Merry Christmas, happy Hanukkah, and a fabulous Festivus for the rest of us! This holiday season Liberty Insight would like to give the gift of the Socratic Method. Actually, it’s a re-gift from, uh, Socrates. For defenders of liberty who are unfamiliar with the Socratic Method this may be the best gift you receive all year. For those who are already familiar with this method, may this be a reminder to dust it off and use this technique now and then.
As defined by Wikipedia, the Socratic Method is “a form of inquiry and discussion between individuals, based on asking and answering questions to stimulate critical thinking and to illuminate ideas.” The method examines the logic of a stated belief by asking a series of fundamental questions about that statement to see if the statement contradicts itself, and can thus be ruled out as false. The Socratic Method is to philosophy what the Scientific Method is to science.
The Socratic Method is essentially a means of discovering the truth, and since the truth lies on the side of liberty, property rights and non-violence, it is a powerful tool in shredding the false logic used to defend the State.
What passes for political debate or discussion of social issues, especially on TV, is embarrassing. At best, the people on opposing sides calmly state their positions and then back them up with selective “facts” and “statistics” to support their claims. More often this discussion devolves into a shouting match, talking over each other, name calling or worse. It causes participants and viewers who hold a belief to hunker down with their opinion and disregard the other side even more. While it makes for good TV, it’s counterproductive for actually informing people or changing people’s minds on an issue.
The Socratic Method, when done right, is the opposite of the typical TV pundit debate. It is respectful, inquisitive, persuasive, and is more intent on exposing the truth than promoting an agenda. I believe this is the most powerful discussion technique in getting people to actually change their minds on a particular issue due to its inquisitive and introspective nature. By guiding a person though a series of basic inquiries, they must examine the logic behind their own conclusions at each step. If, in their own mind they come to a contradiction, they must then find a way to rectify that contradiction, or if they cannot, they are forced to reexamine their belief. Since they come to this realization on their own, they are much more likely to try to understand the truth than if they were simply told they were wrong.
Warning! This discussion tool is so powerful it can be dangerous. If you use this method to discuss political issues with friends and family be sure to use it with the utmost respect, sincerity, empathy and humility. Remember, you are causing people to challenge the deep-rooted beliefs that define them as a person. You are exposing flaws in their logic and possibly their character. If used carelessly, they may think of you as a smug arrogant prick and end the conversation. Worse, they could become angry, hateful, even violent. Remember, the goal is to help people to discover truth, not to prove a point or incite anger.
So let’s examine a hypothetical debate between two pundits that we might imagine on a TV show to demonstrate how the Socratic Method would be more effective at persuading the audience. In this example we find a typical debate between a “conservative” and a “liberal” discussing healthcare. (note: conservative in this example just refers to the position of defending the free market and not Republican conservatism.)
Conservative: Obamacare will be a disaster. What we need is the free market to provide healthcare.
Liberal: Look, we tried the free market and it was by all objective measures a complete failure. In a modern society as rich as ours, we should be providing quality healthcare for all people, not just the rich. In every other advanced society, the government provides healthcare for the people and it works great.
Conservative: The health care in those countries isn’t better. People have to wait in long lines. They need death panels to decide who gets care and who doesn’t. And the outcomes aren’t as good if you go to the hospital with cancer or need surgery.
Liberal: Again with the typical Republican scare tactics of the so-called “death panels.” It just isn’t true. And if you look at the statistics, European countries with universal healthcare have higher life expectancies and lower infant mortality rates…
Conservative: Yeah, but you can’t just look at life expectancy. There are a lot of factors that go into life expectancy like obesity levels and homicide rates. You’ve got to look at the outcomes once someone enters the healthcare system. Americans live longer…
Liberal: Maybe if you’re rich and can afford expensive healthcare you can get good treatment but for the vast majority of people – the poor, people with pre-existing conditions – they are suffering and they can’t afford these exorbitant health costs. It’s our duty as a society to make sure these people get the quality, affordable healthcare they deserve.
Wow! Did you see what just happened? In the eyes of the typical voter, the conservative just got demolished in this debate. If he’s lucky, the people who already agreed with him understood his points and haven’t jumped ship. Anybody who didn’t already have a strong opinion was clearly swayed to the liberal camp and those who already supported government healthcare are popping the champagne.
The conservative’s points may have been factual, but it didn’t matter. The liberal had already framed the debate by asserting that we tried the free market. By not challenging this assertion, the conservative was forced into defending a clearly flawed status quo. Simply throwing out statistics and arguments that everyone has already heard a million times doesn’t change anyone’s opinion. Instead, the conservative looks like a heartless defender of the status quo who wants poor people to die in the streets while the liberal will provide great healthcare for all.
Let’s see how it might have gone if the conservative had challenged that initial assertion using the Socratic Method.
Conservative: Obamacare will be a disaster. What we need is the free market to provide healthcare.
Liberal: (interrupting) Look, we tried the free market and it was by all objective measures a complete failure. In a modern society as rich as ours, we should be providing quality healthcare for all people, not just the rich. In every other advanced society, the government provides healthcare for the people and it works great.
