Ethics & Public Policy Center

How to Start an Argument

Published in National Review Online on October 27, 2014



Several people around here have mentioned that today is the 50th anniversary of Ronald Reagan’s “Time for Choosing” speech, which played such an important part in helping the American conservative movement learn how to formulate its arguments. Today is also the anniversary (the 227th, as it happens) of the publication of the first of the Federalist Papers, published in the Independent Journal on October 27, 1787.

Federalist 1, written by Alexander Hamilton, is not remembered among the greatest of the Federalist Papers, and for the force and originality of its argument it is surely not in the top tier of those astonishing essays. But it is nonetheless an extraordinary study in how to launch a public argument, and in the sort of attitude that should inform our involvement in public debates. I’ve had the opportunity to read it with undergraduates several times in recent years, and have been struck each time by how much it has to say to the various excesses that mark our political life.

Hamilton establishes for himself, and for the essays that followed, an attitude that is neither cynical nor naïve but that takes realism about human motives to be a cause for both humility and earnest engagement. The debate over the Constitution is immensely important, he argues. Indeed, in a sense the fortunes of humanity may hinge upon it. But that does not mean that the debate can be had in a space above interest and will:

Happy will it be if our choice should be directed by a judicious estimate of our true interests, unperplexed and unbiased by considerations not connected with the public good. But this is a thing more ardently to be wished than seriously to be expected. The plan offered to our deliberations affects too many particular interests, innovates upon too many local institutions, not to involve in its discussion a variety of objects foreign to its merits, and of views, passions and prejudices little favorable to the discovery of truth.

And yet, despite the unquestionable fact that nearly everyone in the debate will enter it with interests that may sway their reasoning, it would be a mistake to simply attribute their arguments to those interests and fail to take them seriously:

I am well aware that it would be disingenuous to resolve indiscriminately the opposition of any set of men (merely because their situations might subject them to suspicion) into interested or ambitious views. Candor will oblige us to admit that even such men may be actuated by upright intentions; and it cannot be doubted that much of the opposition which has made its appearance, or may hereafter make its appearance, will spring from sources, blameless at least, if not respectable—the honest errors of minds led astray by preconceived jealousies and fears. So numerous indeed and so powerful are the causes which serve to give a false bias to the judgment, that we, upon many occasions, see wise and good men on the wrong as well as on the right side of questions of the first magnitude to society.

All of this leads Hamilton not to dismiss all political arguments as self-interested excuses or confusions, but on the contrary to moderate his cynicism as well as his certainty:

This circumstance, if duly attended to, would furnish a lesson of moderation to those who are ever so much persuaded of their being in the right in any controversy. And a further reason for caution, in this respect, might be drawn from the reflection that we are not always sure that those who advocate the truth are influenced by purer principles than their antagonists. Ambition, avarice, personal animosity, party opposition, and many other motives not more laudable than these, are apt to operate as well upon those who support as those who oppose the right side of a question.

He knows that the debate over the Constitution will proceed like most other important debates: unpleasantly and heatedly. “We have already sufficient indications that it will happen in this as in all former cases of great national discussion,” he writes. “A torrent of angry and malignant passions will be let loose. To judge from the conduct of the opposite parties, we shall be led to conclude that they will mutually hope to evince the justness of their opinions, and to increase the number of their converts by the loudness of their declamations and the bitterness of their invectives.”

Both sides of the argument will overreach and will lack in generosity and civility, he writes, and they will misrepresent one another’s views about the proper role of government: “An enlightened zeal for the energy and efficiency of government will be stigmatized as the offspring of a temper fond of despotic power and hostile to the principles of liberty. An over-scrupulous jealousy of danger to the rights of the people, which is more commonly the fault of the head than of the heart, will be represented as mere pretense and artifice, the stale bait for popularity at the expense of the public good.”

But even though he can see these excesses in both sides of the argument, Hamilton does not for a moment pretend to stand above the fray. “I will not amuse you with an appearance of deliberation when I have decided,” he writes. ”I frankly acknowledge to you my convictions, and I will freely lay before you the reasons on which they are founded.”

Of course, we today know that Hamilton and his co-authors did not in fact share with their audience one crucial piece of information: that they were themselves among the key authors and champions of the document being debated. Not exactly a minor fact to leave out. We also know that the succeeding papers by no means always lived up to the ideal of realistic yet earnest argument, respectful of the honesty of the opposition, laid out in this first essay. But our modern culture cannot be reminded often enough that a failure to live up to a high standard taken seriously is not a mark against the standard or a sign of hypocrisy. It is, if anything, proof of our need for high standards.

Human beings are all tangles of paradox, and any serious politics must begin by recognizing that fact and its permanence. Federalist 1, and the series it began, put forward such a politics — not as an abstract philosophy handed down by detached observers but as a practical argument made by engaged partisans who, because of their engagement and not despite of it, could see beyond their party and beyond their time. It set a high standard for political argument, which we all fail to reach but should all strive to approach.

Yuval Levin is the Hertog Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center

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