If only my friend Euthyphro were here

I wandered into this contribution on the Huffington Post.  It argues, in a comically bad fashion, that health care is not a "right."  It also argues that the government is bad.  In any case, you know your critical faculties will not be too challenged when you read:

Historically, the huge rise in health care costs began in the 1960s, when Medicare and other programs threw billions of dollars into the industry. Fiscally, Medicare is approaching monumental insolvency, with liabilities in the range of twenty-trillion dollars. To create another bureaucratic labyrinth now — which advocates are proud to say will cost only a trillion dollars over ten years — all but guarantees higher prices, and a greater crisis in the next decade.

Will the advocates of a "bureaucratic labyrinth," different from the bureaucratic labyrinth of the cable TV company or your own private health insurer, please raise their hands.  So no one does.  The fact that this guy had to weasel that one in there gives you the measure of the rest of the piece.

The major problem is yet to come:

The reason is that advocates of government medicine are upholding health care as a moral right. The moral goal of a "right" to health care is blinding people to the cause and effect relationship between government actions and rising prices.

But the very idea that health care — or any good provided by others — is a "right" is a contradiction. The rights enshrined in the Declaration of Independence were to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Each of these is a right to act, not a right to things. "To secure these rights governments are instituted," which means to secure the rights of each person to exercise his or her liberty in pursuit of his or her own happiness.

I would say in the first place that there is no evidence that the causal assertion here has any purchase on reality. 

Second, as the asinine invocation of the Declaration of Independence makes clear, the author of this piece doesn't care for a serious discussion of rights.  He's content to assert that the rights enshrined in that particular document are exhaustive.  I think that kind of begs the question.  It assumes, in other words, what is in need of proof.  But I also think his conception of what other people mean by rights suffers from a kind of equivocation.  Maybe they don't mean "rights" in the same way he does.  If they mean something else, which they most certainly do, then he's guilty of an equivocation.  

Does this mean that health care is a right?  No of course not.  Does it mean that it is not, not on this argument.  We deserve a better discussion about health care than the one we are currently getting.  This goes for everyone, of course, but in particular it goes for the opposition.

You’re just saying that because it’s true

One day someone with more time than me will write about the various forms of meta debate.  By "meta debate" I mean, of course, discussions about the various forms and rules of "debate" (a word I don't like so much) or "discussion." Here's an example of a particularly pernicious form of meta debating (courtesy of Sadly,No!):

Pointing out that both sides engage in the same tactics, and that, in this case, one set of tactics seems to be unrelated to a substantive policy outcome neither presuppose the truth of one side of the debate nor does it presuppose that one side of the debate isn't actually, ultimately, right.  In the same way, it is illogical to assume that because one side distorts the debate far more than the other side, the debate itself ought to turn out in any prescribed way.  When I write things like this, it drives some partisans absolutely crazy. They don't like where the I'm drawing the "truth" line, and instead of reading the judgments that I've made — the Right is appealing to anger and fear and is distorting the debate more — they focus on the link that I won't then make — the link that I have no expertise to make — the link that, if I were to make it, I would be guilty of an offense against democracy — the link between what IS and what OUGHT to be. 

This is not actually that bad of a disclaimer (save for the confused "is-ought" business at the end.  Nonetheless, where this fellow's observations fall on rocky soil (I just heard that phrase the other day) is earlier in the piece.  He writes:

The field of cognitive neuroscience has all but given up trying to distinguish between emotion and reason, but political debate evidently lags far behind the science. Some observers of health care politics, particularly on the left, tend to accuse their opponents of trying to trigger emotional panic points rather than argue dispassionately about the facts. The implication is that the Right doesn't have any facts, so it looks to exploit voters' fears. There is something to be said for this argument, but it's not what proponents would have you believe. In policy debates where the target voter claims an independent identity, the side that's proposing something usually has a set of normative facts, and the side that's against something always appeals to that which most powerfully undercuts a fact. Democrats and Republicans both use emotion, but they use it differently, and use it to achieve different goals. 
The pro-reform side is appealing to emotion, too — albeit a wholly different emotion — the self-satisfaction one feels when one believes one has rationally deliberated something and meaningfully contributed to an important public debate.  This is called a solidary incentive. It's a powerful — and often completely ignored — sentiment, one that the Obama presidential campaign found, capitalized on, and won the election by exploiting.

