Water is free

New insights on capitalism from Charles Krauthammer:

There's no better path to success than getting people to buy a free commodity. Like the genius who figured out how to get people to pay for water: bottle it (Aquafina was revealed to be nothing more than reprocessed tap water) and charge more than they pay for gasoline. Or consider how Google found a way to sell dictionary nouns— boat, shoe, clock — by charging advertisers zillions to be listed whenever the word is searched.

None of those things are actually free commodities.  Water of any kind costs money to purify, bottle, and distribute; advertising placement on the internets is a highly desirable product that the Google is able to secure.  They're not selling the noun qua noun–if you want the noun, look it up in the dictionary. Everyone has seen those TV commercials anyway–this schtick is not original.  But where might Charles be going with this?

And now, in the most amazing trick of all, a silver-tongued freshman senator has found a way to sell hope. To get it, you need only give him your vote. Barack Obama is getting millions.

Millions of votes, he should say.  So Krauthammer starts with something you can sell and buy, says its free, and now moves to something that's free, and says you can buy it.     

This kind of sale is hardly new. Organized religion has been offering a similar commodity — salvation — for millennia. Which is why the Obama campaign has the feel of a religious revival with, as writer James Wolcott observed, a "salvational fervor" and "idealistic zeal divorced from any particular policy or cause and chariot-driven by pure euphoria."

Now I see.  You heard it here–and in many other more insightful, original, and accurate sites than this one–we have a new political meme: Obama is some kind of cultish snake oil salesman.  That's convenient in that it provides Krauthammer and everyone else with  ready-made explanation for Obama's success: it's a cult.

The weird thing about this particular ad hominem is that it grants that someone is success, nay a remarkable success, at what he does, but then they turn that success against him–claiming the only explanation is deceit.  No one can be that successful unless they have generated a kind of cultish following. 

I think this particular fallacy may deserve its own name.  Any suggestions?  


7 thoughts on “Water is free”

  1. Only those with access to the forms can sell nouns qua noun. Maybe Google and Krauthammer are Platonists.

    Not sure on a new fallacy name for you. Wouldn’t it be a subtype of ad hominem circumstantial? But I hear publishing specious distinctions of new fallacies is in vogue. Maybe Talisse and Aiken have an idea on a name.

    (PS, that was supposed to be more funny and less spiteful–but I haven’t eaten breakfast yet, and spiteful sarcasm is the only emotion I seem to do before breakfast).

  2. How about _pro hominem ergo ad hominem_? Too clunky?

    Then, how about the “too good to be true” variation of the ad hominem abusive?

    Or…the “fool’s gold” fallacy?

    Also, there’s something weird about Krauthammer’s use of “millions” here. It’s got the faint hint of an equivocation, but there are some lingering notes of amphiboly here, or at least he setting up an instance of amphiboly , but he never draws the fallacious conclusion from it. Still, votes are not profits and he’s moving too easily from speaking about selling things to gaining supporters. The bullshit flag has been posted.

  3. ad fortunam?
    I’ll steal your wording:
    Attacking the person’s success rather than the argument or position the person is supporting.

  4. Dagon,

    I think it’s just a bit more subtle than that; it’s not that Obama’s success is being attacked rather than his positions, it’s that his success is being touted as the very reason for attacking his positions as idealistic and naive.

  5. Dagon I really like your suggestion–argumentum ad fortunam. I think it works well alongside Mayo’s analysis of the problem: so perhaps provisionally:

    the argumentum ad fortunam consists in rejecting someone’s position as naive or idealistic precisely because it has been successful, because only naive or idealistic positions will be successful.

    This has strong resonances with the appeal to snobbery, but it doesn’t involve an explicit appeal to a select group.

  6. That sounds better. I think Mayo is right that the term doesn’t fully reflect the reasoning behind the attack, but I think your definition makes it clear.

    So are there really academics who publish new fallacies?!

  7. _This has strong resonances with the appeal to snobbery,_

    I think it’s also a bit like _petitio principii_, or at least it seems so given your definition. I say this because the key premise, namely that “only naive or idealistic positions will be successful,” is never argued for, but tacitly assumed, in Krauthammer’s column.

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