difference between me and Bush? Are we some kind of different species? If not, then why do we have such diametrically opposite moral commandments? (Here, people will often talk about our "voluntary transfer" of moral authority to the government, but then state force is not required, and so taxation can be eliminated without effect.)

Minimum Wage

If Person A can shoot Person B for not paying Person C enough, why can Person C not also do that? Why can I not do that, if I think my wages should be higher? Why do some people have the right to supplement their income with violence and others do not?

Also, what exactly is the moral difference between $5 and $5.15 per hour? Why is one an evil to be punished and the other not? Does the extra fifteen cents turn the first five dollars from an evil into a good? Does it change the nature of the first five dollars somehow? Also, if it is moral to use violence to increase one’s income, can people on welfare shoot government officials if they want more money? What about people on social security? If not, why not?

Government Parks

If one person (say, Bill Clinton), can draw on a map and transfer the ownership of the property he outlines in perpetuity, why only Clinton? Why can’t I do that? If Clinton can pay state troopers to shoot those who trespass on property he has never visited, can anyone do that?


The war on drugs is based on the principle that Bob can decide what Sally may do to her own body in the privacy of her own home. Why only Bob then? Why cannot Sally also decide what Bob may do in the privacy of his own home? And are drugs illegal because they are always bad? But they are not always bad – no more than alcohol. Ever listen to Sergeant Pepper's? What about Pink Floyd? Bohemian Rhapsody? Chet Baker? Ray Charles? Beautiful stuff. All composed on hard drugs. Is it the self-destructive excess that is bad? But it is not the excess that is bad, but even occasional recreational use. Then that must mean that all behaviour that can lead to self-destructive excess must be banned. Working can lead to workaholism. Going to the gym can lead to compulsive exercise. Desserts can lead to obesity. Credit cards can lead to excessive debt. All these things must then be banned – which leads to a logical contradiction. If all activities which can lead to abusive excesses must be banned, then what about the government itself? Is it not an abusive excess to have a government with the terrible power to monitor and punish just about every aspect of citizens’ lives? And finally, what about the budget of the DEA itself? Hundreds of billions of dollars have been wasted in the war on drugs, just to raise profits for criminals and government agencies and chain millions of people in the drug gulags – is that not a textbook example of "abusive excess?" What about government deficits and debts in general? What about the government’s excellent adventures in foreign policy? Its habit of arming and funding foreign dictators? Training and supporting Bin Laden? Giving aid and military helicopters to Saddam Hussein? Invading Iraq? Are they not the greatest and most egregious examples of an excess of self-destructive behaviour? Aren’t the inevitable brutalities of state power – which truly harm the innocent – far more destructive than smoking a joint? If not, why not?

The State

Certain people calling themselves "the state" claim the moral right to use force against other people – a moral right, they claim, that is based on elections. Very well – all we have to do is ask which moral principle justifies this rather startling right. The answer we will get is: when the majority of people choose a leader, then everyone has to submit to that leader . Excellent! Then we must ask if senators and congressmen ever defy their party leader. If they do, then aren’t they acting immorally? Their party has chosen a leader – don’t they then have to obey that person? If they don’t, then why do we? Also, if the principle is that the majority can impose the leader’s decisions on the minority, why is that only the case for the government? What about women, who outnumber men? What about employees, who outnumber managers? And last but not least, what about voters, who outnumber politicians? If the majority should forcibly impose its will on the minority, shouldn’t we all have the ability to throw politicians in jail if they don’t do what we want? What if atheists outnumber Christians in a certain town? Can they ban churches? Can Mormon wives "outvote" their husbands? Students in universities outnumber professors – can they then threaten jail for bad marks? Patients outnumber doctors, prisoners outnumber jailers – the list goes on and on. If the moral theory of "majority rule" is valid, then it must be valid for all situations. If not, then it is a pure evil, since it supports the use of all the ghastly horrors of the state – theft, kidnapping, imprisonment – and sometimes, as we all know, torture and execution. Thus the moral theory which justifies and demands the exercise of such terrible power better be pretty damn airtight – and as you can see, it is riddled with nonsense.

When you present the above contradictions, if your listener cannot resolve them – and trust me, he won’t be able to – then he has to admit that, until they are resolved, he has no moral basis for his beliefs. He can still hold his beliefs, of course, but he cannot claim that they represent any universal principles – they’re just little personal preferences – like if he said that he liked muffins more then doughnuts. He has no right to impose such personal preferences on others – and certainly no right to champion them as state policy. Ask him if he will refrain from advocating his preferences until he solves the problem of universal application. If he says yes, then ask him if he will also oppose such state policies until he solves the problem. If yes, congratulations! Baptize him an anarchist and send him out to spread the word! If not, then tell him that if he continues to advocate what he knows to be false – or at best questionable – then he is a hypocrite.