As an empirical matter, I think this observation is just plain false.  Both "sides" (there are more than two for Pete's sake), appeal to facts.  The screaming Mimis at the town hall meetings (who are largely opposition types) come harmed with "facts" that have produced "emotions" although emotions of a decisively negative kind (relative to the things being proposed).  Let me put that another way: given the facts as they know them, they really hate the proposals.  The degree of their hatred of the proposals does not (for a careful observer) accentuate or diminish the basic factual assertions some of them seem to make.  In other words, they're not wronger or righter because they're screaming.  Maybe they're just jerks for that.  But that's a different question.

The real idiocy here of course consists in the claim that the side whose appeal is primarily factual (in the silly description offered here) is also appealing to emotion–the satisfaction one gets from doing the right thing.  I mean, again, for Pete's sake.  This is the lowest form of ad hominem argument: attacking someone because they're eager to have the correct position.  There's no defense against this.

I don't mean to allege that the screaming Mimi opposition doesn't have the right answer.  I think they think they do.  This author's analysis here is too shallow and too facile to bother with such weighty questions.  Instead, we are treated to the silliest form of meta debate analysis.  Everybody poops.

Slippery herring

I may have used this title (we are, after all, heading into year six on August 23rd), so I reserve the right to change it.  Today I think it would be worth it to think about the slippery slope fallacy.  Inspired by this post by John Holbo at the always worth reading (save for the occasional comment trolls) Crooked Timber.  Here in any case is a representative paragraph:

Hypocrisy is the tribute that vice pays to virtue. And slippery slope arguments, arguments from unintended consequences and the paranoid style generally are the tribute conservatism pays to the deep appeal of progressive and liberal values. They are all attempts to outflank all that without engaging it. These are methods for getting off the hook of saying there’s something wrong with what liberals/progressives want. You pretend your opponent isn’t really a liberal/progressive but some secret radical. That’s method one. You pretend the results of liberal/progressive policies wouldn’t be truly liberal/progressive (because we would slip past all that or otherwise end up elsewhere than intended.) That’s method two. That’s pretty much it.

My informal sense (driven by an examination of the categories here on the left of this page) is that the real favorite of conservative types (at least the ones explicitly covered here) is that they prefer the straw man.  The straw man is a fallacy of relevance, a subject-changer in other words: don't attack the opponent's strong argument, go for the weak one (and then claim to have beaten the strong one).  Well that's one form of it, at least.  

But this seems to me to be what Holbo has in mind above anyway.  And I think he's certainly not wrong to notice the relevance issues brought about by slippery slopes.  It's important, to me at least, to keep the two questions distinct–though they may overlap in the mind of the fallacy employer.

In the first place, I think the slippery slope is a variety of causal fallacy–it alleges causal series where none will likely be the case.  So, if we do x (have national health care), in a few disastrous steps we'll be euthanizing the elderly.  Not bloody likely, as someone might say.

In a secondary way, however, such specious causal chains make us argue against the crazy thing–systematic government euthanasia programs–rather than the actual thing (some kind of moderate national health insurance system).  

This–the fact that you have two distinct logical issues–makes the fallacy hard to answer.  You have to answer each part separately, but, unfortunately, by then everyone has lost interest (if they had any to begin with).

Easy moralism

Two quick things about this op-ed by Ross Douthat. First, he has an extremely shallow view of liberalism's moral theory:

Don’t laugh. No contemporary figure has done more than Apatow, the 41-year-old auteur of gross-out comedies, to rebrand social conservatism for a younger generation that associates it primarily with priggishness and puritanism. No recent movie has made the case for abortion look as self-evidently awful as “Knocked Up,” Apatow’s 2007 keep-the-baby farce. No movie has made saving — and saving, and saving — your virginity seem as enviable as “The 40-Year Old Virgin,” whose closing segue into connubial bliss played like an infomercial for True Love Waits

I know, liberalism doesn't have a specific moral theory.  But it does involve moral stuff, etc.  Douthat seems to think it's all about hooking up.  Really.  Now having said that, he also doesn't get the joke he just set up:

Both “Knocked Up” and “The 40-Year-Old Virgin” were designed to hit this worldview’s sweet spot. There were threads of darkness in both stories, but for the most part they made their moralism look appealing by making it look relatively easy.

