On the Usefulness of Debates

If history is any indicator…

Paul Krugman sure doesn’t like debates. Of course, when Paul Krugman doesn’t like something, it automatically means that thing is useless (like saving). It’s a petulant attitude that compares to my seven-year-old calling vegetables stupid and declaring his wish for all vegetables to die. For what reason could these ghastly green vittles exist!? As an adult, while I may not like vegetables, I do eat them and I certainly see the benefits of avoiding a jolly green genocide.

It’s becoming more and more apparent that Krugman is incapable of engaging in public debate. It may be the case that in addition to (and perhaps as a cause of) his not liking debates, they may be of no use to him since he’s not particularly persuasive in such fora. However, Krugman’s inefficacy doesn’t by itself invalidate debate as a forum for persuasion and truth-seeking. It’s the equivalent of saying martial arts are useless because some such person is bad at fighting.

If debates were truly useless, I doubt we would have been debating ideas longer than we’ve been recording them. But that is the case. I’m sure Krugman would say, “Well, publicity has been around a long time too.” So have incompetent, publicity-seeking debaters, but that doesn’t mean they are the only kind.


Consider the statement, “Four plus four makes eight.” Whether I say it or Stalin says it or Obama says it or the Dalai Lama says it, it’s true. The personality of a speaker does not a true statement make; it is the content of a statement that accomplishes the task.

Now consider a lone genius inventor talking to himself while pacing back and forth. He speaks as if he is two or even perhaps three people going over ideas. He takes several perspectives while bouncing his ideas back and forth in his own mind. We can imagine the same conversation actually occurring between two people engaging in the same technical debate.

Debates, when they are worth the time and effort to conduct, should take on the guise of internal thought spread among several persons. If one person states something erroneous and another corrects him, is it any less valuable than if the first person had corrected himself? This is the value of debate Krugman denies.

Interdictum ad Hominem

Let’s imagine this scenario plays itself out: Krugman says something awful during a debate with an actual economist with a PhD (instead of an aging politician good for publicity). Let’s say this PhD happens to be Robert P. Murphy and he corrects Krugman. It happens repeatedly.

Krugman would almost assuredly claim this was merely an effect of rhetoric and Murphy’s superior public speaking skills rather than his fiction being displaced by fact. For you see, if you would just read his thoughts as he puts them together when he is alone and at peace, you’d see they are correct. They don’t require the useless criticism debate invites.

If I ran a school, such a thought would be considered obscenity bordering on blasphemy, and maybe even a hate crime.

Perhaps it’s Krugman’s innate inability to think clearly and quickly during conversation that makes him think there is some special skill great debaters have. Perhaps it’s the invention of the set of people considered great debaters in history; that Obama is considered a great speaker frightens me. What sort of academic world do we live in such that rank bullshit passes for erudition?

What makes for a great debater, as opposed to a popular rhetorician, is the ability to focus in on the crux of every matter and address it completely, truthfully, and definitively. The persuasion of rhetoric when based on this fundamental skill will always be recognized.

However, some will sustain the allegation that if one is persuasive, it simply comes from some preternatural ability to charm and persuade in a particular forum where a conversation and inspection of ideas occurs. (And if one loses a debate, it’s because they are just not persuasive, and has nothing to do with the content of their ideas.)

Such a claim follows this simple script:

Person A: “This is true. Here’s why.”
Person B: “That’s false. Here’s why.”
Person A: “You’re just a good debater. You haven’t actually proven that.”

The response by person A, in particular the second sentence, is really the issue in contention. But if person B really hasn’t proven his point rationally, it follows that person A should be able to demonstrate why. It’s as if the script goes:

Person A: “Four plus four makes nine.”
Person B: “That’s false. Four plus four makes eight.”
Person A: “You’re just a good debater. You haven’t actually proven that.”
Person B: “Prove it.”
Person A: “Debates are useless! You’re useless! Buy my book!”

Argumentum ad Austrian

The rising libertarian tide in the western world is occurring much to the chagrin of statist liberals (like Krugman) everywhere. It has caused both the libertarian and conservative movements to swell, and has caused many on the left to question whether radical change is possible within the constraints of political action.

Of course, whenever a liberal sees a new philosophy they don’t agree with, it’s best to just label it racist or sexist or greedy or whatever, and dismiss the entire thing as stupid, outdated, and just plain crazy. This happens in basically any context you can imagine. In the context of economics, Krugman supporters simply call Austrian economists names and have fits about why anyone would listen to them anyway. They don’t even bother to debate them first before calling them useless. That in itself would be an unacceptable lending of credence to bad ideas.

Cover your ears! Shut your eyes! Lock away your daughters! The Austrians are coming! The Austrians are coming!

It’s obvious why Krugman is idolized by this pack of faux intellectuals. He’s the ringleader. But anyone who isn’t a cowardly thinker sees the impotence of name calling and refusals to engage in constructive criticism with others. Krugman is stuck in his own glass bubble and refuses to come out and acknowledge that doing so would provide any benefits at all.

That’s not what Krugman’s about. Want to know what he’s about?

Buy my book.