I can’t change my mind

Speaking of one of the weirdest op-eds I've ever seen, Bob Somerby (aka the Daily Howler) asks:

For years, we have asked why the professors don’t help us with our floundering discourse. When our journalists fail to serve, who don’t the professors step forward to help? Where are all the professors of logic, with their vast clarification skills? Why don’t the professors step in to straighten our broken logic?

The question is obviously rhetorical, but he continues to ask it, so here's an answer.  John Holbo, at Crooked Timber, is a professor of philosophy, and he has stepped up to the plate (as have many others).  Holbo recently addressed the very kind of argument Somerby was complaining about (here and here).  We talked about that here the other day.  But, just for fun, and because Bob wonders where the professors of logic are, and I'm one of those, let's have a look see at what he was talking about.  

The op-ed in question is by Danielle Allen, a professor at the Institute of Advanced Study (I'm not kidding).  She writes:

His administration now agrees with the analysts who argue that only by ensuring that no one games the system can reform be made to work. The mandate serves to ensure that individuals do not buy insurance only when they are ill. Other elements of the reform similarly serve to ensure that neither insurance companies nor employers will game the system. As Paul Krugman has argued in the New York Times, each of these strategies to prevent gaming is necessary to make the whole thing work. The point, though, is that the push for implementation has turned Obama's policies into something other than what he promised.

This change in Obama's position goes a long way toward explaining the objections to the new reforms that are being raised vociferously through grass-roots action by citizens on the right. The issue here is not that these citizens consider Obama untrustworthy — though they do. The issue, rather, is that they recognize that the stated goals and structure of a policy may not fully capture its full range of outcomes in practice. This is why these citizens, including professionally briefed participants such as Sarah Palin, can continue to maintain, in the face of a barrage of insistences to the contrary, that the reforms will (1) result in rationing and (2) establish "death panels."

Gee professor, as others have pointed out (here and here for examples), every one is justified in making the most outlandish slippery slope arguments since it is a fact of nature that the "stated goals and structure of a policy may not fully capture its full range of outcomes in practice."  And no, for the love of Mike, a change in a proposal does not open the door to that inference, as she suggests.  While perhaps not a fact of nature qua nature, I think moderate (or even extreme) changes in the positions one advocates are a normal reaction to the facts on the ground.

Think about this for a second.  Given the professor's argument, no policy maker (or person) can change a position without having her real motives stretched to include the most extreme and unlikely consequence.  So, take heed, policy people, if you change your mind ever so little then Danielle Allen will wonder whether you really want to turn old people into Soylent Green.

5 thoughts on “I can’t change my mind”

  1. It’s a really weird piece from a Classicist of whom I think very highly. She seems to be offering an argument to a best explanation.
    1. Obama has changed his commitment to individual mandates.
    2. We can generalize a bit: in seeking to implement he has had to change his stated commitments on health care reform.
    3. This seems like a significant part of the explanation for why people are so mistrustful of the proposals.
    4. Different point: what they are really reacting from is a suspicion of unintended consequences.
    OK. This last point seems to be an interesting addition to the conversation, but it seems logically unconnected to the first part of her argument. She could drop the first paragraphs and make the column coherent by talking about the suspicion of unintended consequences and how to respond to them. On that she seems to raise an interesting point.

    In asking lawmakers to consider not merely the goals of their policies but also the experiential meaning of concrete realities that those policies may bring, they have a point. One can’t answer them by saying: “These policies won’t ration; there will be no death panels.” If these reforms do either of these things, they will do so as a matter of unintended consequences. The appropriate answer, therefore, is to explain the institutional checks that will prevent the emergence of such unintended consequences.

    Well setting aside that whopper of a first sentence (the experiential meaning of concrete realities. . . ouch), this seems interesting, and I think quite plausible. Out of the mess of raving gibberish, she has found a reasonable concern and explained how we might attempt to address the concern.
    I’m not sure that this is going to really engage the Glenn Beck crowd, but perhaps it would be effective with some of the mildly skeptical. I think O’s strategy has been more effective, however. In response to accusations that we can’t pay for this and will need to ration care, his response is that we can’t not do this, if we want care to remain available. Rhetorically that seems more effective than getting into the institutional nitty-gritty.
    However, I think that identifying the source of the skepticism is a helpful analysis, and I think Allen has plausibly contributed to that.

  2. I think you’re very charitable.

    The question of consequences (even unintended ones) is indeed a serious one in any discussion of policy. The links all over my post discuss that question (and I think we did last week as well here).

    I think, however, that Allen has invented an argument on behalf of the Palin crowd. They argue that the actual intention is to ration, to kill grandma, etc. They don’t argue, as she suggests, that these sorts of things may happen (without institutional checks). Indeed the subtlety of “institutional checks” isn’t something that appears in their overheated rhetoric. There is no evidence, in other words, that such notions spring from legitimate skepticism about the policies.

  3. I take it that Allen is arguing about the “politics” or “pragmatics” of the argument. I think the guy who was very proud of his NRA membership at the Montana town hall is a perfect example of the position she is trying to counter–not some cynical Weekly Standard hack argument, but rather the underlying skepticism and fear that I would guess is more prevalent than the vitriol mongers that the cable news cycle has fixated upon. So although all of the press is given to the nutters with guns and the ill-informed “just-a-moms” concerns with future access to toilet paper and their cynical enablers, I think Allen is concerned with addressing the concerns of those people who are feeling “more sympathetic” to the protesters view of health care out of fear and skepticism. It’s just a shame that this point is wrapped in a fog of academic prose and unclear argument.

  4. Like I say, you’re very charitable.

    But I think it’s obvious that Allen is giving pseudo-intellectual cover for the hack’s (e.g., Palin’s) argument. She asserts that the change in Obama’s position justifies the claim that maybe death panels are on the horizon. I think that’s ludicrous.

    The NRA guy, if I remember correctly, had a different point. He was worried about how it would be paid for. That’s an extremely legitimate concern, one directly related to the very nature of legislation.

    The death panel stuff, on the other hand, is just made up. At least three of the death panel argument pushers have supported death panels in the past–I mean, counseling for end of life issues.

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