How to Challenge Students Who Agree With You

By Antony Davies

I had a bittersweet experience last week. It was the fourth session of my economics seminar, and a bright student who had introduced himself as a socialist (his words) on the first day of class came into the classroom shaking his head. “Joseph,” I said, “what’s up?” He replied, “Everything I thought I knew about the world is wrong.” He had just finished watching Howie Baetjer’s and Art Carden’s LearnLiberty videos, “Profit, Loss, and Discovery,” and “Trade is Made of Win.” To see this bright socialist realize that liberty is the best tool for achieving the very ends he seeks was a joyous thing. Problem: Now that everyone in the class agrees with me, the next nine weeks are going to be tedious.

It is difficult for a liberty-minded teacher to be in front of a roomful of agreeable students. It would be easier if one were teaching a subject driven by feeling and emotion – the emotional subjects feed on agreement and conformity. But trying to grapple with ideas in the absence of push-back is, itself, contradictory – ideas are supposed to be engaged.

To challenge students who are already liberty-oriented, explore the reasons why they are liberty-oriented. You’ll find at least four groups whom I’ll call the empiricists, the non-religious conservatives, the religious conservatives, and the philosophers. To pre-empt the hate mail, I emphasize that these four groupings are generalizations. They aren’t meant to describe particular students but rather to describe the types of prejudices that students may bring to the classroom.

The empiricists don’t believe in liberty; they believe in what works, and freedom appears to work. Economics students tend to fall into this camp. They believe in liberty because more liberty means less government interference, and economics shows that government interference is bad for the economy. If evidence suggested that government interference were better for the economy, these students would be statists.

The non-religious conservatives don’t believe in liberty; they believe that the state is evil. They aren’t for liberty so much as they are against statism. They have heard the arguments against particular government policies and against liberal politicians, but they haven’t heard arguments for liberty. If there were an alternative to statism that wasn’t liberty, these students would be as likely to default to it as to default to liberty.

The religious conservatives don’t believe in liberty; they believe in religion. These students consider liberty to be a by-product of pursuing religious freedom. The fact that these students appear to be interested in liberty is due to the coincidence that the state is currently agnostic (or, from their perspective, atheistic). If the state promoted their religion, these students would be statists.

The philosophers, sadly, are few. These are students who have grappled with the idea of liberty. Even though they agree with you, they are good to have in the classroom because they want to probe for weaknesses. They will bring their best ammunition to attack liberty-oriented ideas in the hope that you will be able to provide a solid defense. These students contribute as much to a lively discussion as do the skeptics.

The first step to challenging students who agree with your views is to identify to which of these groups the students belong and then to make pro-liberty arguments that contradict their beliefs. The empiricists are easy. They will tend to favor of government intervention for regulating monopolies, internalizing externalities, providing public goods, and maintaining the money supply. Challenge them to come up with an example of a monopoly that was able to remain a monopoly in the long run without government intervention. Argue that externalities are merely instances in which property rights haven’t been defined or – worse still – instances in which government intervention prohibits the formation of property rights. James Stacey Taylor, of The College of New Jersey, proposes that sufficient technology can make any public good a private good. For example, with GPS and RFID chips, there is no reason why drivers can’t be charged on a per-use basis for driving on roads. In his 1948 text, Paul Samuelson forever made the lighthouse the poster-child for public goods. Interestingly, the lighthouses to which Samuelson referred were actually privately funded by fees charged by nearby privately-owned ports. For an excellent rejoinder to the call for a centralized monetary authority, see the literature on free banking.

The non-religious conservatives will favor no government. If you challenge them to defend a world in which there is no coercive force to defend property rights, they’ll claim that neighbors can ban together to protect each other. Demand details: What happens when the neighbors disagree about who is in the right? What happens when the details of a dispute are so complicated as to require expert knowledge? Is a majority judgment the same as an impartial judgment? As they adjust their world to address these questions, they’ll either consciously or inadvertently incorporate a government.

All the lenses through which religious conservatives see the world are themselves viewed through a single lens – religion. To these students, you should make the case that the first principles of classical liberalism – self-ownership and equality – are themselves derived from the theist’s first principle: that humans are created in the image and likeness of God. This thing that makes humans different from the rest of creation is manifest in free will. If one does not have the option to do evil then one cannot choose to do good, and so there is no morality – all actions become amoral. By encouraging these students to regard the principles of classical liberalism as direct consequences of being created in God’s image, you will start them down the path of embracing liberty not as a means to an end but as a moral imperative.

You’ll have no trouble with the philosophers. They are always looking for good arguments against, and the consequent counterarguments for, liberty. These students will tend to jump in on the sides of the students in the other three groups. But be warned. The philosophers have a delightful ability to clarify the murkiest arguments and, on occasion, you will find yourself wondering if perhaps you overlooked something after all.


Antony Davies is an Associate Professor of Economics at Duquesne University and Research Fellow at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University. You can watch his Learn Liberty videos here.

Image courtesy of Flickr/Image Editor


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