Reframing the Argument

The controversy surrounding the Indiana Religious Freedom Restoration Act calls to mind a pivotal scene from the film “Thank You For Smoking.”

During a Senate hearing on a proposed (and graphic) warning label on cigarette packs, former tobacco lobbyist Nick Naylor, played by Aaron Eckhart, decides to testify despite being recently fired by Big Tobacco.

Up until this point in the movie, Naylor has masterfully dodged the question of whether smoking causes cancer and other health problems, thanks to his effective use of spin tactics and ability to reframe the argument. What’s ironic is that Naylor’s tactics are necessary because anti-smoking proponents have successfully reframed the argument under the assumed premise that government has a moral duty to ban, restrict, or discourage anything considered unhealthy. Instead of clarifying what the argument is really about, freedom of choice, Big Tobacco funds an Academy of Tobacco Studies to put out quasi-scientific studies counteracting these accusations.

Part of the film’s dark humor is that everyone, including Naylor, knows the truth – that smoking is not healthy – but as a lobbyist he pretends otherwise. The charades can only last for so long, though, and due to his actions in the film, Naylor’s credibility has been tarnished, which is why he is fired. Yet, he still wants to win the argument.

Here, he is faced with a conundrum. Having spent his career creating ambiguity and sidestepping the issue, the only choice left is to tell the truth.  So how can he win the debate and tell the truth simultaneously?

The only way is by bringing the discussion back on point.

Thus, when Naylor is asked by a senator whether smoking can be harmful (4:45), rather than skillfully dodge it as before, he admits it can. He brilliantly proceeds to mock the senators for even asking a question to which everyone knows the answer, pointing out that according to their own logic, things such as cheese should be regarded as equally harmful. He then turns the discussion back to the real question: Not about whether smoking is harmful, but whether the government should take it upon themselves to lecture everyone on their life choices.

Watch the senators squirm in their seats as Naylor challenges the unspoken assumption that government has to be involved in people’s health decisions. Having never had to justify their intervention, they have no logical counterargument left except the shameless “think of the children” line, and that is easily dismissed. As Naylor says in so many words, “It’s the parents’ job to teach their kids these things, not yours.”

The entire debate over Indiana’s law is based on a similar reframing of the argument that could be easily as squashed.

Imagine if Indiana Gov. Mike Pence had copied Naylor when posed similarly pretentious questions about discrimination. Imagine if he had said, “Of course, the law allows for discrimination. Everyone discriminates.” Imagine if he had then pointed out forms of discrimination carried out in the public and private sector that are considered “acceptable” by the critics of Indiana’s law. Imagine if he had then declared that people have the right to discriminate when deciding what to do with their property because it is a fundamental aspect of property rights.

We can only imagine, because he didn’t.

Note: For a libertatian perspective on the legality of the law, read Judge Andrew Napolitano’s take here.

This entry was posted in Central Government, federal government, free speech, gay marriage, libertarianism, Social issues, society and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

11 Responses to Reframing the Argument

  1. Another reason not to support Rand. Ron has already come out and made this point at RPI.


  2. I haven’t bothered to read the actual bill in question, but it is hard to tell what it actually states when judging from only the comments of the mainstream’s left and right. I was excited when I became aware of the left’s response, because I thought wow, Indiana is actually going to legalize discrimination and properly reframe the argument in the context of property rights? Then I read the right’s response to these “allegations.” Nope. Enthusiasm gone. The right retreated from the lefty outrage like a scared dog from a vacuum cleaner. Oh I’m so sorry sirs and madams, this is not what the law is intended to do I assure you. Let us rephrase it in words that are more pleasing to you, and with implications that are more innocuous…

    So with the left saying it does and the right denying it, I can only imagine that the actual bill is somewhere in the arbitrary middle like every other piece of legislation, benefitting some special interest or other.

    Why is it that I can only count on my fellow anarchists to get these kinds of questions rights?

    Speaking of which, I’m reading some coincidentally relevant material at the moment: “Defending the Undefendable” by Walter Block. I’m not finished, but so far it is quite good. I love the underlying premise of the book, namely that if you want to defend the free market, what better way is there than to prove all the traditionally socially reviled professions are in principle no different than any other profession, except for these professions are heroic, because they carry on satisfying customers even in the face of State power and oppression. This book is filled with the undeniable Rothbardian logic that converted me in the first place, and I highly recommend it to anyone, but especially anarchists.


    • The problem with the Right is that they have accepted the reframed argument, chiefly because they too like to toss out accusations of discrimination against Progressives. One Fox News columnist in particular frequently covers such stories. Their accusations are valid, but for the wrong reasons. The Right thinks Progressives are wrongfully discriminating, when in reality they are simply hypocrites.

      “Defending the Undefendable” by Walter Block is a fantastic book, though it was very hard for me to read at first because I had yet to separate morality from legality. Once I put aside emotional reasoning I realized Block’s arguments were logically sound.


  3. “I had yet to separate morality from legality” – I think this is one of the biggest obstacles to libertarianism. People are so accustomed to thinking that if something seems wrong, it should be illegal. Breaking that conditioning it tough to say the least. I guess what they have to be convinced of is that the enforcement of the immoral deed as a crime, is more immoral than the original act in question.

    I started going to down this particular road (separating morality from legality) when I read Milton Friedman’s Capitalism and Freedom. Not exactly an anarchist, but he was my gateway drug into the principled arguments for libertarianism. I’ve since learned of the Chicago school’s leaning toward state regulated money via a central bank and specifically monetarism and its faulty explanation of the Great Depression. Rothbard and Ron Paul eventually carried me all the way through.


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