Category Archives: George Will

Entity multiplication

It’s not exactly a question of logic, strictly speaking, but the dictum *entia non sunt multiplicanda praeter necessitatem* or *pluralitas non est ponenda sine necessitate* might aptly characterize what is wrong with George Will’s Sunday op-ed in the *Washington Post*. Even though such hefty Latinisms are no doubt familiar to the typical Will reader (cf his recent “Pennsylvania *est omnis divisa in partes tris*”), for the sake of those not used to Will’s Latin, it means, in paraphrase, “the simpler explanation is probably the better.” And that is just what we found in Sunday’s post; complicated explanations when simpler ones would probably do.

Part of the problem with the coming election, as Will sees it, consists in the “fraud-friendly” voter registration systems, such as the National Voter Registration Act, and their effect in a couple of key states–in particular, Ohio and Pennsylvania. In the wake of such measures, Will worries that

perhaps we should not be surprised that . . . since 1995, Philadelphia’s population has declined 13 percent but registered voters have increased 24 percent. Are we sure we should be pleased?

The unexamined belief that an ever-higher rate of voter registration is a Good Thing has met its limit in the center of the state that this year is the center of the political universe — Ohio. The Census Bureau’s 2003 estimate is that in Franklin County — Columbus — there are approximately 815,000 people 18 or older. But 845,720 are now registered.

A simple explanation quickly presents itself: voters whose status has changed–they moved, died, or went to prison–remain on the voter rolls. And, oddly, this is exactly what Will reports. However sufficient this explanation seems to be, Will immediately suggests something more sinister to be afoot:

One reason for such unacceptable numbers in various jurisdictions across the nation is that voter rolls are not frequently enough purged of voters whose status has changed. For example, in 2000, the Indianapolis Star’s Bill Theobald reported that “hundreds of thousands of names, as many as one in five statewide” were improperly on Indiana registration rolls “because the people behind those names have moved, died or gone to prison.” Unfortunately, there is reluctance, especially among Republicans, to support measures that might appear to have a “disparate impact” on minorities and therefore be denounced as racist.

This is a red herring. The question seems to be why–in one county in Ohio–so many people seem to be on the voter rolls. The simple explanation, people have changed their voting status, is converted into a concern–by someone in Indiana–that the Republicans are afraid of being called racists for purging the voter rolls. Before diverting out attention from the integrity of the voting process to the far more interesting (however groundless) reverse racism accusation, Will should follow through on the simpler explanation: what evidence is there for the claim that outdated voter rolls leads to electoral fraud? Will offers none. In fact, for someone to commit fraud, she would have to vote in more than one county on election day. And for this to amount to anything, thousands of people would have to do the same thing, fraudulently (voting in several counties or states by absentee voting or just by doing a lot of driving). It would have to be a plot of enormous complexity and secrecy for it to pretend to have any effect on the outcome of the election.

Against the existence of a plot of such devious and gratuitously baroque complexity, one might say that both political parties have perhaps come up with an equally sinister, but much simpler, scheme: register people to vote.

Off the trail

Today George Will seems to argue against the “reckless” charges about the “certainty” (his term) that there will be problems recording the perhaps 110 million votes in the coming election.

The charges are couched in the language of liberalism: much talk about voters’ rights, no talk about voters’ responsibilities and dark warnings of victimization — “disenfranchisement” and “intimidation.”

We recently discussed Will’s straw man version of the sloppy class term “liberalism,” so we direct the interested reader to that discussion.
The interesting variant on this argument here is that Will purports to show the recklessness of the charges of “disenfranchisement” and “intimidation” by distracting the reader with an argument against the incompetent use of punch-card ballots. This voter incompetence results in two well-known errors: overvotes and undervotes. To buttress this claim Will points out the various sorts of things voters can do to avoid undervoting or overvoting–read the instructions, double check the ballot for dimpled, hanging or pregnant chads. Despite the snide tone of Will’s analysis, there does not seem to be anything wrong with the suggestion that voters be circumspect in the exercise of their constitutional right. Nor do we think that anyone (even liberals) would seriously suggest that the voter has some minimal responsibility for ensuring that she casts her vote properly.

