Opinion: Daily Journal

Playing the Confidence Game

RALEIGH – There’s nothing wrong with being confident. In the context of public-policy debate, I believe that an effective combination is confidence mixed with self-deprecating humor (easier for some of us than others, given the ready availability of deprecatory detritus) and geniality. Nothing is less interesting and engaging for an audience than a speaker who equivocates and hedges all bets.

On the other hand (ha), being confident in one’s viewpoint is not the same as being brazen, insolent, or close-minded. I have always encouraged colleagues at JLF to listen closely to what their intellectual sparring partners argue, to seek out alternative sources of information, and to admit error quickly and unabashedly when it crops up. Operate under the hypothesis that your position, assuming you have formed it after careful consideration, is correct and worthy of enthusiastic advocacy. Of course, a hypothesis is testable.

Just in the past few weeks I’ve seen some assertions or positions stated not just confidently but brazenly, by debaters on the Left and Right. I believe them to be highly suspect, often reflecting the tendency to read only like-minded sources and listen only to like-minded echoes. For example:

• “Illegal immigrants don’t pay taxes.” This is blatantly false assertion. Illegal immigrants pay many taxes. They pay sales and excise taxes on what they purchase. They directly or indirectly pay property taxes (renters bear most of the incidence of the property tax on apartment buildings). Those who work as employees rather than contractors definitely pay payroll and income taxes. Some contractors also pay payroll taxes, depending on the situation (but will not receive Social Security and Medicare benefits).

The real fiscal question is whether these immigrants pay more in taxes than they receive in government benefits. The answer is, for many of them, no – but in this they are similar to the net fiscal impact of native-born Americans at the lower end of the income scale. Mitigating the cost to taxpayers of illegal immigration is a legitimate end, but can be pursued through a variety of means (including shrinking the welfare state, which ought to be the paramount conservative approach, anyway).

• “The Iraq War in unjustified because Saddam Hussein’s regime had no WMD programs and no ties to terrorists.” You’d think these assertions must be true, given how often they are seen in media coverage, but they are demonstrably untrue. Pre-war information as well as official government reports (not their executive summaries) and newly released documents captured in Iraq reveal that while the regime did not have the stockpiles of weapons most intelligence agencies believed it to have, there were ongoing research efforts, a large capacity to resume weapons production once international sanctions were lifted, and a dangerous intention by Hussein to do exactly that. As for terrorism, the evidence grows daily about Iraq’s financial, technical, and moral support for anti-American terrorist groups and al Qaeda affiliates in many countries. Those who claim that secular Iraq would never collaborate with Islamist terror groups are grossly ignorant of military history and the modern world.

• Changing gears: “North Carolina cities that want to prosper economically must use tax dollars to subsidize arts and entertainment venues popular among the ‘creative class.’” This is good example of a testable assertion – and the test has already yielded a failing grade. Communities that pursue these policies do not grow faster, in jobs or income, than those pursuing other policies.

Feel free to contact me with other examples of baseless propositions, confidently asserted. Including, naturally, those printed in this space.

Hood is president of the John Locke Foundation.