Tag Archives: hollow man

Magic words

Some of what argumentation theorists do is produce a metalanguage of argument. They make up names for stuff. Stuff you shouldn’t do (hollow man) stuff you should sometimes do (iron man). It’s partially a normative study, so the metalanguage is normative. As the Owl of Minerva Problem points out, however, there’s an inherent challenge in that the metalanguage for argument warps our performances. It’s a new thing to keep track of and it alters the way we interact. The thing it was meant to solve isn’t solved. It gets absorbed into the problem it was trying to solve. Interestingly, this is also the case for the Owl of Minerva problem.

Here is a variation on the Owl of Minerva Problem. Recall that the Owl of Minerva is retrospective, and productive of new normative terms. In some cases, once these terms get introduced, they are so powerful that they can never be used. This is to say that once a term becomes associated with a certain kind of extreme failure, it becomes magical. It’s a normative term with actual descriptive power. Take “racism.” Though there are significant disagreements about what really is the issue (ask a philosopher of race), there are no (significant) disagreements that it is bad, very bad. The same is true (with some perverse exceptions) of Nazism). No one wants to be a Nazi, even people who literally hold Nazi views. This video pretty much sums this up:

A more recent version of this featured three police officers caught on tape discussing their desire to engage in racially motivated homicide and start a race war with genocidal objectives. In their own defense, the officers said they weren’t racist:

Later, according to the investigation, Piner told Moore that he feels a civil war is coming and that he is ready. Piner said he was going to buy a new assault rifle, and soon “we are just going to go out and start slaughtering them (expletive)” Blacks. “I can’t wait. God, I can’t wait.” Moore responded that he wouldn’t do that.

Piner then told Moore that he felt a civil war was needed to “wipe them off the (expletive) map. That’ll put them back about four or five generations.” Moore told Piner he was “crazy,” and the recording stopped a short time later.

According to police, the officers admitted it was their voices on the video and didn’t deny any of the content. While the officers denied that they were racists, they blamed their comments on the stress on law enforcement in light of the protests over the death of George Floyd. Floyd, a Black man, died last month after a Minneapolis police officer put his knee on Floyd’s neck for several minutes.

I’d be happy to hear if someone has identified this phenomenon and given it a funny name. It’s something like the Harry Potter Problem, where one invokes fallacy names in place of (hopefully constructive) criticism and discussion. But in this case the invocation of the magic word necessarily backfires. It casts a kind of reverse spell. So one discovers a new powerful and descriptive normative concept, but its very power means its real targets will never accept it.

Don’t strawman me… I was strawmanning, myself

(Former) Governor Mike Huckabee has been criticized for the things he’s said about women and birth control.  Here’s the line folks are focusing on:

They cannot control their libido or their reproductive system without the help of the government

The reply is that the Governor did say those words, but the quote is “taken out of context”. As it turns out, the context is that of attributing this view to Democrats.  Here’s Matt Lewis at the Daily Caller clarifying the situation:

If the Democrats want to insult the women of America by making them believe that they are helpless without Uncle Sugar coming in and providing for them a prescription each month for birth control because [DEMOCRATS BELIEVE] they cannot control their libido or their reproductive system without the help of the government, then so be it.

The context of the quote, I think, is correct in terms of the Daily Caller’s clarification. The video HERE.  Huckabee isn’t stating his own view, he’s making it clear what he thinks that Democrats think about women and birth control.  So to criticize him for holding this view is a form of straw manning.

That’s better, but not dialecticaly.  The defense is that the view in question is not one he takes himself, but one he attributes to his opponents on birth control.  (He follows these sentences with a call for further debate on the issue, clearly calling attention to the fact that he sees his opponents as having a wildly indefensible view.)  Note that the address was not to a mixed audience wherein a liberal might say back: that’s not our view, Governor.  The issue isn’t about controlling libido, but having the right to manage when and by whom one has a child.  Isn’t that an important issue?  Ever notice how straw-manning is easier when your opponent isn’t in the room?

So in defending himself against being strawmanned, Huckabee reveals himself  the straw-manner.

To use the full taxonomic vocabulary: My hypothesis is that Huckabee was hollow-manning (nobody on the Democrat side has had a thought like that, right?), and the defense is a form of iron-manning.

First, get some straw…

We’ve pretty regularly noted that you can tell a straw man fallacy is coming when the speaker starts the windup for attributing views to his opponent by saying, “Some folks who believe X say…”  or “You know what all those X-ists say about this…”  What generally comes is a view nobody even recognizes as their view, or if it is, it’s only from the least capable of those who hold X.  And so we’ve been calling these hollow and weak men.

