Debate Techniques

A debate is an arena where, usually, one person presents a case and another tries to show that the case is invalid. It is often said that debates about politics, or religion, are useless. I don’t think this is the case. In the case of libertarianism and capitalism (a topic I have debated many times), debates are helpful because most people are not aware that there is an alternative to right and left-wing statism. They are an opportunity to pass our central message.

Of course, two things stands above all in a debate, and that is honesty and clarity. While your opponent will get approval from most believers with emotional tactics and shotgunning, reasonable people reading your posts or listening to what you say will remember your arguments and how well you present them. Make honest and clear points, and make it whenever necessary. Have a structure to your case, and keep referring to it, to check if your opponent has addressed all your arguments or not.

Here are some recommendations on how to escape common emotionalist tactics and drive your point home.

* Using a story as an opener helps concretize your argument.

There are a great number of stories of government control and abuse, in the news, on the internet, and even in books. Draw from them to illustrate points, especially as an introduction. In telling or retelling a story, you are trying to draw the sympathy of the audience to the victim, but you are also illustrating your arguments. What you are really doing is, you are merely reminding people of what they already know : government doesn’t work, individual freedom is better.

* Use the Ransberger Pivot.

Read my article on the Ransberger Pivot and get used to the technique until it becomes second nature. The Pivot consists of two steps :

1. Identify the underlying goal in your opponent’s statements.
2. Explain why libertarianism best fulfills this goal.

The first part is perhaps the one that requires the most practice. Statists will tend to use specific examples, that may or may not apply to libertarianism at all, but the people who read or hear them will understand what they are supposed to refer to. For instance, a statist will talk about the monopolization of the media and most statists will implicitly understand that monopolies and corporate power are evil. Libertarianism is not a position that argues for monopolies or corporate power, but they implicitly think that anyone who is against them must disagree about everything. In these cases, simply point out that you share these premises with your opponent, and that he is being off-topic.

* Be always on guard for code-words.

Also read the article I wrote about many statist code-words such as “class”, “equality” and “common good”. When you see one of those words, a red flag should immediately raise in your head – your opponent is using a presupposition of his political position. Identify the presupposition, explain why it is invalid, and give the correct libertarian view.

* Don’t be afraid to use quotes.

Using quotes to underscore a point, or to inspire, is always powerful. Consult web sites like Libertarian Quotes,, and Freedom’s Nest to get appropriate quotes for the occasion.

* Be on the lookout for misdirection tactics.

Your opponent will try to give his position an advantage that is in fact an advantage for your position. Every time someone makes a claim, ask yourself : comparatively, which position really fulfills this condition better ? Is he trying to pull a fast one on me by using common but false assumptions ? For instance, statists like to claim that their system promotes equality, when in fact statism creates political power, and thus inequality to the law. Capitalism, on the other hand, eliminates political power as much as possible and makes everyone equal under the law.

* Always remember that most debates are inherently comparative.

Unless the topic is specifically about whether a position has enough evidence or not, any debate you are involved in will be comparative. Knowledge itself is comparative : we evaluate how probable different hypotheses on the basis of how well they explain the available observations. In the case of libertarianism, it is important to remember that the alternative positions are statism and anarchism. If your opponent is not an anarchist, it is usually a safe assumption to treat statism as the only alternative.

So when discussing issues, do not try to defend libertarianism in itself. Detail the evidence and show how libertarianism explains it better than its alternatives. If your opponent is raising issues, show how libertarianism solves the issues while the alternatives do not, using the Ransberger Pivot.
It is altogether too easy to get bogged down in issues of detail. Keep re-orienting the debate bac
k to the comparative conclusions. And always remind your readers or listeners of the most fundamental comparison : freedom versus government control. Freedom works, government does not work. Free market works, socialism does not work. Civil liberties work, social coercion does not work.