Munk Debates Challenge Us To Think Critically (Print Version)
by Bradley Doucet*
Le Québécois Libre, May
15, 2011, No 289.

It is natural to want to be right; it takes effort to find out if we are. And how can we find out? As John Stuart Mill, one of the great English philosophers, put it, “He who knows only his own side of the case knows little of that.” Only by engaging with intelligent people who hold divergent views can we acquaint ourselves with the various sides of an issue and arrive at an informed opinion.

The Munk Debates, by bringing together world-class thinkers who hold divergent views on the issues of the day and pitting them against one another in an intellectual arena, provide us with some of the raw material we need in order to arrive at an informed opinion. As Peter Munk points out at the start of one of the debates, it takes real courage to step out of one’s comfort zone behind a lectern and engage with others every bit as intelligent and every bit as informed as oneself. As these mental gladiators clash before a flesh and blood audience of thousands and a virtual audience of many more, they challenge our preconceptions. At worst, they leave us a little less ignorant; at best, we are enlightened.

Held twice a year in Toronto, the first six debates—all of which are available in book form, as PDF files, as audio podcasts, and as video streams—feature a range of topics and high-calibre speakers:
  • Global Security: Be it resolved the world is a safer place with a Republican in the White House.
    (Charles Krauthammer & Niall Ferguson vs. Samantha Power & Richard Holbrooke)
  • Humanitarian Intervention: Be it resolved that if countries like Sudan, Zimbabwe, and Burma will not end their man-made humanitarian crises, the international community should.
    (Gareth Evans & Mia Farrow vs. John Bolton & Rick Hillier)
  • Foreign Aid: Be it resolved foreign aid does more harm than good.
    (Hernando de Soto & Dambisa Moyo vs. Stephen Lewis & Paul Collier)
  • Climate Change: Be it resolved climate change is mankind’s defining crisis and demands a commensurate response.
    (George Monbiot & Elizabeth May vs. Bjørn Lomborg & Lord Nigel Lawson)
  • Health Care: Be it resolved that I would rather get sick in the United States than in Canada.
    (Dr. William Frist & Dr. David Gratzer vs. Dr. Howard Dean & Dr. Robert Bell)
  • Religion: Be it resolved religion is a force for good in the world.
    (Tony Blair vs. Christopher Hitchens)

The next debate, which is already sold out but can be streamed live over the Internet, is to be held on June 17, 2011:

  • China: Be it resolved the 21st century will belong to China.
    (Niall Ferguson & David Daokui Li vs. Henry Kissinger & Fareed Zakaria)

Testing Their Mettle

Ask the next person you meet on the street, and chances are, he or she will have an opinion on the effectiveness of foreign aid. But is it an informed opinion if it fails to take into account the millions of people alive today who would be dead, Stephen Lewis points out, if not for donated AIDS drugs and insecticide-treated bed-nets? Is it an informed opinion if it is ignorant of Lewis’s condemnation of American and European agricultural subsidies that make it impossible for African farmers to work their way out of poverty by exporting their products, or of Hernando de Soto’s point that despite higher rates of return on capital, investment actually flees the developing world because of a lack of secure property rights there? What about Paul Collier’s acknowledgement that yes, trade and governance and security are important, but aid remains an integral part of the equation because people living at the margin of subsistence cannot reduce their consumption any further in order to accumulate capital? And what of the accusations levelled by Dambisa Moyo, that aid fuels corruption, encourages inflation, leaves developing nations saddled with debt, kills off the export sector, induces social unrest, kills entrepreneurship, and disenfranchises the citizens of the countries that receive it?

No one can have an informed opinion on the issue of foreign aid without at least having done the equivalent of reading or watching this excellent debate. Likewise when it comes to the issue of climate change, although with this debate, one of the participants, Canadian Green Party Leader Elizabeth May, is less than stellar. Her participation is replete with appeals to authority and ad hominem attacks on one of her opponents, Bjørn Lomborg, for whom she feels obvious disdain. Perhaps partly as a result of her subpar performance, support among audience members for her side of the debate (arguing that climate change is mankind’s defining crisis) fell from 61 percent before the contest began to 53 percent after it was over.

There are moments here and there, too, when debaters fail to respond to an argument made by their opponents, preferring to talk past one another. For instance, during the debate on healthcare, Dr. William Frist points out that comparisons of life expectancy, which make Canadian healthcare look good because Canadians live longer than Americans, are not all they’re cracked up to be. This is because behaviour (think homicide and obesity rates) and genetics are far more important factors than healthcare in determining life expectancy. Control for those variables, and Americans live longer, says Dr. Frist. Neither of his opponents made any substantive response.

The Window of Acceptable Debate

I heartily recommend reading, listening to, or watching this debate series, and tuning in live online for the upcoming debate on China. The series as a whole is as entertaining as it is informative and thought-provoking. Watching the debates, especially, gives one a real sense of who these eminent debaters are, and allows one to sense the passion they feel for these important topics.

That being said, in addition to the caveats mentioned above, regular readers of Le Québécois Libre should not expect any of the debaters to express outright libertarian views. None of the participants in the Global Security or Humanitarian Intervention debates expresses the kind of non-interventionism borne of a deep distrust in the intentions and efficiencies of government actors as such, for instance. Nor does anyone in the Climate Change debate even bring up the idea that governments tend to make environmental problems worse, not better. None of those who face off in the Healthcare debate argue for the benefits that would accrue to patients in a completely unrestricted market, which Americans most definitely do not enjoy. Even Hernando de Soto, a staunch defender of property rights for the developing world, is quick to reject the label of “freewheeling neoliberal” when it is hurled at him by Stephen Lewis.

Clearly, there is still work to do before really radical capitalism has a voice in prominent debates of this kind. Notwithstanding this, these debates expose us to many of the arguments being made on several sides of some of the biggest issues of our day. As such, they provide a valuable service to a world filled with too many people who know they’re right without ever having seriously challenged themselves to think critically. And the rest of us can learn a thing or two as well.

* Bradley Doucet is a writer living in Montreal. He has studied philosophy and economics, and is currently completing a novel on the pursuit of happiness. He also is QL's English Editor.