All posts by Scott Aikin

Scott Aikin is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Vanderbilt University.

Wittgenstein and Speaking Lions

This is the 1,001st post at the NonSequitur.  I failed to note the 1,000th posting, the last one.  I was more excited about the post.  Regardless, Colin and John have done a great job with the blog, and I'm really pleased to have been brought in.  And in honor of the event of passing the 1000 post mark, I want to pose the question: can a joke work as a counter-example?  Here's a test-case.

Ludwig Wittgenstein was a philosopher, one that did his most influential later work in the aphoristic style.  Asking questions, putting things in a cute way, and so on.  He made many of his points, really, with lines that could pass for jokes. One of the core commitments of Wittgenstein's system was that to speak a language, you have to share a form of life with others who speak the same language. To illustrate this commitment, he has the enigmatic-oracular line:

If a lion could speak, we could not understand him (PI: p.223)

Again, the thought seems to be that since a lion doesn't share our form of life, its language would be inaccessible to us. 

Now, I'm not so sure about Wittgenstein's point, simply on the reason that if we're able to recognize that the lion is speaking a language, then we must be capable of having at least a decent grasp of what he's talking about.  That is, a necessary condition for attributing to X the capacity to speak a language is that you've some evidence that the sounds X is uttering are semantically contentful and also what those contents are.  (Or at least that you know that they are contentful and you could find out what those contents are.)

But I want to play Wittgenstein's game of making points instead of with straight argument, but with aphoristic style.  And so, here's my proposed counter-example (in the form of a joke):

So a lion walks into a bar…  He sidles up to the juke box and selects a Led Zepppelin song.  He then plays a round of darts.  Then he goes up to the bar, and he says to the bartender: "Wittgenstein wouldn't get this joke."

Should someone committed to Wittgenstein's philosophy of language be troubled by this joke?  Is it funny, regardless?  What are the consequences?

Embrace the Ad Hitlerum

Ad Hitlerum arguments are arguments by analogy — you criticize your opponent's views or proposals on the basis of their similarities either to those of Nazi Germany or Hitler himself.  And so: Vegetarianism? No way — many Nazis were vegetarians.  Or: The Nazis favored euthanasia, so it must be wrong.  The crucial thing for these arguments is that Nazis or Hitler favoring X means that X is morally unacceptable.  But this is a pretty unreliable method of detecting immorality, as the Nazis also were avid promoters of physical fitness, environmentalism, and classical music.  So ad Hitlerum arguments regularly suffer from problems of relevance.  But that failing of the argument hardly ever prevents folks from using it. Regularly.

Godwin's law, one of the oldest of the eponymous Laws of the Internet, runs that: "As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches 1."   Given that the argumentative strategy has regular relevance problems, there's a widely recognized corollary to the law, which is that whoever makes use of the argumentative strategy has thereby lost the argument.  It's in the same boat with appeals to the subjectivity of an issue, after having had a heated argument about it.  It is an argument that is a last-ditch grasp at straws.

So far, none of this is news.

Here's the news: Hal Colebatch, in  his post "Don't Be Scared of Goodwin's So-Called Law" at the American Spectator, is urging conservatives not to be deterred by the charge of "Goodwin's Law."  The law of the internet, instead of being used as a tool for improving discourse, has hampered good argument. He writes:

Try mentioning to a euthanasia advocate that the Nazi extermination program started off as an exercise in medical euthanasia. And as for suggesting that Jews and Israel are in danger of a second holocaust if Muslim extremists have their way, just wait for: "Godwin's Law!" "Godwin's law!" repeated with a kind of witless assumption of superiority reminiscent of school playground chants.

The first question is: with whom has Colebatch been arguing?  Nobody, at least nobody serious, in any of these debates does that chanting stuff. (I smell weak-manning here.) The second question is why would anyone serious about the issues even be bothered by this response?  His article urges people not to be "afraid" of Goodwin's law — who is afraid of people arguing like that?