Now, what happens when the speaker’s on a roll?  It’s not just a one-off, but a series of these straw-man constructions.  For example, take Marta Mossburg’s “The Real ‘War on Women'” over at the American Spectator.   There are at least three in quick succession.

First, there’s the implication that Democrats who use the expression ‘The Republican War on Women’ don’t care at all about the way women are oppressed around the world.

When Terry McAuliffe, the governor-elect of Virginia,  relentlessly battered his Republican opponent Ken Cuccinelli for waging a “war on women,”  these innocent babies, teenagers and wives often attacked by their families and given no protection under the law throughout many countries in the world were not on his mind, however.  Not even remotely.

Second, there’s the implication of reverse racism in describing the progressive view:

It also fits in nicely with the progressive narrative that history is moving irrevocably forward to some ideal – which does not include stodgy white men.

And third, there’s the simple imputation of sheer craven rhetorical objectives to their opponents:

The success of the “war on women” trope should make Republicans realize that they are fighting progressives for whom the idea of truth is an outdated relic of a racist, homophobic, misogynist past to be discarded in favor of tactics that allow them to win elections and sway opinion.

Now, sometimes, the writing in politico magazines isn’t about making arguments.  Sometimes, it’s just about reminding people what’s at stake, motivating them to go out and win, galvanizing the side.  But here’s the thing: dog-cussing your opponents like this makes it very hard to intellectually engage with them afterwards.  It inculcates a habit that Talisse and I have been calling the No Reasonable Opposition perspective on the issues at hand.  And when you don’t see the opposition as reasonable, you don’t work on developing good arguments, and when you don’t work on good arguments, you don’t maintain your best reasons.  And then you become, ironically, just like the folks you were dog-cussing.

To the three straw men here, it’s worthwhile to say the following.  1. The “Republican War on Women” trope was about a series of elections and domestic policy, not about foreign policy.  You focus on what’s different between the two candidates and parties in that argumentative context and about the things they will determine – to talk about the treatment of women around the world is not what that discussion is about.  (One might call this, by extension, a form of red herring.)  2. There’s a difference between having less (unearned) influence and having no influence – if everybody gets a fair shake, there are going to be fewer white guys at the top.  It shouldn’t be hard to see that.  3. As to the cravenness view of one’s opponents, I’ll simply say that if you, yourself, aren’t very good at constructing good arguments, you won’t be very good at detecting them, either.


Civility for jerks

Mallard Fillmore’s got a nice way to capture the civility problem — with a straw man followed by a  tu quoque!


If President Obama charged the Republicans with wanting to kill the elderly and starve the poor, I don’t remember it.  In fact, the only kill the elderly lines I remember were the old ‘death panel’ charges a few years back. (This, then, is more likely a hollow man.) So a hyperbolic line of argument to begin, but doubling down with the fallacies is… well… uncivil?

A few months back Rob Talisse and I took a shot at making the case that civility wasn’t a matter of being nice and calm, but a matter of having well-run argument.  That sometimes requires goodwill, but more importantly civility is a matter of being able to argue appropriately when everyone in the conversation hates everyone else.

Bill Maher’s Ham Jihad

Bill Maher thinks there's too much manufactured outrage in our national discourse. When Bobby De Niro recently made a white people joke at an Obama fundraiser dinner, noted defender of the rights of minority groups Newt Gingrich leapt to our TV screens and demanded an apology from the President himself. It is of course absurd to think that Newt is legitimately outraged by this joke when he has famously argued that "one of the great problems we have in the Republican Party is that we don't encourage you to be nasty."

So, Gingrich's laughable fake outrage on this issue leads Maher to rhetorically conclude, "[w]hen did we get it in our heads that we have the right to never hear anything we don’t like?" When, indeed? Unfortunately, Maher takes this hollow man and proceeds to cast every recent instance of public outrage as an assertion of our right to not hear things we don't like. From the Limbaugh-Fluke uproar, to the Jeremy Lin-ESPN gaffe, Maher casts his net wide and far.

When did we become such whiny cry-babies? With all this thin-skinned outrage tearing our nation apart, Maher advances a solution:

"Let’s have an amnesty — from the left and the right — on every made-up, fake, totally insincere, playacted hurt, insult, slight and affront. Let’s make this Sunday the National Day of No Outrage. One day a year when you will not find some tiny thing someone did or said and pretend you can barely continue functioning until they apologize.

