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Saturday November 05 2005

For some reason, I can’t do italics in the titles of postings.  Don’t like that.

Anyway . . .

Patrick Crozier links from time to time to a Libertarian Alliance Tactical Note I wrote a while ago for the Libertarian Alliance called The Tyranny of the Facts.  He did it again recently.  Very nice too, and thank you.  Good that something I wrote so long ago still has some life in it.  But, Patrick doesn’t seems to get what The Tyranny of The Facts is really about.

He says:

. . . But (up until now) amateur propaganda has been difficult to do. Researching the facts, thinking through the arguments, working at times when you’d rather be down the pub or asleep, is difficult and slow. In comparison, the professionals hold all the aces. See Brian’s The Tyranny of the Facts.

The implication of that is that The Tyranny of the Facts says things like: “Researching the facts, thinking through the arguments, working at times when you’d rather be down the pub or asleep, is difficult and slow. In comparison, the professionals hold all the aces.”

Well, it sort of partly says that, a bit.

But what it also says is that “The Facts”, so often deployed in media arguments – as in “Mr Pillock says blah-de-blah-de-blah, but let’s just look at The Facts” – are, if you are actually trying to persuade people of anything, often beside the point and superfluous to requirements, because what causes people to disagree is not disagreement about The Facts but differences in ideological attitude, in worldview.  In fact it often happens that The Facts is the one thing that people who are arguing do agree about.

Suppose a state-owned hospital is poisoning people.  Supporters of the principle of the NHS and of state owned hospitals will want the problem dealt with by the existing chain of command, pragmatically, and by spending more money.

But we would argue like this not necessarily because of any huge disagreement between us and our opponents about how many people are being poisoned or how grievously each particular state-owned hospital was poisoning people.  Rather do we have different views about the merits of the private sector, in general, versus state ownership, in general.

Our opponents are not arguing that poisoning people does not matter, and we would be very foolish to accuse them of this.  We all agree that there is a problem.  Our disagreement is about the way to solve the problem.

Yet during media debates concerning matters of this sort, all kinds of numbers will be thrown around – “let’s look at The Facts: according to figures from the National Poisoned People Directorate Subcommittee, last year 925 people suffered from blah-de-blah-de-blah . . .” .  But these numbers will not actually affect those arguing, because such numbers do not determine their views about how to improve hospitals.  These numbers are merely ammunition for pummelling third parties into a state of stupefied surrender, and not even that is sensible.  Also, in the talk radio bit of the media that I am familiar with, they hate it when you reduce an argument to mere statistics.

Now that “experts” who favour free markets are now starting to come on stream in a big way, thanks to half a century of free market think tankery, free market “experts” are just as fond of emitting large and pompous and boring gobs of “The Facts” as statist have traditionally tended to be.  They too delight in arguing pragmatically, and unpersuasively.

When I argue for denationalising a hospital, I do it quite differently.  I do not claim any special knowledge of hospitals, and if I am arguing against a medically expert supporter of state medicine, I certainly do not.

Instead I say:

“I am sure that indeed The Facts, as you have just explained them, are approximately right.  However, I believe in free markets in hospitals because I believe in free markets in everything else.  Free markets work for bananas and cars and computers and frying pans and paper clips and houses and giant oil ships and glue-sticks.  Why would they not work for hospitals?”

“Ah but hospitals are special.  Hospitals are not like glue-sticks.”

“Indeed they are not.  But everything is special.  Glue-sticks are also special.  They are not like paper clips or banana, or, as you say, hospitals.  Of course hospitals are different and special.  But what is it that is so different and special about hospitals that makes them something where free markets do not and could not work their magic?”

This works well for two reasons.  First, I have correctly identified the nature of the disagreement between us, which always helps.  I am telling the truth.  Even those who have opposite views to mine about the state-owned-ness of hospitals will agree with me about the fact that state-owned-ness of things generally is what is really being argued about here.

In reply, my opponent then, perhaps, thinks that he has to explain why the argument is not the sort of argument that, actually, it is, which not surprisingly ties him in knots because he is then talking rubbish and he knows it.  If he then carries on spouting the rest of The Facts that he brought with him, he makes an ass of himself.

