The Correct Way to Argue with Richard Hanania

by Henry Farrell on June 28, 2023

Attention conservation notice 1 – a long read about a simple idea. When reading trolls, focus on the anodyne-seeming starting assumptions rather than the obnoxious conclusions.

Attention conservation notice 2 – This is also available via my Substack newsletter, Programmable Mutter. I’ll still be writing on CT, but I have a book with Abe Newman coming out in a few months, so that there will be a lot of self-promotion and stuff that doesn’t fit as well with the CT ethos. And do pre-order the book, Underground Empire: How America Weaponized the World Economy, if you think it sounds good! We’ve gotten some great blurbs from early readers including Kim Stanley Robinson, Francis Spufford, Margaret O’Mara, Steven Berlin Johnson, Helen Thompson, Chris Miller, and my mother (the last is particularly glowing, but sadly not likely to appear on the back). Available at and Amazon.

I’ve often had occasion to turn to Daniel Davies’ classic advice on “the correct way to argue with Milton Friedman” over the two decades since I’ve read it. The best white hat hacker is a reformed black hat hacker, and Dan (dsquared) knows both the offense and defense sides of trolling.

Dan (back in 2004!):

I’m pretty sure that it was JK Galbraith (with an outside chance that it was Bhagwati) who noted that there is one and only one successful tactic to use, should you happen to get into an argument with Milton Friedman about economics. That is, you listen out for the words “Let us assume” or “Let’s suppose” and immediately jump in and say “No, let’s not assume that”. The point being that if you give away the starting assumptions, Friedman’s reasoning will almost always carry you away to the conclusion he wants to reach with no further opportunities to object, but that if you examine the assumptions carefully, there’s usually one of them which provides the function of a great big rug under which all the points you might want to make have been pre-swept. A few CT mates appear to be floundering badly over this Law & Economics post at Marginal Revolution on the subject of why it’s a bad idea to have minimum standards for rented accommodation. (Atrios is doing a bit better). So I thought I’d use it as an object lesson in applying the Milton Friedman technique.

In the same friendly spirit, I’ll note that Jonathan Katz flounders a bit in his rebuttal of Richard Hanania. None of this is to blame Katz – Hanania is not only building on his knowledge of social science (he has a Ph.D.), but some truly formidable trolling techniques. Years ago, I upset Jonathan Chait by suggesting he was a highly talented troll of the second magnitude, if a bit crude in technique. Hanania is at an altogether different level. He’s not blessed with Friedman’s benign avuncularity, but he is as close to masterclass level as we are likely to get in this fallen world. [click to continue…]