Sun Tzu said “If you know your enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not your enemy, for every victory gained you will also know defeat. If you know neither the enemy or yourself, you will sucumb to every battle.” While he was talking specifically about war much of his advice translates to other aspects of life, especially debates.
Being able to debate is important if you want to advocate for something. During most debates there are three factions: those who agree with you, those who disagree with you, and those who haven’t taken sides. Some say that debating is pointless because you’ll never change your opponent’s mind. The assumption being made by such a statement is that your goal is to change your opponent’s mind, it’s not in most cases, it’s to convince those who haven’t taken sides to take your side. In your quest to convince those who haven’t taken sides to take your side you need to know the details about what you’re advocating and the details about what your opposition is advocating.
Today’s lesson is simple: in a debate know your shit and know your opponent’s shit.
As a fan of examples I’m going to use an example to portray today’s lesson. In our example we’ll have a hypothetical debate between a libertarian named Murray and a communist named Karl. Let’s consider the first part of the Art of War excerpt, “If you know your enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles.” Murray, being an intelligent individual, has thoroughly read both libertarian and communist literature. He actually knows how Karl came to his conclusions, understands Karl’s theories, and can quote from any number of Karl’s fellow communists. Murray also knows his own work like the back of his hand. Why is this important? Why did Murray waste his time researching communism if he’s debating libertarianism? Because one cannot hope to win a debate unless he actually knows what his opponent is doing.
During this hypothetical debate we’ll say Karl states, “Human history can be characterized by exploitation. The capitalist class exploits the laborer class. In order for the laborer to obtain the necessities of life he must become a wage slave to a capitalist. The capitalist, interested only in profit, exploits the laborer and gives only a fraction of the value provided by the laborer in wages. Unable to survive without wages received from a capitalist the laborer is reduced to a mere servant.”
How could Murray respond to this? He could just call the entire statement malarkey and leave it at that but little would be accomplished from such a feat. Those who listened to the debate would see Karl as an intelligent individual, logically explaining his philosophy, and Murray as an inarticulate moron who doesn’t offer and explanation as to why Karl is wrong. Thankfully Murray has read Karl’s works and has found the failures of his statements. With this knowledge in hand Murray can counter by explaining, “You are correct in so far as human history can be characterized by exploitation. However you are incorrect on who is performing the exploitation. We must look at the root cause of the issue, why are other options unavailable to the laborer? Why can’t many of the laborers pool their resources and setup a competing factory on an unused plot of land? It’s not because the capitalist is preventing it, it’s because the ruling class, the state, is preventing it. The state, claiming authority over all, maintains a monopoly on the ownership of land and its use. Laborers cannot setup a competing factory because the state will use force to stop them from using the land and will make matters worse by hitting them with countless fees for inspections and fines for violating its regulations. These costs are nothing to an established business, which has the available capital to pay the fees and fines without going broke. The laborers, who are trying to establish themselves, do not have such access capital available to them. It isn’t the capitalist that is exploiting the laborers, it is the state that is protecting the capitalist from competition from the laborers.”
By using that explanation Murray is able to do two things: counter Karl’s statement and setup an argument against Karl’s idea to improve the current situation. Karl wants to establish an all powerful state to rule over all of society and ensure no capitalists are ever again able to exist. Murray, by showing the state to be the true exploiter, has set himself up to counter Karl’s solution. If you know your enemy you can anticipate their movements and develop an appropriate plan to deal with them.
Let’s consider the next piece of the except, “If you know yourself but not your enemy, for every victory gained you will also know defeat.” In a debate not knowing your enemy can cost you greatly, even if you know your own philosophy. This is where many libertarians falter, they know libertarian philosophy in and out but they have no understanding of communist philosophy. It’s time to revisit our debate between Murry and Karl. This time we’re going to assume that Murray has no functional knowledge of communism.
Karl says, “The capitalist class has amassed all possible resources and prevents the laborer class from acquiring them. In order to grow their wealth the capitalists keep the laborers in a state of poverty, preventing them from becoming an economic competitor.”
Unfortunately for Murray he has no understanding of the issue Karl is brining up. All Murray says is, “You just want to take the entrepreneurs’ wealth so that you don’t have to work.” Such a statement fails to address the point Karl was making, that is the poor are prevented from rising because resources are kept from them. It isn’t a false claim, those who are in poverty are often unable to rise economically because resources are not available to them. What Karl is incorrect about is the perpetrator, it’s not the capitalist but the state. It’s the state’s monopoly over resource ownership and implementation of rules and regulations that prevent new low cost businesses from developing. For a small fee anybody can gain possession of a food cart and could begin selling hamburgers, hotdogs, french fries, etc. to hungry passersby. Yet many municipalities have laws against such businesses or require the purchase of an expensive permit before selling food.
Now we’ll take a look at the last except, “If you know neither the enemy or yourself, you will sucumb to every battle.” If you don’t know your stuff and don’t know your opponent’s stuff you’re truly sunk. For this final section we’re going to assume Murray has no understanding of libertarian philosophy or communist philosophy.
Karls says, “The current environmental destruction is a demonstration of a capitalist’s greed. They are willing to put the health of everybody else at risk merely to obtain more wealth. No regard is given to the community.”
Murray, having only heard a few talking points about libertarianism, is unable to counter with any detail and merely replies, “Free markets would solve that.” How would free markets solve that? Murray isn’t sure and thus unable to go into detail. To anybody observing the debate Murray looks like a putz while Karl seems like a very intelligent individual, after all he gave an explanation for the rampant environmental destruction going on in the world. Those who try to argue in favor of libertarianism but don’t understand libertarianism are the most dangerous, they practically hand victory to the communists.
If you want to enter into debates you must not only know your material but also your opponent’s material. This holds true whether the argument is gun rights versus gun control, libertarianism versus communism, free markets versus controlled markets, or any other topic. Going into a debate knowing only your material will likely grant you some victories while going into a debate knowing neither your material or your opponent’s material will ensure your defeat.