If, on the other hand, he acknowledges the truth of my claim, that we are really arguing about markets in general versus state action in general, and only applying and illustrating these general principles with talk about hospitals, this takes the argument away from his preferred argumentative battleground (detailed statistical knowledge of The Facts concerning hospitals and hospital poisoning and of the various bits of the existing chain of command whose job is to solve such problems and who should be give more money to do this) and towards ground I am probably more familiar with than he is (arguing about the rights and wrongs of free markets, state ownership, etc., in general).

He may then make further blunders.  He may, for example, say:

“So I suppose you also favour a complete free market in all drugs, do you?”

This is a common error made by political people when arguing with political but also ideological people like me.  The one answer he does not expect is the one he gets:

“Yes.”

Followed by a silence of extreme eloquence.

I have already explained why I believe in free markets, people taking their own risks, etc. etc., so yes, I favour legalising all drugs.  If I have spelt all this out, I have at least alluded to such argument.  And being the ideologist I am, eager to push the free market agenda in general rather than just the idea of free market hospitals, I am delighted at being given the chance to do this.  He thought I was there to defend some private sector hospital or to argue against state-owned hospitals, and nothing else.  But he was wrong.  I am there to spread ideas.  If he gives me the chance to spread other ideas to the ones I expected to be talking about, but which I am keen to spread, I will seize the opportunity eagerly.

He is struck dumb by that “Yes” because, being himself part of the respectable political world he has it branded on his brain as an axiom that you never say things like “Yes let’s have a free market in all drugs”, and he assumed that I play by the same rule.  His notion was that if he could put me into a position where I either said I favoured a free market in all drugs or revealed myself to be a cowardly, illogical, unprincipled, lying twat, he would obviously have me stitched me up as a cowardly, illogical, unprincipled, lying twat.  So, when I said “Yes” instead, he was struck dumb, and I got to present myself as a brave, logical, principled, truthful all round good egg.  And I said nothing more than “Yes” because I wanted his dumbness to be audible.

Okay I got a bit carried away there, but the point of The Tyranny of The Facts is that “The Facts” is rarely how people really decide about things.  So, don’t be tyrannised by The Facts.  Don’t worry that you may not have them.  Relax.  Say what you really think.

Far from The Tyranny of The Facts being about the inherent advantages that experts on particular topics have when debating with generally pro-market but in-particular rather fact-light ideological types like me and Patrick Crozier, it is at least as much about the opposite.  It is about how you can tie an expert in knots, without challenging any of his facts, and as likely as not actually using his precious clutch of The Facts against him, Kung-Fu style.

If you believe in a general principle, of any kind, do not let yourself be bossed around by The Facts concerning some particular way of applying that principle.  Do not make the mistake of agreeing with the bloke who is in charge of The Facts that The Facts are what count.  Again and again, they are not.

Those who have an ideologically fixed dislike of all ideology, other than the fixed ideology of disliking all other ideologies, often respond to the above by saying something like:

“Just as I have always said.  These libertarians have no interest in reality.  Their prejudices are impervious to facts.  They are ideological steam-rollers, deaf to rational persuasion and not worth arguing with except in order to reveal to third parties their total and totally prejudiced irrationality.”

This is quite wrong.  My belief in the superiority of free markets – free markets in bananas, cars, computers, frying pans etc. etc. etc. etc. – is not a belief that I simply plucked out of the air.  This belief is entirely rational.  I can remember arriving at this opinion, slowly and carefully and thoughtfully, having previously thought very differently, and I can remember why.  I arrived at it because the facts – the real facts this time, with no sneer capital letters attached to them, and from everywhere I came across them and not just about one particular thing like bananas, or hospitals - said that free markets are better.  If you think you can persuade me that things in general are better supplied by state-owned industries in general, and that you have a world full of real facts (as opposed to some stupid little batch of The Facts) to persuade me, well, good luck to you, you are going to need it.  And if you think that I have no facts to back me up then you are an ignorant fool.

Of course I am prejudiced in favour of free markets.  It is idiotic not to be.

It is not facts I object to.  It is “The Facts”, as in: a tiny few of them, deliberately over-complicated and over-elaborated to make the emitter of them appear well informed and to silence all opposition, and quite beside the point.