So Will has perhaps earned the conclusion that irresponsible or sloppy voting does not constitute “disenfranchisement” or “intimidation.” Such charges, as Will correctly points out, require much more by way of evidence. Unfortunately, aside from his brief and problematic discussion of possible disenfranchisement in Ohio, Will never seriously considers what the actual evidence for such heavy language might be. Perhaps he might have considered the secretive and seriously flawed felon list in Florida–remember Florida?–that kept enough voters from the polls to swing the election to George W. Bush. Despite having failed to consider the serious and well established charges, however, Will claims no one has demonstrated that “intimidation” and “disenfranchisement” have taken place or will take place and that “liberals” who make such charges do not understand that rights come with responsibilities.

The critically minded reader will not be fooled, however, by the powerful scent of Will’s red herring, for she will know the real issue is not incompetent voting, but the systematic or just plain incompetent efforts of some state officials to keep some voters from the polls. And she will notice also that Will, despite his whining about whining liberals’ whining, has done nothing to show that this is not the case.

It depends on what the meaning of liberal is

Part of the problem with labels such as “conservative” and “liberal” consists in the fact that they have all manner of (often negative) political and social connotations. For this reason, calling Kerry a “liberal” or Bush a “conservative” has such rhetorical effectiveness. And juxtaposing one of these terms with a geographical or institutional region strengthens the verbal blow–the Massachusetts liberal, the liberal media, the Bible Belt conservative, for instance. In the end, however, they are little more than a shortcut for a lazy, uninquisitive mind, which likes to dwell at a level of generality where facts are made to fit neatly into predetermined categories, such that easy categorical disjunctions can be enacted–liberal *or* conservative. And this is more or less what George Will
is up to in his column in the *Washington Post*.

In short, Will sets out to explain “Conservatism’s 40-year climb to dominance” in light of two sources: its congruence with American values and “anomalous” religiosity and the “elaborate infrastructure” of think tanks and similar institutions. But Will fails to note–among other things that simply tell against the truth of the phenomenon he is trying to explain–that 40 years is a long time–in fact, in the Bible that’s just what it means–and a lot can happen to labels in 40 years. To claim that “conservatism” has won dominance over a 40 year struggle is to say, at the very least, that there exists a coherently self-identical movement expressed by a growing but organized body of adherents. If “conservatism” has won a victory over “liberalism,” then first of all we must at least be talking about the same teams.

But by Will’s own characterization of liberalism, we are hardly talking about the same teams. Herbert Hoover–hardly the paragon of Willian liberalism today–called himself “a true liberal” and Eisenhower, hardly a member of a liberal party by Will’s characterization, reckoned himself in that number. This cuts the other way as well. While Barry Goldwater may share party affiliation with some current conservatives, it would be wrong to say that Bush and Goldwater (and Reagan and Nixon) are conservatives in the same sense. So to claim the ascendancy of conservatism over liberalism isn’t to say that one coherent and unified ideology has defeated another (and judging by the popular vote in the last Presidential election as well as other well established data, that isn’t even clearly the case), but rather one meaningless label employed by conservative pundits (oops!) has triumphed over another.

Second, just as one might challenge the diachronic unity of the labels he traffics in. More to the point, one might also challenge the synchronic unity of such terms. Just who is a liberal (and who is a conservative) nowadays in the sense that Will intends? Both parties have, to the disillusionment perhaps of a the greater portion of the electorate, adopted the rhetoric and ideology of the other. Bush’s heavy political (but perhaps not monetary) investment in public education and other expansions of entitlement programs suggest much less than conservative ideology in the Goldwaterian sense. Besides, the Republican party encompasses quite a broad coalition of extreme social conservatives, moderates, and libertarian elements. Claiming that its recent victories (again the 2000 election–when it lost the popular vote–combined with Clinton’s two victories hardly constitute evidence of “dominance”) are a sign of core conservative values grossly oversimplifies the kinds of coalition-building necessary to win Presidential elections. But worse than that, it does violence to language.

