If I were the Judge. How I would respond to Jon Stewart.

The sky is green

Imagine that you are in conversation with an intelligent, articulate person who by all appearances is completely sane, yet insists that the sky is green.

You might try to convince him that the sky is blue by simply saying, “Look up!  It’s blue!”, but that is unlikely to work. If he really isn’t crazy, there must be some reason he thinks the sky is green despite the evidence of his senses.  If you go down the “Just Look” route, you will end up shouting past each other, loudly and slowly.

“The! Sky! Is! Blue!”  “No! It’s! Green!”

Tell it to the Judge

This is exactly the situation Judge Andrew Napolitano found himself in last week, when he appeared on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart . For 20 minutes, through the broadcast segment and two segments on the web, Jon and the Judge talked past each other.

They utterly failed to understand each other and, it pains me to say, I have to lay most of the blame at the Judge’s feet.  For him, the correctness of the libertarian view is so obvious that if he just points it out to people, the scales will fall from their eyes and they will see.

This style of argument is, unfortunately, very common among libertarians and it damages our cause.

As an example, in the first web segment, about 2:50 in, Jon tries to make a point in favor of some form of market regulation. The Judge interrupts him saying, the Free Market “always produces the best product at the lowest cost.” At this point, the audience moans, Stewart puts his hand to his mouth and the Judge has lost any chance he had of convincing anyone of our ideas.

It’s a text book Green Sky moment.

Liberty is not obvious

Here’s where the Judge went wrong. If a man as smart, as well informed and as plugged-in as Jon Stewart doesn’t already realize that the Free Market is the best way to run an economy, there has to be a reason for it. It’s not that he just never noticed.

Something is keeping him from seeing what is right in front of his face. It might be his liberal ideology. He might be a closet Marxist. Mostly likely, he might just mistake the heavily regulated, mixed economy we live in for a real Free Market, as many people do.

None of that matters. What’s important is that given Stewart’s beliefs (and the beliefs of his 1.5 million viewers), the Judge was not going to convince him by saying “the sky is blue”. By simply asserting the correctness of his position, the Judge lost an opportunity to engage with those 1.5 million and maybe change some minds.

How he should have answered

There was a better way for the Judge to have handled that exchange.  I’d have assumed that Stewart sees the “Free Market” as a smoke screen for cronyism, bail-outs, political favoritism, and all the other corruptions that plague our system. For libertarians, the difference between a Free Market and our system is as obvious as the difference between rock and air. But most people don’t see it that way.  They’ve been told their whole life that “The United States is a Free Market”, “We live in a Free Market.” and “Our Free Market system beat the Communists”.

Why shouldn’t they believe this mess we live in is a Free Market when that’s all they’ve ever heard?

So the Judge’s first job was to explain the difference. As long as the audience thinks Free Market means the status quo, they’ll never listen. So he should have first admited to all the faults of our current system and then drive home the point that our current system is not a Free Market.

Then he could have talked about how well the Free Market (or as close as we can get to one) works versus the more heavily regulated sectors of the economy work. This is an easy distinction to make, too. It’s not a coincidence that the most screwed up sectors of the economy, Housing, Finance, Education and Health Care, are also the most deeply distorted.

After making that point in 3 or 4 sentences, the Judge could have gone looking for common groun with Stewart instead of looking for Randy Jackson in the audience.

That would have been much more convincing.

What century do you want to go back to?

There was another missed opportunity just before the Free Market exchange. At 2:00 minutes into the first web segment, Stewart asks the Judge, “Would you go back to 1890?”  This question plays on the stereotype that libertarians are throw-backs; that we want to return to some mythical Golden Age where Robber Barons ate caviar off the backs of the down trodden and used the poor as fire wood.

Any libertarian worthy of his copy of “The Fatal Conceit” should have been able to knock this question out of the park. The answer is simple, “I don’t want to go back to any decade. I want to go forward as fast as we can. In the last 250 years freedom and liberty have created the greatest advances in  well-being and human dignity the world has ever seen and I want that wave to keep going.”

Just look at what has happened in two centuries. Mass chattel slavery has been eliminated in the developed world. Thank you Scottish Enlightenment. Put a ‘W’ in the Libertarian column.

Women are no longer the property of first their fathers and then their husbands. Another ‘W’.

A billion people have been lifted out of poverty by two countries taking just the smallest steps toward economic freedom.

We’re living longer, healthier lives. Child birth is no longer a leading cause of death for women. For the first time in history, our poor people are too fat.

With all that behind me, why won’t I expect the future to be even better?  I don’t want 1890. Give me 2090!

Selfishness is not a virtue!

One more example. At the beginning of the second web segment the Judge says, “I’m going to blow you away. Selfishness is a virtue.”

If my first two examples were missed opportunities, this was just a blunder. Never say “Selfishness is a virtue.” It’s not. I don’t care what Ayn Rand told you. It’s not.

More importantly, saying “Selfishness is a virtue.” or “Greed is good.” never convinces anyone. It only gets you branded as a kook. A heartless, soulless, drone who would sell his own mother for the right price.  It makes us look foolish and evil when we say things like that.