I know, it doesn’t sound very nice, but really – we are facing people advocating the total power of the state – is sparing the feelings of those arming our enemies to be our main concern? The ideal of freedom deserves defenders made of slightly sterner stuff.

I’m sure the basis for the argument from morality is fairly clear now – and so now, with some practice in the Socratic method of "blank slate" premise-questioning, you are poised to become an expert in the destruction of false morality.

A word of caution, however. As Socrates himself found, the decision to deploy the argument from morality should not be taken lightly. Asking fundamental moral questions makes many people become frightened, scornful or outright hostile. It is though, in my view, the only way that we can win the fight for freedom. Since society makes all of its fundamental decisions based on moral premises, our only chance for success is to undermine and change those moral premises – which requires the skillful, persistent and consistent application of the argument from morality. For too long we have been on the defensive, crying our truths from lonely peaks – and all too often, only to each other. It is time that we took the offensive, and began to cross-examine those who are so sure of their right to use violence to achieve their ends. It will not be easy – and here I speak from personal experience – but it is essential. It is right and good to ask such questions – and, if you decide that you are brave and strong enough to start using the argument from morality, you will have already joined that tiny group of honest thinkers that have forever saved mankind.

2. Forget The Argument From Efficiency -- by Stefan Molyneux

For three main reasons, freedom can never be won by arguing for economic efficiency. Such efficiency is always debatable, inevitably rests on technical details obscure to most people, and is one of the topics most subject to government misinformation. In Canada, arguing that a free market will produce lower costs in health care, for instance, always brings the contrary example of the United States, and its high spending on medical costs. Refuting this misleading statistic requires exhaustive levels of detail, which the listener has likely never heard before, and which are easy to dismiss. Arguing that health care was cheaper before the government got involved is also unproductive, since people can easily argue that technology was far less advanced in the past, or that there were fewer old people, or less life-extending procedures and pills. The argument from efficiency is never conclusive, since it requires statistics, a mountain of specialized knowledge, enormous patience – and it can be derailed at any time by false, missing or incomplete information.

The argument from efficiency also requires near-omniscience. Arguing that the free market is more efficient – and how each of its supposed ‘inefficiencies’ always results from state intervention – requires detailed knowledge of literally dozens of fields. Explaining to someone why the California energy crisis resulted not from privatization, but state control, requires at least half an hour of lecturing on economics, history and regulation. Not a pleasant prospect! And even if the listener makes it through to the conclusion, he or she has just learned an interesting piece of history. He will not have the ability to extrapolate these facts into general principles of economics – even with help – let alone moral axioms regarding state violence.

You may be adept at arguing against anti-monopoly legislation by referencing the software industry – but what if your listener is well-versed in the steel sector? Telecommunications? Libraries? At some point, your knowledge will falter, and you will have to promise to get back to her. This is why so many freedom advocates rush from books to lectures to web sites for evidence – and risk turning themselves into terminal bores. It is an impossible quest.

Imagine instead that you are a 19 th century abolitionist arguing against slavery. You say the slaves should be freed, and base your argument on economic efficiency. The objections you must overcome include the following:
How on earth would freed slaves find jobs when the economy is so bad?
You can’t educate slaves – that’s why they’re slaves!
Freed slaves have no job skills, and would just turn to crime.
Slaves are the only efficient way to run agriculture.
Slaves don’t have any sense of responsibility – it would be cruel to give them their "freedom."
There is no way you can run a plantation without slaves.
They don’t have any property, so they’d have to sell their labour to the plantation owner anyway – how would they be any more free?

As you can see, you would have to be an expert on a half-dozen fields just to answer a few of the objections that could be raised against your argument. The debate would quickly turn into a stalemate, as do all arguments for liberty based on economic efficiency.

The second reason that this approach fails is that people will never accept the risk of wrenching social change for the sake of theoretical economic benefits somewhere down the road. Liberty advocates must always remember that they are playing with fire whenever they talk about a fundamental reorganization of society. Most such ‘reorganizations’ result in far worse conditions for the average citizen. People are generally terrified of fundamental change – and for good reason. A possible increase in economic efficiency will never motivate them to put their entire way of life at terrible risk.

The third reason why the efficiency argument can never win is that people don’t really care about economic efficiency very much. Two quick examples. The first is parenthood. How could one argue that having children is economically efficient? They are expensive, exhausting and time-consuming – and few of the benefits of having children can be measured by economic statistics. This is an example of what generally motivates people. Not economic efficiency, but something else.

For another example, look at any wartime draft. When called up by their leader, men often flock to the slaughter without resistance. What is ‘efficient’ about that? One fundamental truth of human nature is that if people think that something is moral, they will bear almost any burden to support it. Women send their sons to war. Wives kiss their husbands goodbye. Children are proud of their father’s murders.

As it is with war, so it is with state power. If people believe that the state helps the poor, or heals the sick, or educates the ignorant, they will bear any burden to support it. They may grumble at their levels of taxation, but will soldier on regardless.

