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Source link: http://archive.mises.org/15825/wisconsin-reason-and-the-national-conversation/

Wisconsin, Reason, and the National Conversation

February 26, 2011 by

My latest Forbes piece is about the ongoing strife in Wisconsin. Here are a couple of additional thoughts based on what I’ve observed:

1. Disagreement is not evidence of corruption. Ad hominem attacks are not arguments. They’re exercises in intellectual laziness. Slurs aimed at “Koch Heads” and “Koch Whores” are clever, but they don’t add much to the discussion. In this post, Sean Malone dissects the case against the Kochs and finds it wanting (HT: Steve Horwitz). If we’re going to have a constructive national conversation, we need to move past sneering and slander and start talking about theory and evidence.

Alas, however, sneering and slander pass for argument in some circles. The great irony is that some of this sneering and slander passes for argument among so many self-styled thinking people. As I get ready to start teaching Marx again in my “Classical & Marxian Political Economy” class, I’m reminded of this quote from pages 208-209 Thomas Sowell’s excellent Marxism: Philosophy and Economics:

Much of the intellectual legacy of Marx is an anti-intellectual legacy. It has been said that you cannot refute a sneer. Marxism has taught many-inside and outside its ranks-to sneer at capitalism, at inconvenient facts or contrary interpretations, and thus ultimately to sneer at the intellectual process itself. This has been one of the sources of its enduring strength as a political doctrine, and as a means of acquiring and using political power in unbridled ways.

2. If you insist on referencing thinkers’ biases rather than refuting their doctrines by tenable arguments, though, there’s a kids’ rhyme about rubber and glue that’s relevant here. Everyone can play the “find the corruption” game. For example, I referenced a study published by the Economic Policy Institute in my Forbes article. Between 2005-2007, they got 29% of their money from labor unions. Most of us learned what we know about labor history from our K-12 teachers. Why should we trust heavily-unionized teachers to give us an objective history of labor unions?

See how easy that is? I’ve spared myself a lot of intellectual effort by simply implying that the people who disagree with me have less than honorable motives. I can go to the barricades for my cause comfortable in my knowledge that scholars associated with left-wing or progressive think tanks and governments are on the take and that teachers who know the side on which their bread is buttered will distort history in the service of their own material interests.

That (obviously, I hope) didn’t buy us much in terms of meaningful conversation. It’s a vice that cuts in all directions. Turn on your local Christian talk radio station when they’re doing political or public issues programming, for example, and you might hear–as I did a few months ago–that a study of children raised by homosexuals is wrong not on the basis of its scientific merits, but because of its funding sources.

And so we get to my earnest plea: let’s stop thinking that we get to play by different rules because our efforts are in the service of a righteous cause. Have I been guilty of it in the past? Almost certainly. When I was a child (or a grad student, or a younger man), I thought as a child. I struggle every day to put aside childish things. Is it difficult? Yes. Do I owe it to my students, my friends, my family, my children, and my children’s children? Also, yes.

Addendum: here’s the disclosure that went with the Forbes piece:

Disclosure: I run student programs at Rhodes College that are funded by a grant the Charles G. Koch Charitable Foundation. I have done work in the past for organizations that have received money from the Koch Foundation and a veritable legion of other donors, and I expect to do additional work for them in the future. If I were looking to sell out, though, I would probably follow Arnold Kling’s advice.


Ezekiel February 26, 2011 at 1:53 pm

“Most of us learned what we know about labor history from our K-12 teachers. Why should we trust heavily-unionized teachers to give us an objective history of labor unions?

See how easy that is? I’ve spared myself a lot of intellectual effort by simply implying that the people who disagree with me have less than honorable motives.”

Not that they have “less than honorable motives,” but that they have a natural self-interest in presenting a view of labor history that benefits them. Which is self-evident. Which doesn’t mean we can discount everything they say, only that it explains why K-12 teaches labor history the way it does.

Iain February 26, 2011 at 1:54 pm

I would like to know what others think of this theory that the Koch brothers are trying to steal public utilities.