If that doesn’t work, what about this: If you see or hear something you don’t like in the media, just go on with your life. Turn the page or flip the dial or pick up your roll of quarters and leave the booth."

See, all you have to do is plug your ears.

Now, there's something to be said about ignoring things that are worth ignoring. Do we need to jump down Limbaugh's throat every time he has says something offensive? There might not be enough time in one day to do that job and we shouldn't feed the king troll. And politicians like Gingrich will feign outrage whenever it is politically expedient, and that crap gets annoying. But Maher treats all instances of outrage as analagous to the following scenario:

"When the lady at Costco gives you a free sample of its new ham pudding and you don’t like it, you spit it into a napkin and keep shopping. You don’t declare a holy war on ham."

Clearly not. That would be insane. But if an extremely popular and influential pundit makes aggressive misogynistic attacks against a person in an effort to deny what many feel are basic human rights, should we just smh and change the channel, or be fake outraged?

Grown ups

People acquainted with media narratives know that the "adults" and the "grown ups" and the "serious people" are very often the Republicans, especially when we're talking about entitlements.  Democrats and their union friends, we're often told, are childish or immature for wanting something–public benefits such as medicare and social security–at no cost.  Click here for a funny illustration of that sorry meme

We have something along these lines in this Steve Chapman column from the Chicago Tribune.  The "real world," of course, demands cuts and reforms just like the Republicans want:

After House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis., unveiled a plan to overhaul Medicare, Democrats announced that despite its minor flaws, it was a brave and thoughtful attempt to grapple with a serious problem that has been ignored for too long.

Just kidding. They said it was the worst thing they've seen since "Sex and the City 2."

House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi accused Ryan of offering "a path to poverty for America's seniors." Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., said Ryan's proposal would not reform Medicare but "deform it." The White House faulted Ryan for "placing a greater burden on seniors."

The chief outrage, in their minds, is his proposal to restructure Medicare for Americans currently younger than 55 while keeping the old version for older folks. Instead of guaranteeing a certain set of benefits regardless of cost, the government would pay a fixed premium so recipients could choose their own packages.

The other meme is the "brave" or "courageous" meme.  This one, unfortunately, has even been adopted by Democrats.  On the unity of the virtues theory, however, you can't be stupid and courageous, or wrong and courageous. 

Back to the point.  The "reality" meme usually requires that you show that someone else's plan is unrealistic.  You can do that by carefully demonstrating the shortcomings of their views or their presuppositions, or you can do that by misrepresenting them.  The second is faster.  Here's Chapman again:

I have news for people old enough to be thinking about retirement: Your children may love you, but not enough to be taxed into poverty. Ryan's detractors pretend we can go on enjoying the status quo indefinitely. But it's only a matter of time before we hit a fiscal wall, hard.

There are three basic choices. We can keep on just as we have in the past until the program collapses of its own weight. Or we can restrain costs by letting the federal government ration medical care. Some patients would have to wait months or years for procedures now taken for granted — and some wouldn't get them at all. Death panels, anyone?   

"Ryan's detractors" sure seem stupid, don't they?  There's a reason they don't have a name–they don't exist.  They're hollow men.  Whatever you say about the opposition to Ryan, you'll have to admit that they tried to have a discussion about health insurance reform in light of the problems of rising health care costs, an aging population, and, of course, the limitations of the private insurance model.  Whatever you say about them, you cannot say that they embraced the status quo indefinitely. 

One more thing along these lines.  Notice that Chapman considers three options for reforming medicare: (1) do nothing; (2) death panels; (3) Ryan's plan.  That's a false trichotomy.  It's like a false dichotomy, only you add two unworkable choices rather than just one.  Since (1) and (2) are ridiculous, ergo, ipso fatso, (3) is our only realistic option. 

A courageous adult conversation about the realities of health care systems in the industrialized world, however, would consider many other empirically tested options.  Would it be immature to want that?

Iron man

Corresponding to the three versions of the straw man scheme (straw, weak, hollow), one may identify three forms of dialectical distortion going the other way–i.e., that is the "positive" way.  That is to say, one may be guilty of not being critical enough, or of being too nice, or too interested in analyzing good arguments to bother with all of the bad ones.  The last one here, I think, is a typical philosopher problem.  

This idea of being too charitable has come up before.  See here. And here and to some extent here.

