Analysis of an argument: Some missteps to avoid

This video has been swirling around the libertarian wing of my facebook feed, specifically the Judge Andrew Napolitano page. Progressive journalist Thom Hartmann and Austin Peterson, Director of Production at FreedomWorks and editor of the Libertarian Republic have a heated discussion over the alleged right to health care on Thom’s TV program, The Big Picture. Here’s what all went down:

Of course Thom mangled the libertarian point of view. Of course I agree with Austin, but his performance disappointed me. Here are three missteps to avoid in discussion. 

  1. Don’t filibuster. I understand why libertarians do this on television. National airtime devoted to the libertarian point of view is a rare and precious; we need to make the most of every second. Avoid this in normal conversation. Progressives usually have grave and valid concerns. Libertarians will win converts only by addressing these concerns. If you can better address a doubter’s concerns by dropping one of your own pet points and fielding a question, do it. Talking over a questioner makes one appear unwilling to listen.
  2. Don’t answer questions with questions. Answer questions with answers. At about 4:10, Thom asked, “So my right to not be taxed, my right to say, ‘i don’t want to be taxed,’ trumps your mother’s right to survive another day?” Austin responded, “Do you have to be taxed for me to exercise my freedom of speech, Thom?” Thom hoists his hands in disbelief. The bewildered look on his face is rightfully priceless. I don’t think anyone in the world other than Austin himself knew the intended relevance of that question. Austin promptly launched into an explanation of negative rights versus positive rights, which sort of helped a little, but the damage had already been done. Austin had already established himself as scatterbrained. He should have simply said, “My mother had no right against you that you should pay for her chemotherapy.” Done. Next point.
  3. Don’t tell people what they’re saying. Half the time you’ll be wrong. Half the time you’ll be setting up a straw man. If you need to confirm something, stop and ask for a confirmation. At about 5:10, Thom states, “Is there a right to health care? Every developed country in the world says, ‘Yes, there is a pos[itive right to health care].'” Austin responded, “So you own my body. You own a part of my body, and you own healthcare—the doctor’s time. …” Did austin really expect Thom to just roll over and say, “Why yes, that’s exactly what I’m saying! I own your body!” No, of course not, and no such luck. Now, if Austin were saying that, then Austin should say that, and he should set it up a little better so that people who are not accustomed to thinking this way might possibly have a chance at following his reasoning. Attributing the idea to Thom isn’t fair.
  4. Don’t change the subject. The turning point in this war of words occurs at about 5:40, when Austin raises his voice abruptly changes the subject from whether Thom has a right against doctors that they should provide health care to him to whether Thom is suggesting that libertarians don’t care about people. This behavior makes Austin seem desperate. Thom defended his position by stating that, “I’m not suggesting that we don’t pay doctors…” Austin should have responded to this point, instead of indulging in faux outrage over an unrelated argument.
  5. Don’t jump right into the argumentum ad absurdum. Work your way over. Austin momentarily regained some moral credibility when he got Thom to admit that Thom is willing to use force to achieve his desired end. Austin loses that credibility almost immediately by sarcastically continuing, “We should invade China. We should invade Russia. We should invade Pakistan, because I think that’s right….” Again, people who are not accustomed to thinking this way will not immediately see the analogy. To them, Austin simply comes across as a strange person.

Remember these missteps, and Austin’s loss here will become your win in future discussions.

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