Category Archives: category mistake

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.

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).