There's a stellar lineup of speakers at the conference today, and I'm focusing my first post on a very astute session by Isaac Morehouse from the Institute for Economic Freedom. His session was titled "How To Communicate 'Economics' To Your Friends." I've paraphrased his remarks below. He started with some general principles of argumentation.
First, you've got to find what fundamental bedrock premises you can agree on. Maybe it just, 'I want the world to be a better place,' — ah, well, so do I! So you can start there.
Don't fight over definitions... I'm more interested in discussing the ideas and the principles, instead of the definitions. If someone thinks capitalism is corporatism, I'm not going to spend my time fighting with them over the world capitalism. I'll give it to them — I'll say, I dont like capitalism by that definition, either... I'm not going to die on that hill.
Decide which premises to grant, and which to fight. When talking with someone with whom you disagree, they will probably have a lot of premises with which you disagree, and if you... try to take them all on at once, you're destined to fail.
Presume good will. Assume that the person you're discussing wants a better world. Don't attack them for their intentions, even if you question them. Just discuss the means by which they want to go about doing them.
If someone says, ah, well, I really want to help the poor, and I want to help them by Policy X. And you know a lot about Policy X... start by acknowleging the shared intentions. Questions are better than answers. If you have an answer for every statement they make, they... aren't going to listen.
Think of yourself as a drop of water on a rock. You are not going to win a conversation with someone about economics. You are not going to convince them or convert them in a conversation, and if that's your goal, you're probably going to... annoy them. Your goal is to be a drop on a rock. Plant a seed.
Economics is about understanding the unseen... It's often counter-intuitive. So when you're dealing with economics, you have to be careful.
First, learn economics! Don't talk about it until you understand it. Economics is about means and ends. It's about how means will achieve certain ends. It's not about values. Its not about what things you should and should not value. Its merely about the things you do that will help you get to the values. If someone says, I value "fairness," and you think, no, you should value, "justice," that's not an economic discussion.
Don't get into debates about the data. Focus on the principles. If you're skills are able to produce 10 widgets in an hour, and each widget costs 50 cents apiece, how much value are you creating in that hour? Five dollars. So if I pass a law that says your employer has to pay you seven dollars, are you automatically going to create seven dollars worth of value? No. What's going to happen? They're going to get rid of you. That's a better way to go about doing it.
Beware of the nirvana fallacy — when people compare the world with a free market to a world that can and never will exist. Pick one economic principle that you want to argue on. People don't generally like it when you try and bring up five different arguments against what they believe in. And have fun. If you're not having fun, and you're getting angry — don't do it. If you walk away from a conversation and say, "its hopeless!" don't have the conversation.