Wednesday, September 01, 2004

Making Our Own Welcome

“Wit makes its own welcome, and levels all distinctions. No dignity, no learning, no force of character, can make any stand against good wit.”
-Ralph Waldo Emerson, Letters and Social Aims: The Comic, 1876

We libertarians aren’t stupid; we know we’re in society’s peripheral vision, if we’re lucky. There are a lot of reasons for this but Don Bordeaux illustrated a source in a recent post by describing his experience on a talk radio show. He and the host—Jay Diamond—were discussing “price gouging” and Mr. Diamond kept using the hypothetical, but powerful, example of a poor family not being able to buy food while a rich drug dealer fills his belly.

Even though the argument is economically unsophisticated, you have to admire its rhetoric. It plays on the public’s distrust for the dealer—an unfounded hatred in the first place—and pits him against a poor family. You can just image the stereotypical gangster doing everything but point a gun at a young couple and baby to steal a morsel of bread. It doesn’t matter that Mr. Diamond is ignoring the horrid and real effects of price ceilings nor that his illustration is nothing more than imaginary—wit makes its own welcome.

Hence, libertarians must counter with wit. I don’t like it any more than you do but the fact of the matter is Emerson’s right. We are at a disadvantage, however, because our arguments are more involving than those like Mr. Diamond’s. And like many people, I for one am not very witty. So I’ve found I can command the attention needed to explain economics (expanding my time from one sentence to three or four) with an eleven-word question:

You honesty don’t think the world is that simple, do you?

I’ve found my opponents usually respond with “What do you mean?” because they obviously can’t say “yes” and they obviously can’t say “no.” By asking me a question, they lend their supporters’ attention to me. It’s a great position to be in when you know you have some time before being interrupted—after all, you were asked a question.

If your opponent is really clever, he’ll deny it is simple or that its simplicity doesn’t matter and then proceed to elaborate. That’s when I like to borrow from my professor, Emily Chamlee-Wright, when a student proposes government as an answer to market question: Okay but now you have to ask yourself the tough questions. And then proceed to ask one, which usually demonstrates the world isn’t as straightforward as the opponent implied.

Of course, these too can be switched around and the former question is rather hard-handed—dropping “honestly” and/or using a different world as simple softens the tone. If your rival continues to obsess with the hypothetical scenario, as Mr. Diamond probably would have done, then we need some more help.

Like all things worth exploring, this one can be better understood through Star Trek. In the episode Time’s Arrow, Data goes back in time to San Francisco and meets Mark Twain who says that if life existences on other planets, humans become a minor creation. When challenged that one could say a diamond is still a diamond, even if it is one among many, Twain says: “Someone might say that, dear lady, if someone thought the human race was akin to a precious jewel. But this increasing hypothetical someone, would not be me.”

It’s far from a perfect fit but Twain’s words provide the necessary inspiration. To the aptly named Mr. Diamond I say, “One could reasonably claim that such a scenario is relevant if this someone thought it defined all of society and every other connotation of your proposal was irrelevant. But this increasing hypothetical someone, would not be me.”

I’m no speech writer and I’ve already mentioned I lack good wit. But Emerson is right; libertarians have to seriously contend with the watered-down pithy arguments of non-economists. For all of us that can’t turn complicated paragraphs into punchy statements on the fly, we have to learn to prepare them ahead of time and expand our realm of less pithy, but still powerful, general phrases. When in doubt, build off of another’s wit. Good writers borrow. Great writers steal outright.

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