In an 1808 letter to his grandson, Thomas Jefferson wrote, “In stating prudential rules for our government in society, I must not omit the important one of never entering into a dispute or argument with another…It was one of the rules which, above all others, made Doctor Franklin the most amiable of men in society, ‘never to contradict anybody.’” Jefferson reveals that the wise man avoids political argument because it is indecorous and needlessly divisive. Though today’s politicians are less likely to duel one another over perceived slights, the modern political sphere is far more caustic and impassioned than that of Jefferson’s day. This change—driven by a tendency to view all issues as questions of morality—has hurt the political and dialectic processes, inhibiting good government and discourse. By acknowledging that people act rationally in response to incentives, the economic way of thinking can solve this problem. In revealing how it might do so, it is helpful to outline a historical narrative of American discourse.
In The Ethics of Rhetoric, Richard Weaver describes “God terms”: words that have vague meanings but strong positive associations. They change over time, reflecting cultural shifts. A modern God-term is ‘Organic’; it means “grown without pesticides” but it connotes natural, healthy, and environmentally-friendly. In policy discussions, people refer to God-terms as they would an authority. For example, a government program is better if it is more likely to yield Prosperity. One can differentiate particular eras by their God-terms, which can be helpful in creating a historical narrative.
In the time of the Founding, two of the God-terms were ‘Liberty’ and ‘Reason’. Americans were also highly interested in limited, constitutional government. Common interpretation of the Constitution restricted government to occasional interaction with the private sphere. As such, most politics and policies dealt with the function of government, like a Bank of the United States to hold federal funds. Political discourse was civil because the topics were impersonal; government regulated itself and attended to foreign policy. Politics only hit home when sailors were impressed or the government tried to tax whiskey.
Strict interpretation of the Constitution waned over time, and the federal government grew more intrusive. Some of the old God-terms disappeared, so from the late nineteenth century to the middle of the twentieth century ‘Liberty’ had to compete with ‘Progress’ and ‘Science’. Proponents of federal expansion justified their policies by appealing to Progress, and the ever-practical political Science supplanted politics as the study of man in society. As the scope of government widened, regulation of industry—and, by extension, livelihood—became standard practice. When policy can strike one’s pocketbook, political discourse becomes far more personal. As political discussion heated up, Americans found that not everyone shared the same God-terms. With different sources of authority in their word-choice, philosophical leaders developed religious- and moral arguments to give authority to their policies. In this venture they succeeded, because the vast majority of Americans shared their higher moral authority.
Today, ‘Diversity’ and ‘Freedom’ have replaced ‘Progress’ and ‘Liberty’ as American God-terms, while governmental policies now touch all aspects of life. All citizens are minorities or special interests of some sort, which makes most political points seem like personal attacks. Further, ‘Freedom’ is less precise than ‘Liberty’, and has several equally-vague senses. Thus, when Americans pursue arguments from authority, they appeal to God-terms that differ. Failing there, they turn to higher authority. That highest appeal to authority also fails, however, because during the last century Americans slowly lost their shared moral and religious beliefs.
Society fragments as people with common God-terms and shared morality circle the wagons against their opponents. While policies once had universally-recognized purposes, now successive administrations must debate and implement policies with teloi based on God-terms from other sub-cultures. In the absence of shared morality, relativism takes hold: each man his own moral authority. Unable to discuss in common terms and holding roughly equal moral authority, debaters must leave the realm of logos. To use the descriptions from Aristotle’s Rhetoric, they are left with two options: appealing to pathos by seeking the sympathy or pity of their audience and attempting to undermine the ethos of their opponents. Ultimately, political discourse degrades into anecdotal evidence and ad hominem attack.
Further, there is a growing tendency to view all issues as moral dichotomies. Because each person thinks the moral belief true to him is universal Truth, those on the other side of the dichotomy strive to spread the False, the Immoral, the Evil. From that view and attacks on ethos comes the myth of monstrous, evil opponents with an agenda of evil, which just exacerbates the problems of modern political discourse.
Though economics can be a dismal, heartless science, its manner of thinking can actually humanize political discourse. Where the moral view creates dichotomies of good and evil, Economics reveals that no rational person would support something he finds morally abhorrent, because morality takes precedent over prudence. Immorality is an enormous disincentive to action; no one actively, intentionally promotes Evil. There is no liberal conspiracy trying to destroy the family, indoctrinate children, and make everyone dependent on government. Instead, rational people who wholly believe that they are doing Good promote marriage equality, effective public education, and basic human rights. The economic approach breaks the moral dichotomy and grants perspective. It forces one to discover how others think, which is the first step toward understanding their beliefs. Engaging with and understanding the beliefs of one’s opposition is the heart of dialectic; one cannot find the Truth in opposed arguments if those who disagree are loathsome foes. Further, if one seeks Truth only in one’s own philosophy, without logos interaction with other views, one is likely to miss nuance and Truth in one’s own views, bogged down in the number of angels on a pin.
When one understands the views of one opponents, one can grow to understand their God-terms and their morality. By using their own terms to press at tensions and doubts, one can convince them that a different policy is superior. After one changes their opinion on number of issues, they will join one’s camp. Only at that point can one advance up the persuasive ladder, closer to their core philosophy:
The economic view, then, is the lynchpin of political discourse; without it, rhetorical and philosophical advancements are nearly impossible. Only by adopting it and engaging with our opponents can we return to limited and shared policies, shared God-terms, and shared morality. F