Colebatch, first, seems to think that the counter-argument is in the chanting.  Or maybe in the thought that someone's lost the argument.  But the real point of noting Godwin's law in a discussion with someone who's just made an Ad Hitlerum move is to challenge the aptness of the analogy.  So take Colebatch's own example — wouldn't the point of bringing up Godwin's Law there be to say something like: euthanasia programs aren't out to do anything more than allow some people to die with dignity.  It's not a cover for something else, and there are oversight programs to ensure that it doesn't turn into something else.  Unless it's shown that there are other plans for euthanasia, there's no relevance to the analogy.

So Colebatch is not being silenced or intimidated when someone says "Godwin's Law" to him — he's on the receiving end of a rebuttal.  But he can't recognize that:

Personally, I don't intend to be intimidated by chants of "Godwin's Law" or any other infantile slogan, used to smother debate in a way reminiscent of something from George Orwell or, if you'll excuse me saying so, a Nuremberg Rally. I have come up against echoes of Nazi thought-patterns and arguments many times and not only am I not going to be bullied into keeping silent about this, I believe every civilized person has a positive duty to speak up about it whenever appropriate.

But Godwin's Law isn't smothering debate at all.  It's a move to point out a fallacy.  Or at least a challenge to demonstrate relevance.  Since when is criticism of an analogy a form of intimidation or something infantile?  That's what good debate is about!

Some arguments by analogy are like paint by numbers

How often is it that the following three analogies are used in discussions of legalizing gay marriage? 

#1: Laws against gay marriage are analogous to anti-miscegenation laws. Therefore, they are unjust.

#2: Laws against gay marriage are analogous to prohibitions against polygamy.  Therefore, they are just.

#3: Laws against gay marriage are analogous to outlawing bestiality (or marrying one's dog).  Therefore, they are just.

The answer to my rhetorical question is that the use of these analogies is innumerable.  Most of the talking heads debating on TV race each other to the punch — whoever gets one of these analogies out first is the one who's framed the debate properly and thereby has the rhetorical upper hand.  Now, I'm all for rhetorical competitions, but c'mon — you'd think that once the analogies are out there, somebody might… you know… address how apt these analogies are.

Enter Steve Chapman, writing for conservative opinion page, Townhall.com.  Importantly, Chapman supports gay marriage, but doesn't want the courts to impose it on the citizenry.  (One of the first questions that comes to my mind when I hear this sort of talk is what's better (again assuming he supports gay marriage): having a just conclusion imposed on a citizenry that does not want it, or an unjust law imposed on a smaller section of that citizenry… that does not want it either!  If you don't see the point of this question, you don't see the point of judicial review.)  Regardless, Chapman runs the gamut of the analogies, and makes it all worse.  Especially when addressing #2:

Gays argue, correctly, that they can't be expected to change their inborn sexual orientation to get married.  But polygamists can assert that monogamy is impossible for them — and, judging from the prevalence of sexual infidelity, for most people.  Nor does the polygamy ban solve any problems.  Men can already have sex with multiple females, produce offspring with them and furnish them with financial support.  Former NFL running back Travis Henry has nine children by nine different women.  Prohibiting polygamy does nothing to prevent such conduct.  It just keeps people who want to do it responsibly from operating within an established legal framework.  That's why I would legalize polygamy as well as same sex marriage.

Seriously, that is the dumbest defense of gay marriage against the analogy with polygamy I have ever seen.  I could not have even made up a more dunderheaded version.  In no way should the argument be that: well, lots of people are going to have multiple partners, and prohibiting polygamy doesn't prevent that, so we should legalize polygamy so they can do it responsibly.  By analogy, Chapman's reasoning would be: gay marriage bans don't reduce homosexual sex and cohabitation.  But that's not what those bans are out to prevent.  Anti-sodomy laws were supposed to do that, and see how they fared constitutionally?  The same fate would befall anti-multiple-baby-daddy laws.

The best way to defend gay marriage is to break the analogies between gay marriage and polygamy and gay sex and bestiality.  The first is a simple moral difference: there is no established frame of injustice associated with gay marriages.  They are, like modern heterosexual marriages, a relationship between equals.  Polygamous marriages have structural inequalities, and the traditional forms of them have them in spades: younger wives are to play the role of child-rearer, clothes-washer, and concubine.  Once they've borne children, they move up the ladder…  Legalizing institutions that have these legacies is akin to legalizing a form of household slavery.  My good friend Thom Brooks has an excellent survey of polygamy and its problems here.

