Introducing Reason's 2023 Debate Issue

Where libertarians debate democracy, open borders, cats and dogs, and more


Joanna Andreasson

"Studies show that debate is good for you" is exactly the sort of thing you'd expect someone in an ill-fitting blazer and awkward shoes to say at a high school debate competition. Despite what you might think about libertarian magazine editors, I wasn't a high school debater. So technically, I don't have a dog (or a cat) in this fight.

But studies really do show debate is good for you. A 2011 study by the University of Michigan's Briana Mezuk and her colleagues found that compared with their nondebating peers, participants in the Chicago Debate League were more likely to graduate, were more likely to meet ACT college-readiness benchmarks, and had greater gains in GPA. The study went to great pains to control for self-selection, suggesting that what matters is the practice of debate itself, and not just an argumentative disposition. In another study a decade later with her Michigan colleague Tomohiro M. Ko, Mezuk found similar boosts to GPA and SAT scores for Houston debaters. And a 2021 study of New Jersey students found significant GPA and SAT bumps as well.

Anyone who has ever met a high school debater knows that they show the kind of self-possession, confidence, and critical thinking that is too often absent in their peers. They're also rarely the most popular kids in school, perhaps because in their enthusiasm for engagement, they sometimes tend to practice their skills in inappropriate circumstances.

In a culture where young people in particular are taught to go to great lengths to avoid giving offense, carving out space where disagreement is not just tolerated but encouraged becomes even more important. These are the opposite of the much-derided "safe spaces" of the 2010s.

The best relationships have space for respectful disagreement. Couples go to therapy to learn how to fight. Family members and friends can and should learn to talk through their differences before it comes to a dramatic will reading or a messy wedding toast. But when it comes to politics, many people are unwilling to agree to disagree and have lost the trick of disagreeing amicably.

The recent kerfuffle at The New York Times over coverage of transgender issues is an example of what not to do. In February, 980 contributors to the paper signed an open letter demanding that certain viewpoints about youth transition be off-limits in the paper of record. The paper has provided all of these people with a platform, and many have used that platform to argue their own side of the matter; The New York Times can hardly be mistaken for a bastion of conservative orthodoxy. But the goal of the letter writers was not to have their side heard, but rather to demand that the other side be silenced. "The natural destination of poor editorial judgment is the court of law," asserted the letter writers, in an astonishingly diaphanously veiled threat.

To its credit, Times leadership responded directly by refusing to meet the writers' demands, and then indirectly by publishing some of the very perspectives the writers sought to eliminate in the following days.

The most fun and productive disagreements happen when the combatants share some underlying values. For that reason, this issue of Reason focuses on places where folks who have an affinity for free minds and free markets might nonetheless diverge along the way. Since our last debate issue in October 2018, where we debated anarchism, Objectivism, intellectual property, gay wedding cakes, and utilitarianism, more fissures have opened up in the libertarian movement and in the American political scene at large. This time around, we're tackling democracy, open borders, zoning, homelessness, artificial intelligence, bitcoin, the European Union, the culture war, Ukraine, optimism, and more.

Even for seasoned journalists, accustomed to defending their views in the public square, formal debate is a different mode of engagement and often a clarifying one. The same goes for editors. As a fan of open borders myself, assigning two sides to our immigration debate was a valuable exercise in pushing my own boundaries and thinking hard about the people in my professional circles whom I respect yet disagree with. Part of the reason for having this issue was to practice what Reason preaches about being a big tent with space for civil disagreement. I think the idea of a national divorce is deeply misguided, and I find the prospect of returning to a more carceral approach to public mental illness alarming. But because we believe airing controversial ideas is important, we did our best to build a scrupulously fair framework, to work with writers to make each argument as strong as it can be, and to give the two sides equal time and respect in our pages.

While many of these debates are for very high stakes indeed, not every disagreement should feel like life-or-death, so we've included a debate over libertarian housepets (page 46) as well, to help bring down everyone's blood pressure. Some debates are better had over drinks, but even those conversations can benefit from structure and a public forum.

Perhaps because we are the minority nearly everywhere we go, libertarians tend to place special emphasis on making space for good-faith debate and broadening the scope of acceptable disagreement. Even a little corner for conversation can matter. We are proud to sponsor The Soho Forum debate series and to make it available as a podcast, along with our occasionally contentious Reason Roundtable and Reason Interview With Nick Gillespie shows. As The Wall Street Journal put it: "Anyone who follows the debates of the libertarian Soho Forum knows that even in the Democratic stronghold of New York City it is possible to shift public opinion from radical progressive orthodoxy so long as viewpoint diversity is maintained." Open to Debate, the Oxford-style debate series highlighted in this issue's interview with CEO Clea Conner, is another space for such diversity.

If you believe that those with whom you disagree on key topics are evil and you strive to remove them from your life and the public square, you will grow to fear and misunderstand them more. This can become pathological when taken to an extreme.

Instead, debate acts more like exposure therapy, an increasingly popular way to deal with everything from trauma to peanut allergies. Getting a small dose of dissent in a controlled environment over an extended period may well be the best way to build a healthy response going forward.

You do not cure a peanut allergy by force-feeding someone Reese's Cups. It's rarely a successful debating tactic to simply shout someone down, browbeat them into submission, or make their argument illegal. Thoughtful, consensual, incremental approaches work better in this (and in nearly everything else, for that matter).

Sometimes—albeit rarely—the previously allergic grow fond of PB&Js. But most simply build their defenses against their body's outsized and unhelpful reaction to them and in so doing shed some of their fear and anxiety.

High school debaters tend to be disproportionately successful in law and business. In fact, about 60 percent of the current Congress participated in debate, though whether you take this as an argument for or against is up to you. But debate is about more than just professional or academic success. And it's for everyone, not just the blazer brigade.


Subscribers have access to Reason's whole May 2023 issue now. These debates and the rest of the issue will be released throughout the month for everyone else. Consider subscribing today!