Can’t ‘Progressives’ Discuss Conflicting Ideas without Impugning Motives?

(Jonathan Drake/Reuters)

Increasingly, no.

Remember Duke historian Nancy MacLean’s odious book Democracy in Chains, a disreputable hatchet job on James Buchanan and public choice theory generally. Rather than trying to come to grips with Buchanan’s thinking and its implications — chiefly that if you believe government will solve problems, you’d better think again because government officials have their own self-interested agendas — MacLean manufactured a sleazy case that he was a racist who just wanted to create an excuse for opposing government action. That resonated with most leftists, who have been taught that exposing the supposed hidden motives of people who don’t want omnipotent government is all that’s necessary to win an argument.

Here’s another instance of that same style of writing. Professor Janek Wasserman of the University of Alabama has penned a book about the Austrian School of Economics. Professor Richard Ebeling finds that the book is a “twisted tale” in a lengthy review published by the American Institute for Economic Research. Wasserman can’t just give an explication of Austrian thinking and then offer arguments as to why he disagrees. He poisons his book with all sorts of motive impugning barbs.

Ebeling writes, for instance:

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But rather than deal with Mises’s arguments in these terms, Professor Wasserman insists that, ‘Men like Wieser, [Joseph] Schumpeter and Mises had much to lose during the heady days of 1918 and 1919, and they engaged in public affairs with urgency. Self-identifying with German culture, hailing from prosperous, well-connected families, and holding coveted jobs within the academic and bureaucratic establishments, these men were deeply invested in the status quo. They spoke out to defend their state and values . . .’

Here, in between the lines, is a variation of the old Marxian theme that ‘class interests’ determine and define the views and values of people in society. Not being members of the “working class” who do not possess such ‘well-connected families’ and ‘coveted jobs,’ Wieser, Schumpeter, and Mises offered ideas and theories all meant to rationalize and justify ‘the status quo.’ Why simply present Mises’s critique of socialism seriously on its own grounds, when you can suggest that it’s only a ruse to resist those who are on the ‘right side’ of history, the advocates of socialism?”

Why do leftist academics argue this way? In part, I suppose, it’s the influence of postmodern thinking that arguments are never more than camouflage for one’s real goals. Intellectual combat thus entails nothing more than “finding” (through any flimsy evidence or mere speculation) what those goals are.  It’s also much easier than sticking your neck out in a fair academic fight. And it’s probably also the way to get your writings praised, since most of the academic world now accepts this mode of “argument.”

George Leef is the the director of editorial content at the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal.

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