The disanalogy between gay sex and besitality is simply with consent.  Adult humans can give consent, dogs (or what have you) can't.  End of discussion.

So why are people still wrestling with these analogies?  Part of the answer is because columnists like Steve Chapman, despite being on the right side of the issue, can't put together a non-crazy response to them.

An Exercise in Scarequoting

Classic downplaying is the strategy of making something look less important or significant.  You can do this with euphemisms, so you can call a pay cut "salary compression," or you can call the victims of indiscriminate use of lethal force "collateral damage."  Another strategy is to employ the terms of regular use, but use scare quotes around the terms.  This method of downplaying at once both acknowledges that some use the term to describe the case, but it also registers your objection to it.  No reasons are given, but it's a clear wink to one's preferred audience, a kind of code to let them know that it's a larger cultural battle in the works. But also note that scarequoting just communicates this challenge to the naming, but not its grounds or even what the alternatives are.  It is a particularly weak and lazy form of criticism, one that effectively relies on the audience to supply their own arguments.

In the wake of the leaked Katie Couric tape, with Couric laughing at Sara Palin's kids names, Douglas MacKinnon re-opens the case that Sara Palin was treated unfairly by the media in '08.  He thinks her performances in the Gibson interview (when she couldn't define the Bush Doctrine) and Couric interview (when, she couldn't name a single news magazine) were because of the treachery of the liberals who ran the interviews.  But the real fault lays with the McCain campaign for not protecting her from these ambushes.  That's weird, as it seems that these questions were hardly surprises and could have easily been turned into cases for Palin to showcase her knowledge of politics and foreign affairs, had she done any homework.  Regardless, MacKinnon has the perfect downplayer setup for his case in his opening paragraph:

As the video popped-up this week of far-left, ultra wealthy, and privileged CBS “News” anchor Katie Couric going after then Governor Sarah Palin while mocking the names of her children, it reminded me all over again how much Palin is owed an apology from the “leadership” of the McCain campaign.

That paragraph without the scare quotes still gets the point across — McCain's campaign advisers should have known that liberals would try to take down their witless VP candidate, and they should have stayed with only Sean Hannity and Greta Van Sustren interviewing her.  But with the addition, really, of no more words but a few extra marks (eight little apostrophes), MacKinnon communicates so much more and expresses (and encourages) real hostility to his opponents.

Here, let me show you.  I'll re-write my last paragraph with the addition of scare quotes.

That paragraph without the scare quotes still gets the "point" across — McCain's campaign advisers should have known that liberals would try to take down their witless VP candidate, and they should have stayed with only Sean Hannity and Greta Van Sustren "interviewing" her.  But with the addition, really, of no more words but a few extra marks (eight little apostrophes), MacKinnon "communicates" so much more and expresses (and encourages) real hostility to his opponents.

See?  It's easy to sound much more outraged by and better informed than your opponents with just a few scare quotes.  No wonder a lazy mind like MacKinnon uses them so… liberally.

Tool Quoque

The Non Sequitur is supposed to be a blog about political media, I know.  But I can't let this pass.  I was converting some old CD's to MP3 format this evening, and I set about to listening to an old Tool album, Aenima.  I'd forgotten how brooding they were and that the lyrics were intermittently profound and stupid.  And then I came to "Hooker with a Penis."  Here are the lyrics, if you need to read along, but here is the core of the song: it's an argument that you can't blame Tool for being sellouts.  The background story is that Maynard, the lead singer, is approached by some kid who accuses him of being a sellout with the latest album, and that the earlier stuff is more authentic:

And in between sips of Coke
He told me that he thought
We were sellin' out
Layin' down
Suckin' up
To the man.