Will to compare

Among the hundreds of thousands of student victims of the whims of the all powerful teachers’ union, all students of Logic 101 have been subjected to the following counterintuitive stipulation: “some” is a quantifier; it tells you how many. But how many does “some” mean? Well, and here’s the counterintuitive part, it means *at least one*–not necessarily more than just one. Those same students, those victims of the powerful agents of a government-sponsored Democratic political lobby, also know that “some” is infinitely distant from “all.” So when some use some it may mean only some, that is, one.

That said, in today’s *Washington Post* George Will
attempts to “understand some of the Democratic rage about the specter of a second term for George W. Bush.” In turns out that the “some” here refers not to an unspecified number of Democrats, but rather to an undetermined quantum of their motivation for fearing a second term of George Bush. In case you thought that this undetermined quantum of rage was directed at profound or even superficial concerns over the domestic policies of the current administration, you’d be sorely disappointed. For Will’s analysis concerns the political survival of the Democratic party as an entity, not, as it might seem, the agenda of the Democratic party; if Bush gets reelected, Will muses, then his policies might produce fewer Democrats.

Now of course on the other hand we are only talking about *some* of the rage. So that’s a pretty low bar to hurdle. But the unspecified quantum of rage doesn’t constitute the worst feature of Will’s argument today. It’s the fact that he pits *some* of the motivation for the “rage” of *some* Democrats against the policies of the current administration (not a “some,” but an “all”); this specious comparison juxtaposes the selfish and shortsighted Democratic motivations with principled Republican stands on policy. *Some* of the Democrats’ rage results from the gutting of their base that would happen under the policies of a new Bush administration. Take the worst of the selfish and shortsighted Democratic base (and the one which for completely selfish reasons is closest to our heart) for example, the teachers’ union:

The public education lobby — one in 10 delegates to the Democratic convention was a member of a teachers union — wants government to keep impediments in the way of competition. That means not empowering parents with school choice, including the choice of private schools, which have significantly lower per-pupil costs.

Here–and throughout the rest of the piece–Will compares the ruinous and obtusely self-serving motives of the Democratic base with the reasoned stands of the Republican party. The Democrats, of course, want only to continue to exist and further their own self-interest. The Republican platform, on the other hand, is characterized here by the apparent soundness of its policy and the purity of its motivations. One more example:

Welfare reform, the largest legislative achievement of the 1990s, diminished the Democratic Party’s dependency-bureaucracy complex. That complex consists of wards of government and their government supervisors. And Bush’s “ownership society” is another step in the plan to reduce the supply of government by reducing the demand for it.

That felicitous formulation, from Jonathan Rauch’s masterful analysis of Bush’s domestic ambitions (National Journal, July 26, 2003), follows from two axioms of which conservatives are fond: Give a person a fish and you give the person a meal; teach the person to fish and you give a livelihood. And: No one washes a rental car. Meaning people behave most responsibly about what they own. Hence Bush’s menu of incentives for private retirement, health, education and savings accounts.

Here again the policies of the Bush administration clash with the entirely political motivations of Democratic operatives. But, as we have argued here before, for comparisons to work, the items compared must be of the same category. So Will should either compare the selfish motives of the Republican party with the selfish motives of the Democratic party, or the policies of the one with the policies of the other. Now of course in the end just because there might in fact be *some* Democrats who fit Will’s description doesn’t make his comparison any less specious.

Bring Out Your Dead

(Washington Post 09/16/04): George Will’s diagnosis of a lethal “capitol plague” that afflicts northeastern Senators is a bit premature. The 2004 election has not taken place, so it’s a little early to bring out the dead, unless, of course, you try to club them to death first. Will attempts this self-confirming diagnosis of Kerry’s candidacy in a variety of unrelated ways. Among these the most noteworthy for our purposes–and the only ones we’ll take the time to comment on–are the following: a shallow analysis of two of Kerry’s stump speeches and a hopelessly misdirected discussion of two of Kerry’s votes as a Senator.

First the stump speeches:

“And the Northeastern senator at least went to the border region, to the banks of the Ohio River, for yet another “major” speech clarifying his position(s) on Iraq. John Kerry chose the Cincinnati venue where in October 2002 President Bush made his case for using against Iraq the force that Kerry voted to authorize. In Cincinnati, Kerry complained there was ‘$200 billion for Iraq, but they tell us we can’t afford after-school programs.’”