Like the classic straw man, this sort of distortion would admit of both fallacious and non fallacious varieties.  The non fallacious varieties one might employ in class (among other places), for the kids sometimes make crappy arguments that could be made better with a little tweaking.  It's the same kind of tweaking one does to make them worse, only the point is to then evaluate the better argument, the argument not given.

One type of fallacious employment, let's call it the iron man, consists in being insufficiently critical to an obviously weak argument (or arguer) when that criticism is right, proper, and necessary.  Here's an example from Jennifer Rubin's "Right Turn Blog" at the Washington Post:

Bachmann’s greatest challenge, should she run for president in 2012, will be to convince a wide cross-section of voters that she isn’t the media’s cartoon figure. But she’ll have to do it without dampening the enthusiasm of her most devoted supporters. However, candidly, the biggest challenge will be for the other candidates, who will have to debate a very smart, articulate and entirely underestimated woman. As one Republican operative told me, “Hey, I wouldn’t want to get on that stage with her.” And that is precisely why a Bachmann candidacy, far from being a “joke” or a “farce,” might be the most interesting thing to happen to the 2012 GOP primary race.

Bachmann has many more obvious challenges, but this alternate reality post happily refutes itself, as it seems to suggest her most ardent supporters will be turned off by her losing the alleged media caricature.  Bachmann may be smart in some sense, but she's nowhere near the serious contender Rubin makes her out to be.  And this doesn't help–it doesn't help Republicans in particular–clarify what the viable options are.  Bachmann, on even Bill O'Reilly's accounting, isn't a serious candidate (or person or thinker).  Why we should waste precious minutes in the 24 hour news cycle is beyond me. 

There a Poe's law corollary here somewhere.



Something had to be done

Richard Cohen, (allegedly) liberal columnist for the Washington Post, writes a column in favor of the Libyan military intervention.  Unfortunately, he's spent enough time around his right-wing counterparts at that paper to believe that making a rhetorical case against his alleged opponents and their alleged views is sufficient for making an affirmative case for his position.

This is oh so tiresome.  To be clear, however, sometimes making a negative case is sufficient, especially when your view is the presumptive one.  For instance, I'm going to continue believing that the Holocaust happened until the denier positively prove that it didn't.  Debunking the denier in this case is sufficient. 

In the case of military intervention, however, especially lately–thinking of Iraq and Afghanistan–the burden of proof is much much higher.  War of this sort has recently proven very costly for little known benefit.  There exist, in other words, very good reasons in the dialectical atmosphere for not going to war.  If, then, you're going to make a case both for military intervention and against all of those good reasons.  It's not enough, in other words, to make a case against a bunch of real or imagined weak views.

Someone ought to tell Richard Cohen this.  He writes:

We heard some of those same sentiments expressed by opponents of U.S. intervention in Libya. I do not liken the situation there to the imminence of the Holocaust, only the startling willingness of good people to mask their cold indifference with appeals to fiscal prudence or something similar. Commentator after commentator, person after person, told me that the United States had no business interfering in Libya — that it needed an exit strategy or permission from Congress, and that if the United States could not intervene everywhere (Newt Gingrich mentioned Zimbabwe, manufacturing a civil war just for the occasion), then we could not intervene anywhere. This, somehow, gets stated as if were a logical principle — do nothing unless you can do everything.

With the possible exclusion of Newt Gingrich, those unnamed people don't count here–even if they were real.  He continues:

Still, a better question is: How much will it cost to save lives? That, after all, is what this operation is all about — the prospect that Moammar Gaddafi was going to settle the score in the most horrific way imaginable. Based on his record and the clear indication that he is crazy, a bloodbath was in prospect. What should the world have done? Nothing? Squeeze Gaddafi with sanctions, seize his Swiss accounts and padlock his son’s London townhouse? None of these measures would have had immediate impact. Sanctions are a slow-working poison. A bullet was needed.

This shocking indifference to the consequences of doing nothing, or doing something so slowly it was effectively nothing, was suddenly in the air — the so-called realist argument. Sadly, the message was coming from the surprisingly cold heart of liberalism. The Nation magazine, the reliable voice of the American left, put it this way: “Given our massive budget deficits and bloated Pentagon spending, never has there been a better time for America to end its role as global policeman in favor of diplomatic and economic multilateralism.” In other words, we gave at the office.

Arguments — good arguments — can be made in opposition to the Libyan intervention. Maybe it will make things worse. Maybe we’ll get bogged down and have to stay for years. Maybe the rebels are the really bad guys.