So if the argument from economic efficiency does not work, what can? There are, in my view, two other main approaches. We will only deal with one here – the argument from consistency – and leave the other to the next article.

What is the argument from consistency? Well, people believe that it is moral for the government to use force to take from the rich and give to the poor. One effective argument against this is to ask whether this is a universal moral principle. If the person says "yes," ’ then he has to agree that anyone can do it. A poor man can rob a rich man at gunpoint. Anyone who owns less than someone else can mug her, and shoot her if she resists. Is that the kind of world they believe would be good and just? Of course not. So, the principle that it is OK to use violence to transfer wealth has just been demolished. It is no longer a universal moral principle, but something else entirely.

This kind of argument does not require a sophisticated knowledge of history, economics, politics or any other detailed discipline. More importantly, it also does not require that the listener know any of these topics. All that is required is some gentle Socratic persistence.

Of course, the argument never ends there. People will come up with all sorts of nonsense about democracy, collective decisions and the transfer of moral authority to the state, but all those arguments are easy to demolish, as long as one does not forget that the state is nothing but a collection of individuals. Also, contracts that are entered into voluntarily are morally binding. Contracts that are enforced without consent are not. A man who buys a car must pay for it. A man who buys a car for a woman without her consent cannot compel her to pay for it. This is why centralized and enforced democratic ‘decisions’ are immoral.

So what does this look like in practice? Let’s take a common example: health care. Most freedom advocates have run into the difficulty of unraveling the US mess in particular. The argument from consistency might look like this:
Medical care must be entirely privatized.
But it’s more expensive when the State does not run it. Look at America!
I don’t believe so, but what if it is? Can I tell you how much you should spend on health care? Perhaps, in a free society, people would choose to spend half their income on health care. Would you tell them they cannot?
But in the US, 30 million people don’t have health insurance.
That is the result of terrible government laws which drive the cost of insurance up, and the benefits down – but let’s say that it is purely voluntary, that many people don’t want health insurance. So what? Would you force them to take health insurance?
But people should have health insurance!
Why? What if it costs half their income, and they’re eighteen, and very healthy, and take the bus, and don’t skydive, and always cross at the light, and so on? For that person, health insurance would probably make no sense. They would be far better off getting themselves educated, or saving their money, or just taking the risk of getting sick. Health insurance is a very personal decision. I would never feel comfortable making that choice for someone else.
But if that eighteen year old gets sick, they have to go to a public hospital, and so they incur a social cost.
Yes, at present that is true, but it won’t be the case if health care is privatized.
So they’ll just die in the streets?
Would that bother you? Watching poor people die in the streets for lack of health care?
Of course!
So you would help them, right?
Yes, Iwould, but…
And so would just about everyone else. Everyone cares about such things. The very presence and acceptance of state-funded health care proves that people care about sick people who can’t take care of themselves. So that won’t be a problem. But even if it is – let’s say that not one person in society cares about sick poor people, and they do die in the streets. If that is so, then giving the government more power would not help them, because such apathetic citizens would never vote for politicians who would care about the poor – and the politicians themselves would not care about the poor, since no one does. So – either people care about the sick and poor, and will help them without the government, or they don’t, in which case the government won’t help them either. The entire point of privatization is that we cannot force our own preferences on other people. If you prefer for everyone to have health insurance, I think that is wonderful! You should start up an insurance company and figure out how to provide it. Or support someone else who does. Or give to charity. Or become a doctor and work two days a week for free. Or pay extra for your own insurance so that others can pay reduced rates. There are thousands of ways to help. But the government cannot morally force people to give money to the poor, or provide them with free health care, because if it’s moral to force charity, then anyone can do it. We must then grant poor people the moral right to grab guns and rob doctors and hospitals for themselves.

This approach, of course, rarely clinches the argument. But it might be instructive to notice that the above argument never appeals to the economic efficiency of the free market. One of the most powerful debating techniques is to assume that your opponent’s premises are true, and then prove that they lead to absurd consequences. Thus, the argument which states that certain people may use violence on behalf of others – through taxation and welfare – can be easily countered by saying that, if it is the right thing to do, then everyone should be encouraged to do it. The government is then not needed – a moral person should just arm the poor directly and submit to their inevitable predations.

In conclusion, it is high time that freedom advocates bid a fond farewell to the argument from economic efficiency. It has been an instructive exercise for us to prove – at least to ourselves – that the free market can indeed provide the goods and services currently inflicted on society by brute state power, but it will never be stirring enough to motivate a larger movement. In the difficult march to a freer world, we need a more powerful banner. The argument from consistency is a good first step – but our true banner is not efficiency, or consistency, but the morality and goodness which naturally stirs and rouses to action every noble intent in the hearts of men.

(Stefan Molyneux has been an actor, comedian, gold-panner, graduate student, and software entrepreneur. His first novel, Revolutions was published in 2004, and he maintains a blog.)


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