The whole point of going on the Daily Show and talking about liberty is to win hearts and minds. There aren’t enough of us to make a decent bowling league, let alone change a nation. Saying “Selfishness is a virtue”, whether because you’re trying to dog-whistle to old Objectivist friends or pass a libertarian purity test or score clever debating points, damages that mission.

Selfishness is not a virtue because, by its very definition, selfishness means “devoted to or caring only for oneself; concerned primarily with one’s own interests, benefits, welfare, etc., regardless of others”. To hold that up as a virtue is horrible. No wonder people think libertarians are atomistic individualists who want to go live perfectly free lives on desert islands.

The Judge could have made his point much more effectively by following in Adam Smith’s footsteps. Smith didn’t say the butcher, brewer and baker provided our dinner because of their selfishness or greed. He said it was because of their self interest.

Self interest is not the same as selfishness. You can be interested in your own good without ignoring others or caring only for yourself. You can be self interested and still have friends, participate in your community and help your neighbor. There’s no need to apologize for being self interested and none of the evil connotations selfishness and greed have.

If the Judge had started with self interest, he could have talked about how in a Free Market the only way to get ahead is to find a way to serve other people. And that the reward of more money can lead the self interested man to find better and better ways to serve people. This is the greatest thing about “truck, barter and exchange”. And we throw it away when we talk about how selfishness is a good thing.

The libertarian communications gap

I’m willing to bet that while the Judge was with Stewart thousands of libertarians were tweeting their friends, “Judge on Daily Show. RU watching?”

I’m also willing to bet that the Judge did not change a single mind that night. If you were already a libertarian, you loved his performance. If you weren’t, you walked away thinking, “God, what a bunch of nuts.”

For a group of people who have such strong ideas, libertarians are, in general, really bad at communicating those ideas. We shout when we should listen. We think “Read Man, Economy and State!” is an effective argument. We speak in code words, like Leviathan and Anarcho-Capitalism, that no one else understands.

It’s not enough for us to be right. We have to be persuasive.  I said above, that I’m very optimistic about the future and I am. But there are still fights to win and right now, we’re under attack from the left and the right for challenging their statist privilege (“statist privilege”, see even I do it).

We have to be clearer. We have to talk, not shout. We have to reason, not bludgeon.

Otherwise, we won’t win and the future won’t be all hover crafts and broccoli ice cream.

About fzinger

I read and I write. I read a lot and I write when I can.
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4 Responses to If I were the Judge. How I would respond to Jon Stewart.

  1. Phil Owens says:

    So agreed. Shared all over the place.

  2. There is no pragmatic difference between “selfishness” and “self-interest”. You’ve merely decided to interpret them differently. Perhaps others do as well. But the Judge chose instead to challenge people to understand that selfishness does not mean self-interest to the exclusion of caring for others. Caring itself is a selfish act. People form relationships, communities, families, and charitable organizations for SELFISH reasons… i.e. it benefits them (usually indirectly, but directly enough to attribute the benefit) and makes them feel good. But this is not to the detriment of anyone else. Free markets expose the fallacy of that. We can all be selfish and the net result is a benefit for all! Selfishness (or rational self-interest, or greed) is in fact good. It is a virtue. Saying it isn’t concedes a fallacy to the opposition. You don’t persuade anyone by conceding fallacies. Instead, you need to show, usually by metaphor, why your position is true and the opposite is false. Selfishness does not imply harm to others. Libertarians are totally against people using force against others. That’s not selfishness at all, but malevolence. Can people be both? Sure. But one doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with the other. Wishing and doing well for oneself does not automatically mean wishing and doing evil against others. In fact, more often than not, the manner in which one does well for themselves is by working cooperatively with and beneficially for others. When you wake up in the morning and go to work, doing tasks for others, it is not out of a selfless sense of charity, but out of a selfish need for a paycheck. And yet, others benefit from your work. That is the essence of the virtue of selfishness working in a free market to produce benefits for all of society.

    • fzinger says:


      There are very important differences between “selfishness” and “self interest”. Selfishness is considered a bad trait and self interest is good, or at least neutral. There’s no getting around it. That’s how people use these words.

      The Judge had a chance to speak to 1.5 million people for a few short minutes. Most of them had never thought about libertarianism and the ones that had probably had a fairly low opinion of it. His goal was to get them to take a look (or a second look) at liberty.

      Pragmatically, which would have been the better strategy? Fight an up-hill battle trying to redefine “selfishness” or take Smith’s route, talk about self interest and get to the great benefits that markets bring to everyone?

      I say that making his point clearly and effectively would have been the right move. Arguing about what words mean, or trying to shock people into rethinking their assumptions is the wrong strategy. It won’t work in that situation and it will turn off a million people for every one person that gets the argument.

      Save the discussions about selfishness for after they’ve taken a few steps toward our side. Then you can argue about whether a truly selfless act is even possible all you want. It’s an interesting philosophical point. But for an appearance on the Daily Show, it’s a distraction.


  3. Pingback: How the free market would have desegregated the South. | 2nd Hand Ideas

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