On the other hand, lives were clearly at stake and something had to be done. The world could not simply shove its hands in its pockets and stand by as some madman had his way with people in his grip — in spirit, a reprise of the Evian conference. The Libyan intervention established a precedent: There is such a thing as the international community and, as inchoate as it may be, it will insist on certain minimum standards even for dictators: Your people are not yours to kill.   

In light of Cohen's support of the Iraq war ("only a fool or possibly a Frenchman. . . "), he really ought to think twice before writing this sort of crap.  The Nation said a lot more than "we gave at the office."  In fact, in the article he cites (or click here), they make another telling point:

Furthermore, as we should have learned from the Iraq War, the use of military force can have all kinds of unintended consequences. We may be going to war to prevent civilian casualties, but even the most prudent use of air power is incapable of doing that. The likelihood of US or coalition forces killing civilians will only increase if Qaddafi’s troops solidify their hold on Tripoli and other cities; urban warfare is notoriously messy. The UN resolution forbids foreign occupation, so what will we do if Qaddafi hangs on and the conflict settles into a grinding civil war, with all its attendant chaos and bloodshed? Mission creep seems to be an inevitable feature of this kind of intervention.

These are at least worthwhile practical considerations–completely ignored by Cohen in his rush to do something.  Cohen here combines all of the worst traits of the overheated pundit–he makes a negative case when he needs an affirmative one, he invents opponents and gives them stupid arguments, and, when confronted with a live argument, he misrepresents its strength.  

And of course, there's the false dichotomy–something's having to be done doesn't entail you've exhausted your non-military options.  Don't people ever learn?

The Thirty

Sometime soon we'll have a post up about the "Hack Thirty" at Salon.com.  We were surprised that some made the list (B-list hacks) and that some didn't (Charles Krauthammer?  Seriously).  For that reason we wondered about the methodology and the meaning, in the end, of the term "hack." 

One person who didn't make the list but should have place in the top 15 at least was Michael Gerson, former Bush  43 Speechwriter and promoter of unprovoked defensive war. 

Luckily, his most recent column reads as a damning indictment of that exclusion.  For the tl;dr crowd (how many of you is that?  would you have made it at least to here?) he argues that Obama demonstrates the failure of "liberalism" and that certain liberals–whom he stupidly mentions by name (not even George Will would do that)–refuse to admit that, resorting instead to "conspiracy theories" (example of a "conspiracy theory": all of my enemies are plotting against me, forming a three-point axis–I know–of EVIL).

He begins:

Following two years of poor economic performance and electoral repudiation, liberalism is casting around for narratives to explain its failure – narratives that don't involve the admission of inadequacies in liberalism itself.

In the first place, for serious, how could anyone claim that the Obama administration's (financial, oil, military, etc.) industry-friendly policies constitute "liberalism"?

Second, one cannot maintain that "liberalism" has failed because the Democrats lost one of the two representative bodies–they still hold the Senate, the Presidency (and the liberal media of course). 

Enough preliminaries.  Our point here is that Gerson attempts to make the Willian hollow man move–"liberalism" is the key word usually, or "progressivism" (hey look it up in today's Post!).  It basically goes like this.  Mention the word "liberalism," and do not mention the words of any particular liberal–you're not dialoguing with them (that's critical)–and set up a hollow man.  Then engage hollow man, showing hollow man argument to be foolish, liberals as a consequence to be lazy, dishonest thinkers, etc. 

That's how you do a hollow man.  But Gerson foolishly names his opponents  He writes:

So Matt Yglesias warns the White House to be prepared for "deliberate economic sabotage" from the GOP – as though Chamber of Commerce SWAT teams, no doubt funded by foreigners, are preparing attacks on the electrical grid. Paul Krugman contends that "Republicans want the economy to stay weak as long as there's a Democrat in the White House." Steve Benen explains, "We're talking about a major political party . . . possibly undermining the strength of the country – on purpose, in public, without apology or shame – for no other reason than to give themselves a campaign advantage in 2012." Benen's posting was titled "None Dare Call it Sabotage."

So what is the proof of this charge? It seems to have something to do with Republicans criticizing quantitative easing by the Federal Reserve. And opposing federal spending. And, according to Benen, creating "massive economic uncertainty by vowing to gut the national health care system."