Maynard responds with two separate arguments.  The first is simple garbage talk: that he, Maynard, is actually THE MAN.  So he can't sell out to the man, because he's already the man.  And furthermore, since that's the case, our accuser is ALSO the man.  
Before you point your finger
You should know that
I'm the man
If I'm the man,
Then you're the man
And He's the man as well
So you can
Point that fuckin' finger up your ass.
I suppose that this is a fine argument for people who are heavy-duty Tool-heads, since a good deal of Tool stuff is mystical mumbo-jumbo.  But, for sure, by this sort of reasoning, then Maynard is the accuser, too.  And then, consequently, he ends up telling HIMSELF to point that finger up his OWN ass.  (Logic hint: identity is a transitive relation.)  Not much of a defense, in the end.  The lesson of the first argument: mystical nonsense may be really impressive to badly dressed kids in soda shops, but it makes for crazily bad arguments. 
 
The second argument is a little more interesting, and given our recent spate of discussions about tu quoque arguments, it caught my eye.  The argument has two prongs. The first is basically that Tool had already sold out before their first record, and so the accuser has no legitimate basis to say that the later album is a sellout compared to the first album. The first album was a sellout album, too!   The second line of argument is that the accuser, regardless of the accusations, nevertheless BOUGHT THE RECORDS!

All you know about me is what I've sold you,
Dumb fuck
I sold out long before you ever even heard my name.
I sold my soul to make a record,
Dip shit
And then you bought one.

I see both lines of the second argument out to show that the accuser, regardless of the issue of whether Tool have sold out, actually likes sellout music.  The first line is that since Tool sold out before the first record, and the accuser likes the first record, the accuser likes sellout music.  The second line is that since the accuser BUYS records he admittedly sees as sellout music, he must thereby like sellout music.  Therefore, he has no standing to accuse Tool of being sellouts.
 
Again, I'm sympathetic with many tu quoque arguments, as I think they can show double standards, dishonesty in criticism, and even sometimes actually show that some cases are likely true.  But I'm not sympathetic here.  The first problem is that even if Tool sold out before the first album, that doesn't mean that their second (or later) albums are of the same quality.  Here might be a reasonable response from the accuser: Sure, you may have sold out before the first record, but it didn't start really showing until the second.  I thought you had some shred of dignity and integrity, but I suppose I was wrong about that.  Thanks for setting me straight about the fact that you've always been a sellout.
 
The second problem with the line of argument is the fact that the accuser bought the album hardly means that he has no standing to complain about its quality.  I have many, many CD's collecting dust in the basement  that stink.  The only way to find out if they stink, back then, was to buy them and listen to them.   It was $15 to find out that, for example, Queensryche peaked with Operation Mindcrime.  Or consider any other commodity — if I say that the Big Mac is a terrible hamburger, I'd have had to have tried it.  Which means I'd have had to have bought one.  Would my standing to criticize a Big Mac be undermined by the fact that I bought one?  What would be the only way to sample them, then, without this charge?  Steal them?
 
The third problem with the argument is that even if Maynard has shown the accuser to like sellout music, and even if Maynard has shown that the accuser, THE MAN, and Maynard are all the same, it has not yet mounted much of a defense for sellout music.  If there's something wrong with "sucking up to THE MAN," then showing that we're all THE MAN or that some people like sucking up to the man doesn't do much in the way of defense. 
 
Toolheads, I remember, took this song pretty seriously.  They still do, if you peruse the comments under the YouTube videos for the song. They thought that it showed Maynard at his best, defending himself and his music.  It may show Maynard at his best, but it's hardly a defense.  You know, when you shout a bad argument, even with distorted guitars and heavy base in the background, it doesn't get any better. 

War, Hypocrites, and Islam

Tu quoque arguments are posited on finding a contradiction or tension in the other side's position with regard to the matter at issue, and then holding on that basis that the other side is wrong or at least not qualified to speak to the issue.  I've argued elsewhere ("Tu quoque arguments and the significance of Hypocrisy" and "The truth about hypocrisy," with Robert Talisse) that sometimes these arguments are acceptable — e.g., if someone keeps contradicting himself, that's evidence he doesn't know what he's talking about.  Other times, the inconsistency of the other side is simply irrelevant to the issue (the classic example: even if your father smokes, he's right that you shouldn't smoke, and the fact that he is a smoker is at best irrelevant to the issue, and perhaps actually improves his case, as he, himself, is a testament to how addictive it is).

