‘Tis (Almost) The Season

In case there was any doubt that the coming elections will be the most expensive (wasteful?) and mind-deadening yet, the spectacle of the campaign already underway in Virginia and Florida sets the record straight. As a recent Yahoo News story tells us, Both states and both media markets are awash in TV ads in a crush noteworthy for its negativity, early start and involvement of outside groups that are likely to spend more on commercials than both the Obama and Romney campaigns. With this in mind, it occurs to me that we need a primer on informal fallacies. Political cant is full of them.😊

I have spoken about the post hoc fallacy before, but it bears repeating. This fallacy is committed when one politician (from either party) claims that his or her opponent is responsible for the mess we are in — whatever the mess of the day happens to be, usually the economic mess. (You see, the politicians have figured out that American voters focus myopically on the economy so they aim their rhetoric in that direction.) None of these people will accept blame for the mess; it’s always the other guy’s fault. The fallacy results from the fact that even though Smith claims that incumbent Jones is responsible for the mess, Jones may not in fact have had anything whatever to do with the mess simply because he’s the incumbent. The mess may have been there for years before Jones ever took office. But his opponent will blame him anyway. There is a mess. Jones is in office. Therefore Jones caused the mess. Post hoc, ergo propter hoc. It’s fallacious reasoning.

The second most popular fallacy we will hear repeatedly is the ad hominem fallacy. This is committed when the politician attacks his opponent rather than his opponent’s political position. It’s a personal attack and it may be even more common than the post hoc fallacy. It’s always fun to poke fun at people and the voters respond with applause. It is also called “mud-slinging” and it gets votes. No one wants to vote for a scum bag and if we are told that Jones is a scum bag we won’t vote for Jones. It’s a fallacy because even though Jones is a scum bag his opponent might also be one — as indeed might all politicians. But the fact that Jones might in this case have made a good point or have a reasonable position in spite of his scum-bag status the issue itself is ignored completely. The point here is to direct attention away from the issue or the stand Jones takes on the issue to scum-bag Jones himself who is not worthy of our vote. Obviously,

A third fallacy, which is not quite as common, is called “poisoning the wells” in which we are told that we shouldn’t vote for Jones because he is known to be a socialist. Or a Communist. Or a conservative. Or a liberal. Or a reactionary. Or a radical. The labels aren’t the issue here. What is the issue is the guilt by association. We label the group our opponent is supposedly associated with and, knowing what we think we know about that group (which is often very little, but we know we don’t like it) we refuse to have anything to do with that politician. Thus, we vote for the candidate who convinces us that his or her opponent is “one of them.” That’s poisoning the wells. Nothing that person says can be relied upon; he’s one of them and we know what they’re like — or we think we do.

The reason these ploys are called “fallacies” (and there are many more, believe me) is because they are technically non-sequiturs. That is, the reasons given for the conclusion do not support that conclusion. They not only do not support the conclusion, they are often totally unrelated to the conclusion. But we accept the conclusion anyway, because we find the reasons given persuasive — usually on a “gut level.” On that level, these fallacies are especially powerful. Intellectually they don’t hold water.

Keep your eyes and ears open. You will be hearing these fallacies committed again and again. And they will probably launch many a bright political career, depending on how cleverly they are employed and how easily duped the voters are. While this is happening you may want to make sure your mute on the television is in good working order and “caller ID” is operating on the phone!

Liberals and Conservatives

I have come to the point where I try to remember to put “liberal” and “conservative” in scare quotes. I do so because the words have scarcely any meaning. “Liberal” actually comes from the same root as “libertarian,” which is the school of thought initiated by the very liberal John Stuart Mill in the nineteenth century even though today libertarians are for the most part conservatives. Originally the term stressed minimal government and maximum freedom — as though you needed one in order to guarantee the other. There is some truth in this. But one finds the same concern in diverse thinkers like Nietzsche and Dostoevsky, both of whom insisted that human freedom could only be fully realized when governments were kept at a minimum. Otherwise, with large governments, we would get comfortable knowing that we would be taken care of if we are in need and our freedom would be lost. But one would hardly call either Dostoevsky or Nietzsche “liberal” as both were intellectually conservative and shared a deep distrust of what came to be called “socialism.”  Does this sound familiar? Indeed, it is precisely the concern of modern-day “dollar conservatives” who may or may not be libertarians, but who distrust government and hate socialism, or what they understand socialism to be.

As you can see, the words swim before our eyes. Today, “liberals” tend to be in favor of large government as a buffer to protect individuals against the abuses of great powers in the state that would take their freedom away, such as large corporations. Thus, they see large governments with numerous agencies as necessary for human freedom. The word “liberal” when used derisively tends to be equated with “socialist,” another abused term. Socialists believe that the state should own the means of production, because they don’t trust greedy capitalists to do the right thing. “Conservatives,” on the other hand, tend to be in favor of lower taxes and increased license for business which they tend to identify with the greatest good: what is good for business is good for society — all of us. This, of course, is at best a half-truth. Also, in recent years “conservatives” have gotten mixed up with religious enthusiasts who want minimum interference with individual conscience (theirs anyway) and approve only those laws that prohibit acts they regard as evil, such as abortion and the teaching of evolution in the schools. In extreme forms, these people would just as soon see the end of government altogether. Neither of these main groups of “conservatives” seems to give a tinker’s dam for conserving the environment, so the term seems to have no application beyond promoting their own religious or financial interests.

My adviser at Northwestern wrote an essay in which he claimed that the main difference between conservatives and liberals is that the former believe that the world exhibits ineluctable evil, echoing Calvin’s doctrine of “total depravity,” whereas the latter believe that the world can be improved through social engineering. There may be some truth in this, and it certainly attempts to take us to the heart of a real ideological difference. For my part, I think those we loosely call “conservatives” are fundamentally fearful and want a government strong enough to protect them and their interests, but not large enough to take anything away from them; those we call “liberal” are naively optimistic about the ways human life can be improved and seem convinced that most of our problems can be solved by throwing money at them. In any case, the terms are muddy at best and deserve to be placed in scare quotes, or trashed altogether.