Horst Muhlmann February 26, 2011 at 2:31 pm
Iain February 26, 2011 at 2:59 pm

lol But I was referring to this


There is apparently a section of the bill concerning the unions about selling off public utilities, ” the department may sell any state−owned heating, cooling, and power plant or may contract with a private entity for the operation of any such plant, with or without solicitation of bids, for any amount that the department determines to be in the best interest of the state. ” This seems strange that the economic policy journal is concerned about this. However, they say “The bill would allow for the selling of state-owned heating/cooling/power plants without bids and without concern for the legally-defined public interest. This excellent catch is from Ed at ginandtacos.com” Now what the hell is the “legally-defined public interest”?

MikeP February 26, 2011 at 8:19 pm

Are the Kochs even in the power generating business? I’ve seen nothing to indcate they are.

Iain February 26, 2011 at 9:31 pm

I read a New Yorker article about how they were supposedly behind the TEA Parties. I don’t know if that’s true, or how true that is, but I guess it WAS the New Yorker so how objective are they, really?


Iain February 26, 2011 at 9:38 pm

Oh here we go, “The Kochs are longtime libertarians who believe in drastically lower personal and corporate taxes, minimal social services for the needy, and much less oversight of industry…”

newson February 27, 2011 at 6:27 pm
Chris February 28, 2011 at 10:32 pm

@ I found this press release regarding Koch Industries operating in Wisconsin. I used this thing called Google: http://www.kochind.com/newsroom/news_releases_details.aspx?id=1197

John Birch February 27, 2011 at 10:22 am

So, if I correctly understand, the evil agenda of Koch Brothers is to pretend they are favoring and financing various free market organizations, while the real plan is to buy at preferential terms some public utilities in Wisconsin?

It is also strange how some free market people become enamored to “public interest” when it comes to Koch brothers. We used to think that even the worst privatization was better than the best government ownership, didn’t we?

Iain February 27, 2011 at 12:53 pm

Yes, that’s the gist of it.

Troy Doering February 27, 2011 at 5:12 pm

Enron II – Will cost taxpayers and business in the long run.

Bruce Koerber February 26, 2011 at 3:08 pm

Elevating our arguments is good advice.

Ken February 26, 2011 at 6:22 pm

I can’t tell you how many people — from all points of the compass, including Ron Paul supporters with whom I largely agreed going in — seem to think (as kind of a corollary to what Professor Carden notes here about Marx) they can sneer you around to their way of thinking. I always want to ask how that approach is working out for ‘em, but snarking isn’t any more persuasive, nor (arguably) more befitting a gentleman, than sneering.

Rob Mandel February 26, 2011 at 10:27 pm

Professor, as I discuss the issues of the day with my colleagues, I more and more understand that the problem is we are not even playing on the same field, or even city, let alone any any sort of common rules.

For instance, the more government vs. less government really aren’t two sides a single debate. I needn’t explain that much here, but when I lobby the government to steal more and give it to me and my cronies, in whatever fashion, that’s more government. When I say less government, it’s “leave me alone”. Don’t do anything to OR for me. As I try to explain, it is every bit as evil for welfare recipients to vote for thieving pols as it is for businessmen to lobby for special breaks, privileges, and monopoly position. The latter is every bit as much big government as the former.

When a business says don’t tax me, don’t regulate me, they aren’t taking anything from anyone, aren’t coercively putting themselves in a better position than their competitor. So, when they speak of “pro-labor” vs. “pro-business”, I resoundingly oppose both. And I show how they are uniquely not competing, but complementary. They really have no ability or knowledge to grasp that.

But there’s a larger philosophical issue. The idea of “tax giveaways” infuriates me. But it’s based on an idea, decidedly marxist, that others have a claim on what I earn, produce, and own. So, saying “don’t steal from me” is to them, “well, you stole it first” or perhaps “it’s not yours to own in the first place”. I always like to ask, by what right do I have to make a claim on another’s property? (for sure, you can bet that if I went into their house and began to steal “their” things, they would not be pleased!!)

My wife is a photographer, and when she does a session for a family, she has traded with them, voluntarily, value for value, and both lives are improved. She’s paid for her talent, they receive priceless family portraits. What has she “stolen” from anyone, and under what pretense do others have a right to her, or some portion of, her talents and efforts?