These guys (Benen and Yglesias) have very popular blogs, appear on TV, etc., and can respond to Gerson's hollow man–which is now, on account of its first instance distortion, has become representational version of the straw man.  Benen has responded at length.  Here is a brief snippet:

What's more, I'm fascinated by the notion that I'm describing a "conspiracy" — a word Gerson uses four times in his column. I made no such argument. There's no need for secret meetings in smoke-filled rooms; there's no reason to imagine a powerful cabal pulling strings behind the scenes. The proposition need not be fanciful at all — a stronger economy would improve President Obama's re-election chances, so Republicans are resisting policies and ideas that would lead to this result.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) wasn't especially cagey about his intentions: "The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president…. Our single biggest political goal is to give [the Republican] nominee for president the maximum opportunity to be successful."

Given this, is it really that extraordinary to wonder if this might include rejecting proposals that would make President Obama look more successful on economic policy — especially given the fact that McConnell's approach to the economy appears to be carefully crafted to do the opposite of what's needed? After Gerson's West Wing colleagues effectively accused Democrats of treason in 2005, is it beyond the pale to have a conversation about Republicans' inexplicable motivations?

Read the whole thing here.  In addition to his dishonest representation of the facts, short memory, and general hackishness, Gerson's mistake is naming opponents who can respond (or whose words can be checked).  George Will almost never does that.  It tends to backfire. 

Someone to agree with me

I wish I had a flattering one-idea explanation for the outcome of Tuesday's election, where Republicans took a majority in the house, and made gains in, but did not take, the Senate (weren't they supposed to do that?).  But I know such an explanation would likely be inadequate.  One idea, I think, couldn't explain the entire complex thing.  Not even the one chosen by most political scientists (i.e., the people who study this stuff as a job)–the economy, the economy, the economy–could do the trick. 

But I'm not George Will.  He has studied the data, consulted with the nation's top political scientists and economists, and come to the conclusion that one idea–the idea he blathers about all of the time–happens to the be just the one that explains the election, the desires of the American people, and the failures of "liberalism":

It is amazing the ingenuity Democrats invest in concocting explanations of voter behavior that erase what voters always care about, and this year more than ever – ideas. This election was a nationwide recoil against Barack Obama's idea of unlimited government.

It's just false that Obama believes in "unlimited government" (or anything remotely close to it).  But perhaps few of George Will's devoted readers would likely believe that.  This notion–which pretty much drives the rest of this sorry piece of thinking–forms the basis of George Will's thinking about government, inasmuch as his thinking, to the extent that you can even call it that, is entirely defined by opposition to a fantasy opponent, one who holds beliefs no one really holds, and one who, tellingly, never utters the words he attributes to them.

So he spends the rest of this piece defining this liberal–citing not one thing a liberal in recent years has actually endorsed–but relying on the authority of someone else's hollow man:

Recently, Newsweek's Jonathan Alter decided, as the president has decided, that what liberals need is not better ideas but better marketing of the ones they have: "It's a sign of how poorly liberals market themselves and their ideas that the word 'liberal' is still in disrepute despite the election of the most genuinely liberal president that the political culture of this country will probably allow."

"Despite"? In 2008, Democrats ran as Not George Bush. In 2010, they ran as Democrats. Hence, inescapably, as liberals, or at least as obedient to liberal leaders. Hence Democrats' difficulties.

Responding to Alter, George Mason University economist Don Boudreaux agreed that interest-group liberalism has indeed been leavened by idea-driven liberalism. Which is the problem.

"These ideas," Boudreaux says, "are almost exclusively about how other people should live their lives. These are ideas about how one group of people (the politically successful) should engineer everyone else's contracts, social relations, diets, habits, and even moral sentiments." Liberalism's ideas are "about replacing an unimaginably large multitude of diverse and competing ideas . . . with a relatively paltry set of 'Big Ideas' that are politically selected, centrally imposed, and enforced by government, not by the natural give, take and compromise of the everyday interactions of millions of people."

To most liberals, Alter hardly counts as a representative (hey, let's torture now!).  And besides, Will obviously distorts what Alter meant.  Alter probably meant something like: how can mildly progressive ideas about health care lose to people (just an example) who fear government taking away their medicare (but hey, go read it for yourself–it's a review of a zillion books about liberals).  That point, I think, deserves fairer consideration.

The funny thing about this passage, however, is the bolded part.  Will's assistant found someone else who shares the same hollow man he does in precisely the same way he does: a grand characterization, attributable to no one, full of ad hominem and invective.  And he cites that as evidence for his view.