A narrow, self-interested agenda

A handy rule of thumb for distinguishing between an argument and an explanation is whether the "conclusion" is something in need of proof.  You explain why coffee wakes people up in the morning, you don't argue that it does.  Borderline cases are legion, but this rule generally works with appropriate context qualifiers.  However easy, people mess this up.  Here's a good example from the Washington Monthly:

One of the principal differences between K-12 and higher education is that people representing elementary and secondary teachers often go to elaborate lengths in denying the extent to which they’re pursuing a narrow self-interested agenda at the expense of student welfare and the public good, whereas in college they’re completely upfront about it. Two recent examples illustrate. Last week, the Chronicle reported how Syracuse University chancellor Nancy Cantor’s efforts to enroll more minority and low-income students, provide more need-based financial aid, and improve engagement with the surrounding community is meeting resistance among the faculty:

Seems to me that even an iron manner would say that the first two claims might only be accepted as commonly known and largely indisputable facts in the newsroom at Fox.  What interests me is the "two examples illustrate" remark.  I suppose he means "two recent singular instances must go in the column marked 'this claim is true'".  He must mean this because this is one of those claims that really needs a lot of proof, and two examples aren't going to do it.  Besides, the first case he cites (immediately following the above) doesn't make the case that professors are following a "narrow, self-interested agenda."  Here it is:

One of the most-contested parts of Ms. Cantor’s plan to remake the student population has been the acceptance rate. The rate, which stood in the mid-50-percent range after she arrived, spiked up to around 60 percent in each of the last two academic years. That sent up warning signs to both professors and students, who worried that Syracuse was becoming less selective. “Ivy Leagues pride themselves on minuscule acceptance rates of less than 10 percent,” said an editorial last winter in The Daily Orange, the student newspaper. “The shift in recruitment strategy and subsequent rise in the acceptance rate could devalue the SU diploma, cause larger freshman classes, and affect the quality of an SU education.

Some professors agree, although they have been reluctant to speak out because questions about the university’s admissions policies have touched off charges of racism here. “My fear is that the university is moving away from selective to inclusive,” says David H. Bennett, a professor of history. He says that Syracuse already had a diverse student population before Ms. Cantor arrived, but that the chancellor has taken it to a level unmatched by other selective universities. “If you look at the universities with the top 50 endowments and the percent of their students who receive Pell Grants, none of them were anywhere near even what we were before Nancy Cantor came,” he says. “This may be an admirable goal, but it is going to have an impact on our reputation. It’s a road to nowhere for a place like Syracuse, which is asking parents to pay a lot because they think they’re going to increase their kids’ life chances.”

However jerky this selected passage sounds, the professors in question can't be interpreted to be insisting on narrow self interest, when their primary interest is in the value of their students' degrees.  Every student, I think, ought to have access to a Harvard quality education, but I don't think it's appropriate they all go there.  In the first place, Harvard probably isn't big enough.  Second, if everyone went there, it wouldn't be Harvard. 

I'd like every university to be as inclusive and diverse as mine.  I guarantee that if the President of the University moved to alter that image, the Faculty would object en masse, and for similar reasons as the faculty at Syracuse.

Anyway.  I wonder if I need to point out that one doesn't use "illustrations" or "examples" (let alone just two of them) to prove general claims.  Even the kids who didn't get into Syracuse know the name for that.

Iron man versus straw man

Here is serial straw manner George F.Will on Elizabeth Warren, candidate for Senate in Massachussetts:

"There is nobody in this country who got rich on his own. Nobody. You built a factory out there — good for you. But I want to be clear. You moved your goods to market on the roads the rest of us paid for. You hired workers the rest of us paid to educate. You were safe in your factory because of police forces and fire forces that the rest of us paid for. . . . You built a factory and it turned into something terrific or a great idea — God bless, keep a big hunk of it. But part of the underlying social contract is you take a hunk of that and pay forward for the next kid who comes along.”

Warren is (as William F. Buckley described Harvard economist John Kenneth Galbraith) a pyromaniac in a field of straw men: She refutes propositions no one asserts. Everyone knows that all striving occurs in a social context, so all attainments are conditioned by their context. This does not, however, entail a collectivist political agenda.

Such an agenda’s premise is that individualism is a chimera, that any individual’s achievements should be considered entirely derivative from society, so the achievements need not be treated as belonging to the individual. Society is entitled to socialize — i.e., conscript — whatever portion it considers its share. It may, as an optional act of political grace, allow the individual the remainder of what is misleadingly called the individual’s possession.

In large part the straw man diagnosis is purely factual: does arguer A hold position p?  You merely have to go and check (um, editors?  fact checkers?).  Rarely does a serial straw manner such as Will make it so easy.  For Will's favorite straw man version is the hollow man–the variety of the straw man which attacks positions no arguer is alleged to hold.  Here we have Warren's actual words.  Sensisble or not (hey, I think they are and I've been making that argument for years, before it was cool), she is not asserting anything like what Will is saying.  

Worse than this, is the way Will poses the iron man–the egregiously charitable reading of his own team's view–next to the straw man of the other team.  Few in the Republican establishment seem to endorse that part about paying it forward via taxes, or that social infrastructure spending, education spending, etc., serves the purpose of individual striving.

See other commentary here, here, and here.

Cautionary analogies

Democracies are fragile, and one of the worries about them is that the seeds for their overthrow are sewn and grown inside.  That's a thought as old as Plato (see Republic IX's son of the democratic man, the eventual tyrant), but it's the Romans who lived it fully and provided us with a model for it:  Julius Caesar.  Invocations of Caesar haunt American democracy, and one point of interest is that John Wilkes Booth invoked Brutus in the aftermath of his assassination of Lincoln.  The dangers of an imperial presidency has been a longstanding worry.

Kevin Williamson's essay in National Review Online has the same analogy at its core: Obama as Caesar.  Now, we've seen this trope before with the Obamacare concerns and with the general teaparty invocations of the blood of tyrants nourishing the tree of liberty.  But I think Williamson's point shouldn't be lumped with these.  His, I think, seems considerably more reasonable.  First, Williamson's concern is with the fact that Anwar al-Awlaki was an American citizen that was targeted for assassination.   Sure, under conditions of combat, we don't need to arrest and mirandize our opponents, but those we know are citizens and not in the midst of a shootout deserve some legal concern.  Yes, he was an al-Qaeda leader and planner.  Still a citizen.  Second, the Bush administration cleared the ground for both treating al-Qaeda operatives as combatants and as dialing back protections for citizens suspected of being in league with them.  This yielded the following:

Running with the ball we passed him, Obama and his administration now insist on the president’s right not only to order the assassination of U.S. citizens, but to do so in secret, without oversight from Congress, the public, or anybody else. Barack Obama today claims powers that would have made Julius Caesar blush.

A good deal of the work on this blog is devoted to picking out fallacious forms of these kind of arguments.  This time, I think it's appropriate.  Even if you think the President's decision was right, you must admit that it is a considerable extension of his power to trump the Fifth Amendment's requirement of due process.