What the Weekly Standard and Monday Night Football commentators achieve with the rhetorically effective but semantically empty “flip-flop” talking point, Will achieves with a typographical innuendo (“position(s)”) and a subordinate clause (“[which] Kerry voted to authorize”). But amid these grammatical insinuations lies an even more clever and sinister device: the imputed false dilemma (and hence straw man). To underline the ridiculousness of Kerry’s remark (in this context-free formulation of it), Will imagines a response from Bush in which the former Governor from the Southwest logically outmaneuvers the Senator from the Northeast:

“‘Oh, so that is the problem. Why didn’t you say so sooner? In the interest of wartime unity, I will support adding to the current $1 billion spent on after-school programs an additional $1.5 billion — the amount you liberals say is needed. Now, senator, will you flip back to where you were 13 months ago when, talking about funding for the war, you said, we should ‘increase it’ and ‘by whatever number of billions of dollars it takes to win'”?”

This would be devastating to Kerry’s silly dilemma–it’s either 200 billion for Iraq (n.b., Kerry’s claim is actually false) or 1.5 billion for after-school programs–if only it were something approaching a fair reading of Kerry’s position. The quotation Will cites doesn’t suggest anything along the lines of the false dilemma he and the imaginary Bush are defeating. On a more honest and charitable reading, it suggests rather that Kerry believes the priorities of the Bush administration to be worthy of criticism.

But there’s more rhetorical trickery here. Will observes:

“Kerry might then have, as liberals are wont to do, upped the ante. While the nation was reeling from the horrors of Beslan and Baghdad, he promised a North Carolina audience that as president he would create a “Department of Wellness” to deal with problems such as house mold.”

The odd Mooresque juxtaposition (cf. “Now watch this drive”) of these three things asks us to conclude that Kerry is primarily concerned with matters wholly peripheral to the grave tasks that face the President of the United States. But we can hardly believe that Kerry’s response to the horrors of Beslan and the chaos of Iraq was to combat household mold. Will’s editing of the intellectual footage of the campaign trail would make Michael Moore’s head spin.

Turning his attention from the hustings to the Senate, Will indirectly claims that Kerry’s motivation for two key Senate votes has nothing to do with reasons or arguments:

“Better to talk about that menace [i.e., the mold] than about those two votes he cast that seem to have been equally insincere. One authorized the use of force against Iraq. The second opposed $87 billion to fund coping with the consequences of force having been used. Kerry can say nothing in defense of the first vote that does not offend the intense Democratic activists who are disgusted by it. And he can say nothing in defense of the second vote — his genuflection to those activists, made when Howard Dean was their pinup — without offending an American majority.”

Couched in the language of metapolitical analysis (“better to talk”), we can isolate the fairly obvious ad hominem attack on Kerry’s political motivations for his votes. No doubt there are political motivations for Kerry’s votes, as there are political motivations for anyone’s votes, whether this means the reasons given for the votes are insincere is another matter entirely, and one which, by the way, is very difficult to establish. Charity might suggest believing the reasons offered in the absence of countervailing evidence (of which we have nothing of the sort here). At the very least, Will might consider Kerry’s reasons for voting the way he did. For in the end, they may not be good reasons at all, and Will might have a stronger argument.

Valencia or Granny Smith?

Both John Kerry and George Bush, George F. Will argues, share the “liberal expectancy” of the retreat of religious fanaticism and ethnic conflict in the face of “education, science, secularism, [and] prosperity.” But therein lies an important difference. Citing University of Virginia political scientists James W. Ceaser and Daniel DiSalvo, Will points out that “Bush says that ‘liberty is the design of nature’ and that ‘freedom is the right and the capacity of all mankind’ and “not since Lincoln has the Republicans’ leader ‘so actively sought to ground the party in a politics of natural right.’” Now one can certainly argue with this characterization of Bush foreign policy. One could point out for instance that the administration has no argument, in the sense that it has taken no action and spoken no words, against the anti-modern political systems on whose mineral wealth we rely, or whose form of anti-modernist dictatorship conveniently breaks in favor of our political strategies. But that’s another matter. And besides, this is not really what Will is writing about anyway. For immediately after the above cited passage, he turns his attention to Kerry:

“Kerry is the candidate of the intellectually vain — of those who, practicing the politics of condescension, consider Bush moronic. But Kerry is unwilling to engage Bush’s idea.”

