Why I Seek Converts

I recently Tweeted:

The first sentence won wide acclaim, but the second sentence provoked much criticism.  Why do I want to “convert” my intellectual opponents rather than learn from them?

I have several partial answers:

1. Of course I want to learn from them.  But eventually, I finish learning.  As a rule, we still disagree.  Once we reach that stage, we can drop the subject – or I can try to convert them to my view.  Yes, I could reconsider the possibility that they’re right and I’m wrong.  Eventually, however, I finish reconsidering – and we still disagree.

2. Doesn’t this reveal enormous arrogance on my part?  Well, you could say that anyone who publicly defends a controversial view is enormously arrogant.  The subtext, after all, is “I’m right and almost everyone else is wrong.”  On the other hand, if you don’t consider your judgment on the topics where you publicly speak to be exceptionally good, why are you speaking?  Most people who seek converts don’t deserve them.  But if you do deserve them, why wouldn’t you seek them?

3. I don’t start calling someone an “intellectual opponent” until after I’ve heard what they have to say and learned whatever I can from them.  Indeed, a good working definition of an intellectual opponent is, “Someone who disagrees with you who has very little to teach you.”  If that’s where you find yourself, you again face two paths: agree to disagree… or try to convert them.

Final point: You don’t have to imagine you’re infallible to responsibly seek converts.  You just need to think that your knowledge and judgment are better than those of your audience for the topics under discussion.

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Bryan Caplan is Professor of Economics at George Mason University and Senior Scholar at the Mercatus Center. He is the author of The Myth of the Rational Voter: Why Democracies Choose Bad Policies, named “the best political book of the year” by the New York Times, and Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids: Why Being a Great Parent Is Less Work and More Fun Than You Think. He has published in the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, the American Economic Review, the Economic Journal, the Journal of Law and Economics, and Intelligence, and has appeared on 20/20, FoxNews, and C-SPAN.

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