The tu quoque comes in a variety of forms.  The most significant differentiation to make is between the inconsistencies of speech and speech and speech and act.  The first is about a person who can't keep his story straight.  The second is about hypocrites.  Often the hypocrisy is actual — the person really says "do X" and they turn around and do not-X.  But sometimes, the inconsistency of the other side isn't something that's an actual inconsistency, just one that's likely.  One that would happen….  That is, sometimes the other side may not now be inconsistent, but if things were a little different, the other side would be singing a different tune.  So you say, "You say that now, under these circumstances, but were the shoe on the other foot…"  Colin called this phenomenon subjunctive tu quoque.

I've been on the lookout for it and for a few varieties, and I've found an interesting one in Sam Harris's The End of Faith (Norton, 2004).  Harris makes the case that we (in the West) shouldn't be too hard on ourselves for all the just war norms that we bend when we fight against Muslims.  His reasoning is perfectly subjunctive tu quoque.  First, in defending the way Israel deals with Palestinian aggression:

Ask yourself, what are the chances that the Palestinians would show the same restraint in killing Jews were a powerless minority living under their occupation and disposed to acts of suicidal terrorism? (2004, 135)

Harris uses the same form of reasoning when mitigating blame for disproportionate use of force in Iraq:

If the situation had been reversed, what are the chances that the Iraqi Revolutionary Guard, attempting to execute a regime change on the Potomac, would have taken the same degree of care to minimize civilian casualties? What are the chances that Iraqi forces would have been deterred by our use of human shields? (2004, 146)

The reasoning is appealing, but it doesn't support the conclusion that it's OK to be more cavalier in war with Muslims.  Jus in bello isn't affected by how the other side would be treating you, if they had the upper hand.  If it's unjust to wage war indiscriminately, it's unjust; and the fact that the other side has a clear inclination toward injustice may be a good reason to be at war with them, but it is not a reason to break the rules of war.

This said, I do want to retrieve what's appealing about the reasoning.  It does seem wrong for someone to insist on the rules of war when it's also clear that they, themselves, would not feel bound by them were they the dominant power.  It seems, first, dishonest.  And second, it seems like the use of moral argument is strictly strategic, instead of moral.  The most that would follow from the Harris arguments would be that there is a member of the discussion who is not an honest arbiter. 

One final thing is that these subjunctive moves carry a weird burden of proof, that it seems, is difficult to satisfy.  It's one thing to show that someone's a hypocrite — all you need to show is that he said "Do X" and then show that he did not-X.  But how do you show that the person, after having said "Do X" would nevertheless would, if circumstances were different, would do not X?

Sabotage or Enforcing Equal Protection?

Maggie Gallagher has been doing some reading, and she's found that Richard Epstein, a libertarian legal theorist, opposes the way the Department of Justice and the lower courts have been chipping away at the Defense of Marriage Act.  She approvingly quotes Epstein:

I … think that the DOJ's faint-hearted advocacy is no way to run a legal system…. Nor is it wise for courts to use the equal protection clause as a club against conventional morality, deeply felt.

In the title of her posting, Gallagher calls these decisions that merely allow same-sex partners of federal employees access to federally mandated family benefits (such as health and dental coverage, at issue in the Gill vs Office of Personal Management) sabotage of electoral politics and morality.

Strange, but the question of equal protection isn't about reflecting the moral judgment of the majority.  It's about ensuring minority rights and protections.    And saying it is a question of "deeply felt" moral conviction is to betray the expressed intent and justification of the law, that of "responsible procreation."  Turns out the DOMA was really just majoritarian moralizing all along, only dressed up as a public health initiative.  Thanks, Maggie Gallagher, for pulling the curtain back.

What refutes what?