While we have a fairly charitable reading of the philosophical and political motivations of the Bush administration, we have a ruthlessly uncharitable characterization of the psychological state of the Kerry supporter. The comparison of Kerry-supporter to Bush philosophy wholly out of place, the more logically sound comparison would consider items that belong in the same category–Kerry political philosophy versus Bush political philosophy, for instance, or psychological state of Kerry supporter versus psychological state of Bush supporter. But aside from the perplexing nature of this apples-oranges comparison, Will makes matters worse by his doubly abusive assault on the position of the Kerry supporter: he is intellectually vain, and he practices the “politics of condescension” by considering Bush “moronic.” This neat, but devious, rhetorical trick hypocritically embraces the fallacy it condemns: Kerry’s supporters are intellectually vain (attacking the person not the argument) because they–and here is the kicker–attack the person and not the argument! Disengaging himself from the rhetorical underhandedness of the first sentence in the passage just cited, Will turns for the rest of the essay to making the case for his initial comparison:

Hence he is allowing Bush to have what he wants, a one-issue election. The issue is a conflation of the wars in Iraq and on terrorism in the single subject "security." Kerry is trying, and failing, to pry apart judgments about the two. But even if he succeeds, he continues to deepen the risible incoherence of his still-multiplying positions on Iraq. In his speech last week to the American Legion convention, Kerry said that in Iraq he, as president, would have done "almost everything differently." The indisputable implication is that if he had been president since 2001, America would be in Iraq.

Again, the more logically sound comparison would be between Bush political philosophy and Kerry political philosophy, not, as it is here, between Bush political philosophy and Kerry’s position on the management and execution of the Iraq war. Whatever their positions on the source of human freedom (and one can fairly suspect that they both agree to the view that freedom is a natural right or something of that sort), Kerry’s argument that Iraq should have been handled differently and that Iraq might still be considered to have had something to do with “security” are not “risibly incoherent.” But it certainly appears that way when it is posed against something it should not rightly be compared with (Bush’s writ large political philosophy). Kerry’s position, however poorly it may be articulated by him, his surrogates and supporters, concerns the execution not, as Will has it here, the philosophical foundation. Now in the end, of course, Kerry’s arguments might fail. But they should be challenged for what they are (apples), not for what Will would like them to be (oranges).

Make the pie higher

Not to be outdone by the argumentative vacuum of David Brooks’ piece, George Will offers several contributions to today’s fallacy hall of shame:

Kerry squandered his convention opportunity, incessantly telling voters only what they already knew about him — that he served in Vietnam. Then, when citizens’ groups questioned his patently questionable claims about his Vietnam service, he asked the government to construe the campaign finance laws to silence this political speech.

Two cases of suppressed evidence here. Kerry said a lot of things during his convention speech. Some of them–indeed many of them, perhaps even the greater part of what he said–had nothing to do with Vietnam. In addition to this, Kerry has made speeches throughout the country, given interviews, and written statements about substantive questions not related to his service in Vietnam. Should Will–a Pulitzer Prize winning commentator–like to engage Kerry’s position in the calm light of reason, then he should not purposely ignore the candidate’s own statements and offer nonsensical and vitriolic partisan talking points in place of rigorously executed analysis. Second, like Brooks of the New York Times, Will embraces the not only questionable but largely refuted (“refuted” here means “shown to be false”, not, as it often seems, “objected to”) claims of the Swift Boat Vets.

But this is only part of Will’s contribution to today’s logical hall of shame. When short of arguments against an opponent (which Will clearly is today), the self-confident but devious rhetorician nearly always finds away to interpret the statements of his opponent uncharitably:

Kerry insists he is not a “redistribution Democrat.” But of course he is. And Bush is a redistribution Republican. There is no “natural” distribution of social wealth. Distribution is influenced by social arrangements, from property laws to tax laws to educational arrangements, all of them political choices. Both parties have redistributionist agendas.

