In Defense of Your Ideological Opponents – Misconceptions

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Election seasons show us the cult of personality that develops around politicians. Rarely are they judged by analyzing their various positions, beliefs, and policy proposals. There are a tremendous number of videos online of street interviews of people supporting a candidate’s given positions, only to be then told they were given the positions of the candidate they oppose.

Opinions of the candidate then bleed into opinions of their actual positions. Any time President Trump takes a stance on a new issue, we are quick to see most of the right-wing media defend it as good, and most of the left-wing media criticize it as evil. It is rarely about the issue, and more often about who says it.

The same is true (though to a seemingly lesser extent) among ideological figures. While many are willing to analyze the validity of an idea regardless of who proposed it, others are unable or unwilling to separate the two. Sure, from a pure probability standpoint, a thinker that is wrong on many things might be wrong on other things as well, but this is not always true.

Past Thinkers

A libertarian may be surprised to find how many valuable ideas have come from socialists. Einstein’s theory of relativity, for example. Or the Austrian-economist Joseph Schumpeter’s idea of “creative destruction” (which he derived from Karl Marx). The same works in reverse, of course. Libertarians might be surprised to find that the labor theory of value, so heavily associated with Marx, was also held by Adam Smith.

A lesser-known idea rising in popularity among right-libertarian circles is James Burnham’s idea of the “managerial elites”, developed further by Samuel Francis. Burnham was an early neoconservative and hardly a friend of liberty. On Burnham, Murray Rothbard once noted that the “only hint of positive interest in liberty in a lifetime of political writing was a call for legalized firecrackers.” Paleolibertarian Justin Raimondo heavily criticized Burnham in his book Reclaiming the American Right.

Nonetheless, his idea of the managerial elites is increasingly favored by many in the libertarian sphere, including Michael Malice, as a sort of Machiavellian analysis of politics. Much like Saul Alinsky, Burnham can be read for tactical value by those with vast moral disagreements.

The traditionalist conservative Robert Nisbet surprised many conservatives when he saw conservative roots in left-anarchist Pierre-Joseph Proudhon’s What is Property? It would be nonsensical to interpret this as Nisbet’s full endorsement of all of Proudhon’s ideas or left-anarchism as a worldview. But Nisbet saw valuable ideas, regardless of other ideological disagreements.

We all understand that to effectively counter any idea one must fully understand it. But the goal while reading your opponents should not be to simply understand so that one can oppose. As well, one should be reading and analyzing, not with the assumption that every thought is the enemy, but that any thought might be a diamond among coal.

Today’s Thinkers

What has been said thus far might appear to most as too obvious to have been worth stating. But the thinkers mentioned above are all dead, and with that comes a certain distance to them as people. There is a greater emphasis on separating the good ideas from the bad, and a lesser emphasis on separating the good ideas from the perceived morality of the actual person, or a specific quote they may have said.

What might your response be if someone were to recommend an article from Jacobin, Chronicles, or National Review? If you dislike any (or all) of these publications, it would be fair to read the article cautiously, taking the source’s bias into account, but it would be a fallacy to confidently dismiss it as nonsense based on the source alone.

The same is largely true regarding individuals. It is perfectly reasonable to take information about the author into account when deciding what to read. This is simply good time management. A thinker with great ideas will likely continue putting out more great ideas than a thinker with many terrible ideas. But again, this is mere probability, not a guarantee.

The arguments here are, in essence, a refutation of any sort of guilt by association or quote-mining. If one were to speak highly of a book written by (for example) Ann Coulter, this is (obviously) by no means an endorsement of everything she has ever said. Therefore, to respond by referencing anything outside of that book would be nonsense. One can certainly have a conversation about her as a public figure and all of her ideas, but this is separate from an analysis of a specific book.

The same applies to any thinker, no matter how radical or controversial. To criticize or defend an article, speech, podcast episode, etc., whether it be by Mitt Romney, Richard Wolff, Stefan Molyneux, Jared Taylor, or Paul Krugman, has little to do with a tweet by the same author five years ago. It has only to do with the contents of what has been criticized or defended.

Therefore, it is nonsense to criticize anyone for inviting a certain person to give a speech at an event, or to invite them onto a podcast, unless the criticism actually addresses the content itself. To say that A is a bad person because they had a discussion with B without actually addressing the topic discussed is a bad argument.

There is certainly time for discussing people as the people they are/were. This is what a biography is for, after all. But the tendency to dismiss ideas because the person behind them said a bad thing once or twice must be rejected. Ideas can be evaluated individually, just as an individual can be praised for some things and condemned for others. Even your ideological opponents on some issues can sometimes make valid points on others. Ignore petty political drama and search for good ideas, wherever you may find them.

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Nathan A. Kreider is author of the Misconceptions column for Being Libertarian, and has written for the Austrian Economics Center, the Foundation for Economic Education, and the Liberalists. He also occasionally publishes a blog and video content, including short book reviews, which can be found on his website, nkreider.com. He can be contacted by email via [email protected]