Phyllis Schlafly is right about one thing: the Fourth of July is a good time to read the Declaration of Independence.  But she's wrong about pretty much everything else.  First, her timing is a little off — her posting is dated July 9, but she's giving advice about what to do on the 4th.  Maybe her plan was for us to remember what to do next year.   Second, she claims that the Declaration is a 'religious document.'  This seems a little thin, as her evidence is that:

The Declaration of Independence is the official and unequivocal recognition by the American people of our belief and faith in God. It affirms God's existence as a "self-evident" truth that requires no further discussion, debate or litigation.. . . The Declaration of Independence contains five references to God: God as Creator of all men, God as supreme Lawmaker, God as the Source of all rights, God as the world's supreme Judge, and God as our Patron and Protector. The Declaration declares that each of us was created; so if we were created, we must have had a Creator and, as the modern discovery of DNA confirms, each of God's creatures is different from every other person who has ever lived or ever will live on this earth.

Just for the record, I took a quick look at the Declaration, and I counted only four overt references to God.  One in the first paragraph, to Nature's God.  One in the second paragraph, that "we are endowed by our Creator….", and two in the final paragraph, one an oath to the Supreme judge of the world, and another about trusting 'divine providence.'  Now, with each of these, I don't (especially given the widespread deism of the day) see these as strongly theistic as Schlafly sees them.  Regardless, whatever these references mean, they aren't there as core commitments of the Declaration — the Declaration is about human rights and about the role of government (and also to list all the colonial grievances against the crown).  To put it on record that they all love God doesn't seem to be the point, but more a rhetorical element of the presentation of more (ahem) humanistic concerns.  If you use reference to God in making a point, that doesn't by necessity make your speech religious, because I often punctuate my angriest moments with "Goddammit!", but that hardly makes my speech religious.

Schlafly's third error is most troubling.  She claims:

The message of the Declaration of Independence is under attack from the ACLU and atheists because it refuted the lie about a constitutional mandate for "separation of church and state."

Wait.  That gets it backwards, doesn't it?  The whole point of the Constitution was to provide a framework for government that wasn't there in the Declaration. And in putting those things together, wasn't the objective to either supplement or correct the Declaration?  What about the First Amendment, the one that prohibits laws "respecting an establishment of religion"?  If the Declaration had a line that said anything about acknowledging and establishing a religion of the one true God (which seems to be Schlafly's reading), it's the Constitution that would refute that establishment, not the Declaration that would refute the Constitution. 

Nothing’s Sacrosanct

Ann Coulter’s been paying attention to Elena Kagan’s SCOTUS nomination proceedings.  She even read a profile of Kagan from the New York Times.  Kagan’s aunt notes that the family was intellectually engaged:

“There was thinking, always thinking,” Joyce Kagan Charmatz, Robert Kagan’s sister-in-law, 71, said of the family’s dinner table. “Nothing was sacrosanct.”

That “nothing was sacrosanct” caught Coulter’s eye.  She’s skeptical about whether in a liberal family that there could be a nothing’s-off-limits discussion.  She first observes:

Really? Nothing was sacrosanct? Because in my experience, on a scale of 1-to-infinity, the range of acceptable opinion among New York liberals goes from 1-to-1.001.

And then she ponders:

How would the following remarks fare at a dinner table on the Upper West Side where "nothing was sacrosanct": Hey, maybe that Joe McCarthy was onto something. What would prayer in the schools really hurt? How do we know gays are born that way? Is it possible that union demands have gone too far? Does it make sense to have three recycling bins in these microscopic Manhattan apartments? Say, has anyone read Charles Murray's latest book? Those comments, considered "conversation starters" in most of the country, would get you banned from polite society in New York.

Coulter’s hypothesis is that Kagan’s family was actually a group of insular liberals, people who pretended to be open-minded, willing to hear out all the sides, and so on, but never actually met anyone who had an opposing view.  Coulter knows all those New York liberals, and she knows just how dogmatic they can be: 

Even members of survivalist Christian cults in Idaho at least know people who hold opposing views. New York liberals don't. . . .  Even within the teeny-tiny range of approved liberal opinion in New York, disagreement will get you banned from the premises.

