Feature Article: How the left tackles the man instead of the ball

Tackle the ball not the man, they say. That’s true of soccer. Rugby, however, involves tackling the man with the ball. When it comes to public discourse, the message translates into "launch reasoned attacks on what is said rather than ad hominem attacks on the person who said it". According to Thomas Sowell’s book, Intellectuals and Society, "the left" play more rugby than soccer; they have a habit of denouncing the messengers instead of the messages.

The standard response to the Free Market Foundation’s call for agreements between unions and employers to bind only contracting parties ignores the foundation’s motives and arguments and accuses it of being funded by foreign governments and nefarious exploiters. The copious evidence the foundation presents to the effect that raising the cost, risk and difficulty of employing people necessarily increases unemployment of vulnerable job-seekers, especially youth, and insolvency of marginal business, especially small business, is seldom, if ever, addressed.

Likewise with other debates: in a TV debate, Health Minister Aaron Motsoaledi ignored almost everything said by me and callers opposed to the antichoice regulation of smokers, drinkers and eaters. He accused the foundation of caring only about profit and repeated antichoice mantras as if they were sacrosanct, equated dissent with disregard for public health and ignored countervailing arguments or regarded them as negated by malice.

Prochoice people tend to assume that proposals reasoned by jurisprudence, philosophy and practicality must be motivated by good intentions.

Often people ask me if dirigistes who espouse policies that harm supposed beneficiaries are evil, selfish or ignorant. Does Motsoaledi promote authoritarian policies because he thinks people intelligent enough to vote for him are too stupid to take his advice? Do radical unions not care about or understand laws that impose destitution on the unemployed and marginal businesses? Why do politicians perpetuate such failed boondoggles as South African Airways and Eskom?

Demonising adversaries is easy. As a student communist, I saw capitalists as evil demons getting high on the misery they inflicted on toiling compatriots.

Can adversaries both be in good faith? Is disagreement about means to ends all that divides them? I’m optimistic. I assume, for instance, that the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) doesn’t want poverty and unemployment. That Motsoaledi wants healthier people rather than unfree people. That interventionists don’t want counterproductive effects and don’t despise liberty. My benign hope is that they are too focused on objectives to pay sufficient attention to concerns.

A departmental representative claimed the foundation’s objection to antismoker regulations was "selfish, irresponsible and dangerously ignorant". Visits to hospitals to see "victims of tobacco use" would prevent further "irresponsible statements". Similar presumptions of ignorance and selfish interests followed the foundation’s call for prochoice labour reforms. The irony is that, unlike its critics, the foundation has no vested interest in its proposals.

Our country needs adversaries to assume good faith and build trust. A Cosatu union asked why the foundation did not approach organised labour before launching its constitutional challenge. Journalists asked if the foundation had presented its evidence to the Department of Health. They have a point. The foundation should approach organised labour and the department with a view to constructive dialogue. However, fundamentally conflicting visions and intractable vested interests are irreconcilable.

Policy debates always present a choice between liberty and control. Societies where people control their own bodies, property and interactions are incompatible with coercive nanny states. When all drugs were decriminalised in Portugal, addiction fell 50%. When smokers were respected and smoking discouraged, consumption fell 50%. Draconian laws stopped that, and drugs and smoking increased. Liberty is not only an end in itself; it works.

Louw is executive director of the Free Market Foundation.

This article was first published by the Business Day on 10 April 2013  - 






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