And that’s what I am not sure we who understand and cherish liberty get about the other side. They hold that not stealing is still taking and giving. Non-intervention, to them, is still intervention. It’s perverse. And I suspect it’s why there’s no potential for civil discourse.

DixieFlatline February 27, 2011 at 2:14 am


It’s difficult to suspend any consideration of cui bono when discussing politics. Praxeologically speaking, the Kochs fund these various individuals and organizations precisely because they intend to benefit from it. Sure it’s inconvenient for you if you receive Koch money, that their motives for giving it may be attached, regardless of whether you agree or not, but that’s the cost of taking money from other people. We all know that. Funding doesn’t fall from the sky or grow on trees. It is rationally directed towards an outcome.

When one takes Koch money, what is the opportunity cost? That’s the real (political) question here.

Have you ever asked yourself why YOU get Koch funding, but Ron Paul does not?

Also, how come I don’t see anyone not Koch funded/related defending the Kochs? Coincidence?

Iain February 27, 2011 at 12:52 pm

So when the Kochs give money they say, “You have to say good things about me or I will..” what kill them? Stop funding them?

DixieFlatline February 27, 2011 at 1:58 pm

Please make a point relevant to my post. I don’t see one in your reply.

Iain February 27, 2011 at 2:59 pm

You asked what is the opportunity cost? I’m asking you what are the terms under which anyone funds something? Are the people who receive that funding necessarily beholden to express support? I guess you can’t read between the lines.

DixieFlatline February 28, 2011 at 7:29 am

I can’t read between the lines of a non-sequitur.

Anne February 27, 2011 at 6:09 am

Well, I am not funded by the Koch brothers and I say it’s their own damn money to spend however they see fit.

DixieFlatline February 27, 2011 at 1:58 pm

I don’t think anyone was claiming it wasn’t their money to spend as they please Anne. Perhaps a more careful reading next time would be helpful.

Anne February 28, 2011 at 2:05 am

And you missed completely what I was trying to say. Forgive my poor phrasing. The Kochs do not fund me. They spend their money in ways that seem pleasing to themselves. Neither you nor I know what need is satisfied by this transaction. You are implying that it is something nefarious and I am defending them saying that how they spend their money neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.

DixieFlatline February 28, 2011 at 7:17 am

How did I imply it was nefarious?

Also, if the Kochs are engaged in lobbying the state, and manipulating politicians and educators (for whatever end) then surely there is an effect upon you and the greater world, or I cannot fathom why they would do it.

We’re not talking about them employing a court jester or historian. They have explicit goals to “save America” and take actions they believe will bring that about, whether you agree or not. And in some of these cases, particularly their association with the Republican party, they are funding the people who indeed pick your pocket and break a great many legs and lives in the world.

In a libertarian world, you might have a case that how they spend their money doesn’t affect you, but we’re not in a libertarian world, and as near as I can tell, they aren’t agitating for one.

Anne February 28, 2011 at 6:32 pm

This brings me to my point. Whether Politician X is bribed by Soros , Koch, Gates, AIPAC, SEIU, or the Easter Bunny is irrelevant. These entities are doing something entirely rational and justifiable, by trying to protect themselves from the ones who DO pick pockets and break legs. The problem is not with the bribes or the ones who bribe but with the existence of someone worth bribing. I also don’t care either way if it’s Team Red or Team Blue, because on my level their policies are identical in effect: empty pockets and broken legs.

John Birch February 27, 2011 at 9:50 am

I was born in the former eastern block and the communist apparatchiks used to talk all the time about the “constructive criticism” and ” constructive national conversation” all the time. It’s said to listen the same phrases 20 years after the collapse of communism from the young, freedom loving people in America, of all places !

John Birch February 27, 2011 at 9:57 am

I was born in the former eastern block and the communist apparatchiks used to talk about the “constructive criticism” and ” constructive national conversation” all the time. It’s irritating to listen the same phrases 20 years after the collapse of communism from the young, freedom loving people in America, of all places !

John Birch February 27, 2011 at 9:58 am

But, that being said, I must say pr. Carden is by and large right about the Koch brothers.

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