Misconceptions of the Burden of Proof


It is far easier to argue in defense of your own beliefs than it is to dismantle and refute someone else’s. If the burden of proof rests on your opponent, they are on the attack, while you need only defend.

This is why debates will sometimes tangent onto who holds the burden of proof. This happens especially in debates between radicals (namely anarchists) and moderates that are, for the most part, fine with the current system. Both sides argue that the burden of proof lies with their opponents, which leads to some pretty unproductive conversations.

This is why we use a null hypothesis. The null hypothesis, used in statistics, assumes that there is no connection between two variables unless proven otherwise. It is the status quo, and is assumed to be true without any evidence. The statistician holds the burden of proof, and must disprove the null hypothesis before his or her point is considered.

A concept similar to a null hypothesis is used in debate to determine the burden of proof. The burden of proof lies on the one making a positive claim. The negative (or null) claim is accepted as the standard, and the positive claim must be proven.

Anarchists (ranging from anarcho-capitalists to anarcho-communists) and other radicals have argued that their system is more a lack of a system, and therefore the burden of proof rests on the moderates to justify the current system. They claim that because moderates argue for a government, the moderates hold the burden of proof.

Moderates argue that their system is the status quo, and therefore anyone advocating change holds the burden of proof. Because the current system is the way things have been and will continue to be, it is up to the radicals to justify change.

So who holds the burden of proof? Who holds the most responsibility for rebutting their opponents views?

Answer: The radicals.

Unfortunately, it is up to libertarians and anarcho-capitalists (and other radicals) to rebut the status quo and justify radical change. The responsibility is on us to bring the debate to the moderates and work to change their minds, as many of us have been doing.

The status quo is the null hypothesis. It is the commonly-accepted opinion, and will continue to be until the masses are convinced otherwise. The positive claim made by radicals is “We should change the system,” which means the null hypothesis is “we should not change the system.” Moderates do not have to put forth the argument “We should keep the current system” because that’s already the standard opinion. It is not a positive claim to advocate keeping things the way they are.

In a debate over the elimination of a government program, it is understandable to think the null hypothesis would be the lack of a government program, and the positive claim would be to keep the program. But this is not the case. It would be a positive claim to assert that we should create a new government program, but once the program is in place, it becomes the norm. Leaving things the way they are is the null, and it is up to libertarians to assert the need for change.

If there is no clear winner in a debate between a libertarian and a moderate, the moderate views will continue to be in effect. If the moderates and libertarians ignore one another and stop debating, the status quo will remain moderate. Therefore, it is up to the libertarians to continue fighting for change.

Once the status quo becomes libertarian, the burden of proof will shift to the moderates-turned-radicals. Until then, libertarians hold the burden of proof and therefore must continue to push for more discussion, debate, and engagement with their ideas.

It is up to us to be on the offensive in the battle of ideas.

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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]