Civil Discussion at My Boise State University Talk
By David Henderson
Based on my sample size, civility is alive and well at Boise State.
There has been so much discussion on line in the last few years about how hostile, and even, sometimes, violent U.S. college students have been to speakers who favor freedom. I think it’s important to right the balance by pointing out when that doesn’t happen.
I spoke at Boise State University last Monday night to an audience of about 650 people. My talk was titled “The Case for Free Trade.” After my talk, the Q&A session lasted about 50 minutes. A lot of people think that’s too long. I love it because I’m always on my game in Q&A and because I get to see what comments, questions, and criticisms people have. I got criticisms from both the right and left sides of the political spectrum.
On the right, one student suggested that we need government to give us a sense of identity. I actually thought that that comment put him on the left end of the spectrum, but one of the people in the audience who knew him told me afterwards that no, he was, expressing a conservative nationalism. Also on the right, a student listed off the various macro statistics about the economy–low unemployment, etc. I commented that he had done so correctly and agreed with him that Donald Trump should get some credit with his tax cut and his deregulation, but that the data would have looked even better without his new barriers to trade.
On the left (I think), one student correctly cited the article by MIT economist David Autor et al about the effects of trade with China on jobs in certain parts of the economy. I explained to the audience what he was getting at and then answered that even if Autor et al’s econometrics is correct–and I have no reason to think it isn’t–there will be times when trade hurts some people but if the issue is free trade or long-term high barriers to trade, virtually everyone is a gainer from free trade.
Another student asked a question that I summarized to him as “What about the tradeoff between the material and the spiritual?” and he nodded his head that I had summarized his question correctly. I replied that people should be able to make their own tradeoffs between those two things and that neither I nor any politician knew him well enough to use force to make those tradeoffs for him. I pointed out also that it is precisely because relatively free trade and a good dose of economic freedom give us so much material wealth that we are able to make tradeoffs in favor of the spiritual without even coming close to privation. I referenced a young man I had met at lunch that day whose post-graduation plan was to backpack around the world.
What I noticed in all of the Q&A without exception was how civil people were. Even the most critical and passionate questioners were polite. They didn’t jeer; they weren’t even sarcastic. Indeed, many of them led with statements such as “Thank you for coming and speaking to us.”
Final thought: Adjunct economics professor Allen Dalton was a wonderful host. Everything went incredibly smoothly and he had a huge role in that.