Will’s lack of context forces Kerry to sound like a clown. But what we have here is a fallacy of equivocation. It’s obvious that Kerry means something else by “redistribution” than does Will. But we’d never know that from Will’s simplistic semantic analysis. Whether Kerry’s policy is sensible or not, of course, is a question that Will would have to think about. No time for that, however, because Will has to turn this semantic analysis into the most pungent of red herrings:

In disavowing “redistribution,” Kerry presumably means he rejects the old liberal belief in recarving the economic pie, rather than making the pie grow, to ameliorate the condition of the poor. But he favors using government power to direct the flow of wealth to public school teachers, or to protect the flow to trial lawyers. Up-to-date liberalism defends the strong, not the poor, who are either reliable Democratic voters or nonvoters. Republicans defend their own muscular interests.

What looks like an honest attempt to evaluate Kerry’s understanding of the term “redistribution” (note the use of the word “presumably”) turns into a distracting reference (the red herring throws the dogs of the scent!) to those pointlessly litigious trial lawyers and those sickeningly wealthy public school teachers. While it is obvious that there is no flow of “wealth” to public school teachers, and trial lawyers generate their own cash by subtracting it from tortiously challenged coporations (not government handouts), this constitutes the core of Will’s conclusion that Democrats protect the “strong.” That may indeed be the case, but this silly excuse for an argument does nothing to establish it.

In all fairness, you will have noted that Will directs his considerably impoverished analysis at an equally hollow diatribe against the Republican position–it’s just not as hollow as his case against Kerry. So for a change Will offends the good sense of Republicans as well as Democrats.

One final point. Lest you think we are needlessly naughty nitpicking nabobs of negativism, then consider the following bit of Will’s own logical analysis:

This year’s political raptures are perfunctory. In Boston, Democratic delegates, who loathed the Vietnam War partly because they thought it unrelated to America’s defense, dutifully applauded John Kerry’s revisionism: “I defended this country as a young man.”

That does sound like a contradiction indeed. But Kerry didn’t contradict himself, and the delegates didn’t either–unless somesuch statement had been made at the convention (something for which no evidence is put forward here). What might make this a contradiction is some statement of Kerry’s that denies Vietnam was a defensive operation (and he’d probably find that with a little research). But what in the end would that show? Not much. Merely that Kerry can be found to have contradicted himself or that he had a sloppy choice of words. Perhaps Will might better spend his time tracking down and discussing the real issues of policy that should constitute the core of the debate in an advanced democracy such as our own instead of the pointless minutiae of partisan politics. The readers of the Washington Post might be richer for it.

Will to power

After a description of the horrors that nuclear briefcase bombs could bring to a city such as New York, George Will turns to consider which candidate is best equipped to confront this truly terrifying threat:

On the other hand, Allison argues that any hope for preventing, by diplomacy, nuclear terrorism depends on “readiness to use covert and overt military force if necessary” against two potential sources of fissile material — Iran and North Korea. But the candidate Allison is advising has opposed virtually every use of U.S. force in his adult lifetime.

The candidate Allison supports is of course John Kerry. Now Will does not draw the explicit conclusion that Kerry would not use military force to protect us from the horrors of nuclear suitcase bombs, he leaves that conclusion to the reader (once again, the unstated conclusion carries more rhetorical force than the stated one). That conclusion would follow, Will implies, from Kerry’s failure to support just about every military action in his lifetime. Notice how Will carefully avoids specifying which uses of force Kerry did endorse (Afghanistan).

But that conlcusion does not follow from the simple fact (for the sake of argument let’s assume that it’s true) that Kerry has opposed “virtually every use of U.S. force”. In order for Will to avoid the screaming non sequitur here, he would have to show how Kerry’s justification for not supporting military action in the past has anything to do with the–to Will’s mind–very real possibility of nuclear suitcase terrorism. Simply because Kerry has opposed the use of force in the past does not mean that he is a pacificist who opposes every possible use of force. The general rule, in other words, that Will attempts to draw out of the past simply does not have any real argumentative force.