Liberals are terrible at arguing with conservatives. Here’s how they can get better.

[Note:  This item comes from friend Mike Cheponis.  DLH]

Liberals are terrible at arguing with conservatives. Here’s how they can get better.
By Maximilian Kasy
Aug 10 2017

Worries about “political polarization” and of our “post-factual era” impeding political debate in our society have become commonplace. Liberals, in particular, are often astonished at the seeming indifference of their opponents toward facts and toward the likely consequences of political decisions. “Donald Trump has been helped by a conservative-media environment in which there is no penalty for being wrong all the time,” Josh Barro wrote at Business Insider back in October; likewise, Mother Jones’s Kevin Drum more recently wondered: “Why do Republicans tell such obvious lies?”

A common, though apparently ineffective, response to this frustration is to double down by discussing more facts.

When arguing about politics, it is often helpful to construct the best possible version of your opponent’s reasoning — a task admittedly not always made easy by the current administration. In this spirit, though, maybe the issue is not conservatives’ ignorance of facts, but rather a fundamental difference of values. Taking this point of view seems essential for effective communication across the political divide.

Much normative (or value-based) reasoning by liberals (and mainstream economists) is about the consequences of political actions for the welfare of individuals. Statements about the desirability of policies are based on trading off the consequences for different individuals. If good outcomes result from a policy without many negative consequences, then the policy is a good one. When Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.) remarked on the Affordable Care Act this spring, for example, she said, “I feel strongly that when we’re talking about our sick, when we’re talking about our poor … and we’re talking about something that would deny those in need with the relief and the help that they need, that they want and deserve, it does put in place a question about our moral values.” In other words, if a policy will harm the welfare of individuals in need, it’s a bad policy.

Meanwhile, much conservative normative reasoning is about procedures rather than consequences. For example, as long as property rights and free exchange are guaranteed, the outcome is deemed just by definition, regardless of the consequences. People are “deserving” of whatever the market provides them with. For instance, Speaker of the House Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) seemed to center the idea of unfairness in his argument against the Affordable Care Act: “The idea of Obamacare is,” he said, “that the people who are healthy pay for the people who are sick.”

The Republicans’ time-crunched effort to pass a health-care bill stalled in the Senate. The Post’s Paige Cunningham explains five key reasons the party is struggling to move their plan forward. (Video: Jenny Starrs/Photo: Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

As an example of how these value differences might matter more than facts, consider the example of bequest taxes, labeled “estate taxes” by liberals and “death taxes” by conservatives. A liberal might invoke various empirical facts: Bequests are very unequally distributed (more so than income or even wealth), bequests primarily benefit those who are already rich, the intergenerational correlation of economic status is very high in the United States and partly driven by bequests, the responsiveness of savings to changes in the bequest tax rate is low, etc. From this, our empiricist liberal might conclude that bequest taxes are an effective policy instrument, providing public revenue and promoting equality of opportunity.



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