Seriously?  Now, for sure it’d be easy to switch out ‘New York liberals’ with ‘Texas conservatives’ and all the right-wing talking points with lefty talking points, and you’d see just what a bigoted and ridiculous tirade that’d be about conservatives.  Surely, we all know there are dogmatists on both sides. But they don’t define the sides, and they don’t define how parenting happens.  One of the things that Coulter fails to observe is that Joyce Kagan Charmatz is trying to get across that the Kagan family was not one of those dogmatic families you might see on the liberal side.

The larger problem is that Coulter has the worst of the ‘New York liberals’ define them all.  We’ve observed a number of times here at the NonSequitur that this is a form of straw-manning more precisely called weak manning. The basic trope is to find the worst and dumbest representative of a group you hold to be wrong, criticize this representative, and then act as though the group is wrong uberhaupt on the basis of this criticism.  For example, we all have shut-in uncles who surf the web in their bathrobes who are just right of Ron Paul libertarians.  When they say stupid things at family reunions, we don’t think this necessarily impugns libertarianism.  Every time you’re inclined to think that libertarians are stupid, you must remember Robert Nozick was very likely smarter than you. Same goes for Coulter – every time she thinks she can define the class ‘New York liberal,’ their views and their parenting on the basis of the worst of the class, she should exercise some measure of judgment.

New study shows: liberals don’t have conservative economic views

Ron Ross, at The American Spectator, reports that a Zogby International survey "confirms what (he's) long suspected — when it comes to economics, liberals are clueless."  The survey asks respondents to identify themselves on a spectrum from very liberal to very conservative, and then eight questions come.  Ross notes: 

On the basis of eight economic questions, wrong answers correlated consistently with ideology.  Progressive/very liberal respondents got four times more wrong answers than libertarians.

Ross concludes that the survey results "demonstrate a strong connection between economic ignorance and interventionist enthusiasm.  Those who are most determined to interfere with the economy know the least about it."

Well, golly, if there really is a connection between not knowing economics and being a liberal, that'd be a bad thing.  Especially for liberals and their views about economics.  So let's look at all the economics that liberals are so ignorant about.  Here are two of the most telling questions:

1. Restrictions on housing development make housing less affordable.  (Unenlightened Answer: Disagree)

6. Third-world workers working for American companies overseas are being exploited. (Unenlightened Answer: Agree)

The rest of the questions are the usual libertarian talking points (minimum wage laws increase unemployment, licensing professional services causes the price for those services to be raised).  The crazy thing is that question 1 is so vaguely stated that anyone with any sense would ask for clarification: Are the restrictions with regard to where the houses will be built, what kind of houses, or whether they must meet safety codes, and so on? In some cases, those restrictions will drive prices up, and other times, down.  Of course, the survey has the right answer that they do.  Why? Because that's what libertarians believe.

With question 6, I don't see this as a matter of having knowledge of basic economics or any such thing, but more a question of having ethical judgment about what counts as exploitation.  Again, because the right answers are being determined by people who casually use the term "leftist," as a term for anyone who's not a member of the John Birch Society, the right answers will likely be different from, say, any morally developed adult.

None of this would be surprising or irritating if the survey and report did not use terms like "unenlightened" and "wrong" for the answers here.  Now, if the survey were about, say, basic economic knowledge, where there is no reasonable disagreement, then we'd have no problem.  But here we have the simple strategy of polling one's opponents in a disagreement, noting how they have views you reject, casting them as being wrong, and then reporting how often those with whom you disagree are wrong about things that matter.  But, even if liberals are in error, these are not the simple errors that Ross portrays them to be.  These are controversial matters in economics, ones about which intelligent people disagree.  To portray this as a matter of ignorance, as Ross does, is not just a distortion of the debate, it's simple lying.  But Ross is all too happy to run up the score when the deck is stacked:

What we're seeing all too often is "the arrogance of ignorance." Both arrogance and ignorance do enormous damage in the world, but together they are a toxic brew.

Ross's gerrymandered study really only shows that opinions about economics track political self-identification.  That's not news, and certainly not something to make the hay Ross does of it.  There's another toxic brew, in addition to Ross's arrogance and ignorance: it's willful deception and self-righteous indignation.

**Hello Everyone–Welcome Scott Aikin, our newest contributor

–Editors.