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How not to argue with conservatives

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20 April 04.

The reader should note the arguments that I haven't suggested. These are things which are generally true and often important, but which are simply non-starters in debate with conservatives. They'll never get it, so don't waste your time trying.

In some ways, this is the most important section, albeit the most haphazard. A bad argument is worse than no argument at all, and I've often been vicariously embarrassed by fellow liberals (Ralph Nader) who argue the points below as if they're persuasive.

Equality and fairness arguments Equality is, to many conservatives, just not important. There's nothing much in the Bible about it, and humankind got along just fine without it for centuries and centuries. Similarly, many conservatives define fairness endogenously, so any outcome is always tautologically fair: if you can grab more for yourself, then you deserve more and that's fair.

I don't think there's any way to convince somebody that equality in treatment or outcomes is a good thing. So don't argue that a certain rule or structure is fair; instead, consider the ways that it appeals to the principles that our conservative pals find appealing, like efficiency (everybody likes efficiency) or pro-U.S. nationalism.

For example, redistributive taxation. By keeping the poorer folks fed, the likelihood of crime is lower, and kids are better fed and are more likely to be healthy and smarter and more productive in the future. You could provide certain goods/services via inefficient social services, or via the market by undertaxing the poor who are most likely to use those social services. You can get pretty far without ever using the word `fairness'.

To give another example, the Unified School Districts of various areas insist that all schools in a wide area (like LA) must get the same level of funding. Again, this improves efficiency: another dollar to a school which needs to buy textbooks will go a lot further than a dollar to a school which wants to fund one more field trip. [So why do LA's schools suck so badly? Because property taxes in California are so low that they're effectively nil, so every school in LA is equally underfunded. It's a paragon of where the conservative drive for lower taxes will get you: the fastest drop in school quality you've ever seen.] And why is it so easy to talk about optimality when we want to talk about fairness? Because fairness is optimal. Another dollar given to a wealthier person just isn't as useful as another dollar given to a starving person, so all else equal, the best allocation of a given dollar is to the starving guy. [Technical version: Although not universally true, people are generally risk averse, meaning that we can describe their preferences using a concave utility function. If everybody has equal weight and has the same utility function, then the optimal allocation is the perfectly equitable one.]

Even these arguments require some comprehension of efficiency on a societal level instead of on a personal level. Some folks just don't get this; they're convinced that they're an island and that they need nothing of the people they interact with (directly and indirectly) every day. You can try to get them to see that they do indeed function in the context of a larger society, or you can throw your hands up and leave; at this point, I often go with the latter option.

Limited rationality and informational asymmetry Trademark laws are all about minimizing confusion in the marketplace: if your logo looks too much like the other guy's logo, then dumb people will get confused and buy the wrong thing. There are loads of other truth-in-advertising laws, such as how stock brokers can not guarantee that a plan will make money. And indeed, there are enough dumb people and enough slimy stock brokers that laws like this have to exist.

In LA county (among others), all restaurants are inspected and must post signs giving their inspection grade. Similarly, food manufacturers have to tell you basic nutritional info and what's in their food. Publicly traded companies have immense reporting requirements, which keep many a lawyer and accountant employed full time. If you sell a house, you need to give full disclosure about potential problems with the house, basically testifying against yourself to the buyer.

All this seems fair enough to me: trade on equal grounds requires equal information. And yet, there are loads of conservatives (not all, but a few) who think these are invasive laws that condescend to the buyer. The emptor should caveat for his or her own darn self. Again, all of these rules are based on hope for a `fair market', which differs from the concept of a `free market'. As above, you can't argue fairness to a conservative who doesn't already believe it's worth striving for.

Part of this is the Lake Woebegone effect, that everybody thinks `I'm smarter than average, so this law isn't protecting me; it's protecting the dumb people whom I don't know.' From my own experience, conservatives are especially prone to this, which makes any argument about how information is not perfectly disseminated at all times supremely frustrating. I think your best bet is to either argue the extreme cases [should out-and-out scams be legal? When does hiding information become substantively different from lying?] or use the grandmother argument [Would you want your grandma to have to sift through this?] I don't know why grandparents are always considered to be so dumb, but debating with a conservative is not the time to work on dispelling stereotypes.

To summarize the section, fairness is an idea you learn as a kid, and if somebody doesn't get it by now, they never will. But you can argue for efficiency almost anywhere you'd prefer to discuss fairness.

The more hard-core libertarians take it all a step further, though, and believe that not only is the empathetic desire for fairness a weakness (as Ayn Rand teaches), but the world would be better off if we all went out of our way to eliminate empathy (i.e., the internalization of externalities, which are assumed away in the free market model). By this point, it becomes a religious issue (sometimes literally), so debating is useless; cut your losses and just don't bother associating with the person.

Corporate conspiracies Many liberals argue from the basic premise that small businesses are better than large corporations, and that companies which are big enough to be international are especially bad. The issue needs to be disaggregated into parts which can and can't be argued with a conservative:

Personalization and diversity: Just as conservatives like smaller government which is more representative of the people, we want smaller businesses which don't force corporate HQ's worldview on its patrons. But conservatives will dismiss this by saying `if they don't like the bigger store, they'll shop at the smaller, spunkier store next door' and will dismiss any further debate on this point. In other words, the cultural issue is a total non-starter.

Market imperfections: As noted before, there is a natural asymmetry between labor and capital (many workers, few employers), and this distorts the market in favor of the few, the monopsonists. As corporations grow and consolidate, the problem only gets worse. Some conservatives get this, and will acknowledge that reduced competition is bad. The more libertarian conservatives will abjectly refuse to accept this, and will cling to the idea that a firm that abuses its monopoly power will be deposed by a spunky startup.

The Spunky startup argument is impossible to argue with, kind of like the `tomorrow will be sunnier' argument: there are enough examples where it's been true that people can say it with a straight face and be happy ignoring the fact that there are so many cases where it was entirely not true. On the perfectly level imaginary playing field, the spunky startup can definitely win---but in the real world, the profit-per-unit only goes up as a company gets larger, network effects and lock-in make people more likely to buy the old thing instead of the new, and if all else fails, the big and lumbering corporation can keep serving Spunky the Startup with lawsuits for trespassing on Lumbering Corporation's trademarks and intellectual property until Spunky's supply of optimism is entirely depleted.

To summarize, your best replies to arguments about Spunky the Startup are about the market imperfections discussed in the last sections, most of which help companies which survived at the start keep new competition out of play. But my personal experience is that it's an uphill battle, and an irrational faith in Spunky the Startup's abilities is hard to dispel.

Competition with sovereigns: A company which exists in multiple states will be able to find the state with the least restrictive laws and register there. When `state' means portion of the U.S.A., this is Delaware; when `state' means sovereign nation, this is any of a number of islands in the Caribbean. Whether this is a problem to the conservative you have before you depends on how much contempt the conservative has for the concept of a government. Some enthuse at the idea of a lawless world; others are a bit concerned by the prospect. As with any issue involving sovereigns, there are enough thorny philosophical issues that you have no chance of selling somebody if they disagree with you. But if you find that they do believe some laws are worth having, then take advantage of that and ask how that law is going to be maintained in a world where corporations get to pick the set of laws they are beholden to.

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