Conservative: Let me ask you a question. Do you think the system we had in place before Obamacare was a free market?
Liberal: (Begrudgingly) Well, yeah, and it didn’t work. (Changing the subject) We should instead be providing healthcare for all like in Europe.
Conservative: Ok, so if you are saying that we had a free market in healthcare and it failed, if we could demonstrate that it wasn’t a free market would you agree that your assertion would no longer be valid since the underlying premise was incorrect?
Liberal: (Avoiding the question) That’s not the point. We had a more Capitalist system before and it didn’t work as well as universal healthcare in European countries and Canada. They are able to provide healthcare to everyone at lower cost than we do here.
Conservative: (Pressing for an answer) But you said we had a free market system that failed and I would suggest we didn’t have a free market system. We had a system where the government interfered in nearly all aspects of healthcare. Would you consider the government giving preferential tax treatment to employer-provided insurance to be interfering in the free market?
Liberal: That’s just Capitalism. Plus it’s a good thing that employers provide insurance otherwise nobody would be able to afford it. Not just the poor people and people with pre-existing conditions but also the middle class.
Conservative: So you’re saying the government manipulating the market through the tax code is free market Capitalism? Perhaps we have a different definition. If employers are then incentivized by the tax code to provide health insurance what happens when people quit or get fired and lose their insurance? Isn’t that when people need insurance the most? Doesn’t that create a difficult situation where the person has no job, no insurance, may have developed a pre-existing condition and needs to start from scratch with a new plan?
Liberal: Um, well yeah, that would be bad if they had a pre-existing condition. That’s why we need universal healthcare, so people who lose their jobs can get affordable health insurance.
Conservative: But didn’t you just admit that the government tax incentives established the system that caused the person to lose their coverage to begin with? And doesn’t that preferential tax treatment also encourage the third-party payer system which adds layers of bureaucracy and drives up prices? Isn’t that an example of the government destroying the free market which invalidates your claim that we tried the free market and it didn’t work? Shouldn’t we then reexamine what really caused health care and insurance to be so expensive? Or do you need more examples of government interference in healthcare?
Liberal: We need universal healthcare. They have it in Europe. You hate poor people and want them to die in the streets.
As you can see it’s a different conversation. The conservative has reframed the debate as a discussion of the validity of the liberal’s claim that we need universal healthcare because the free market failed. (They may still claim that we need universal healthcare but they have to find a new argument to get there.) The liberal is now on the defensive and must defend the easily debunked position that we had a free market in healthcare leading up to Obamacare. The conservative seems like a thoughtful person just asking a simple question for clarification and later a protector of the poor people who lose their jobs and find themselves without health insurance. Meanwhile the liberal seems evasive and illogical and reduced to throwing out tired platitudes about “universal care”.
Beyond just winning the debate, this conversation actually engages the audience. In the first example, viewers with pre-conceived beliefs will simply cheer the arguments they agree with and call bullshit on the other side’s arguments. Posing a question causes the viewer to think about how they would answer it themselves.
Take the first question, “Do you think the system we had in place before Obamacare was a free market?” It’s probably a question they had never considered before. Now they must think for themselves. If they answer “no” then they must accept that the argument put forth by the liberal is flawed. If they answer “yes” then the liberal’s assertion is still valid (for now) but they probably realize they will get a follow-up question such as, “If the government interferes in the market, is it still a free market?” (The third option, which our crafty debater in the above example chose, is to brush over the question and try to change the subject.)
As the series of question progresses, the person defending the original premise eventually gets to the point where they realize they are trapped. They realize they are about to (or just did) contradict themselves. You will know it when you see it. Their eyes may get big. Their breathing may change. This is where the reactions vary. They may sheepishly admit they may have been wrong and need to revisit their assertion. They may try to lie or obfuscate their way out of it. They may get angry and lash out. They may just end the conversation and walk away. In any case, be kind and don’t rub it in. We’ve all been there and the goal is not to humiliate but to get them to reexamine their beliefs and seek the truth.
Except, of course, when the person spouting the misplaced belief is some loudmouth D-bag politician or pundit who belittles his opponents and insists on promoting statist bullshit that affects the lives of all of us. In that case, it is fair game to expose these people for the pompous A-holes that they are. Perhaps nobody exposes these frauds better than Jan Helfeld. He poses as an unassuming, even simple-minded TV reporter to interview politicians and pundits and forces them to defend ridiculous positions. It’s usually extremely comical.
The video below is a hilarious example in which Jan repeatedly asks Representative Pete Stark to defend his statement that the higher the national debt, the wealthier we are. Starks reactions run the gambit from patronizing comments to defensive jabs, to ad hominem attacks, to running away, and culminating with a threat to throw Jan out the window.
There’s plenty more where that came from on Youtube. I especially like Jan’s interview with Harry Reid who takes a different approach when he’s caught in a contradiction – just keep lying.
[Editor's Note: If you've never seen the film Twelve Angry Men it's a great example of the Socratic Method in action and a must watch movie (The original Henry Fonda version not the Tony Danza one). The final scene where Lee J. Cobb breaks down after coming to grips with the truth is an all time great.]