Still a virgin in middle age? Not to worry — you’ll find a caring, foxy woman who’s been waiting her whole life for an awkward, idealistic guy like you. Pregnant from a drunken one-night stand? Good news — the oaf who knocked you up will turn out to be a decent guy, and you’ll be able to keep the baby and your career as a rising entertainment-news anchorwoman. Frittering away your life on porn and pot? Fear not — your wasted twenties won’t stop you from being a great dad.

Seems like that's part of the joke, I mean, the easy moralism–it's fun and funny to watch the stoner try to be a dad, but seriously folks, that's the joke (sorry stoners–no offense).

Would I lie to you?

In the department of distinctions, today we have the following (via Steve Benen):

There are a lot of angry nuts on my side of the aisle [the right].  They simply can’t believe that Barack Obama somehow got elected president and they feel powerless right now.

But here’s the thing:  There’s plenty of crazy to go around.  Remember Bush Derangement Syndrome?  The 9/11 conspiracy theorists who thought Bush and Cheney were in on the whole thing?  The Diebold plot to steal the 2004 election?  Should we judge the Left by the whackos that show up at the anti-trade rallies?  PETA?  Greenpeace?  Of course not.  Almost by definition, the people motivated and available enough to show up in the middle of the day to express their outrage about something are not like you and me.

"Bush Derangement Syndrome" was shorthand (invented by Charles Krauthammer, of all people) for the (fallacious) ad hominem tactic Bush supporters used to malign critics of all things Bush.  So, saying, "Remember Bush Derangement Syndrome" as evidence of the wrongness of your opponent is like saying, "Don't you remember how I used to lie about you, didn't that show you were wrong?"


Arthur Laugher

One reason it's very difficult to have a meaningful discussion about health care reform is that people do not seem to have a basic grasp of certain facts.  Enter economist Arthur Laffer, someone who ought to know better:

"If you like the Post Office and the Department of Motor Vehicles and you think they're run well, just wait till you see Medicare, Medicaid and health care done by the government."

The government already runs those things–and people like them.  In any case, maybe I don't always get my copy of Good Housekeeping on time every week, but for very little cost (and I think I'm ripping this off from Jon Stewart) someone delivers it to my front door.  Besides that, the DMV seems to work fine as well.  For me, the most difficult consumer experience of any kind I've ever had is with the cable company–and that was when I was trying to have cable installed.

via Steve Benen.

Slippery McCoy

The very idea of hate crimes laws drives some people deeply into the forest of confusion, where they forget that speech and belief is punished all of the time, and that doing so is not some kind of violation of one's constitutional rights.  One's constitutional rights have some common sense limits: I cannot shout "fire" in a crowded theater, I cannot say (as someone once said to me–seriously) "I'm going to put a cap in your ass."  Unable to countenance such distinctions, Richard Cohen, some kind of liberal columnist for the Washington Post, writes an extremely confused op-ed wherein he rejects the entire idea of hate crimes legislation.  The whole piece hinges on the following snippet in the Senate discussion of hate crimes laws:

 "A prominent characteristic of a violent crime motivated by bias is that it devastates not just the actual victim . . . but frequently savages the community sharing the traits that caused the victim to be selected."

Let's do some googling before we read Cohen.  And when we do, we find that the passage he cites is not the definition of a hate crime, but rather a "finding."  Here is the definition:

the term “hate crime” has the meaning given such term in section 280003(a) of the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 (28 U.S.C. 994 note).

Ok, so now more googling:

(a) DEFINITION- In this section, `hate crime' means a crime in which the defendant intentionally selects a victim, or in the case of a property crime, the property that is the object of the crime, because of the actual or perceived race, color, religion, national origin, ethnicity, gender, disability, or sexual orientation of any person.

Cohen ignores that–but refers instead to the "findings" of the new 2009 bill, and attacks that as if it were the very definition and sole motivation for their being hate crimes legislation.  That makes the rest of the argument a hollow man–in that he attacks an argument no actually makes.  He writes,

He [James von Brunn] also proves the stupidity of hate-crime laws. A prime justification for such laws is that some crimes really affect a class of people. The hate-crimes bill recently passed by the Senate puts it this way: "A prominent characteristic of a violent crime motivated by bias is that it devastates not just the actual victim . . . but frequently savages the community sharing the traits that caused the victim to be selected." No doubt. But how is this crime different from most other crimes? 

How is "pre-meditated murder" different from "unpremeditated murder"?  How is killing a police officer in the line of duty different from killing a rival mafioso?  Why is it especially heinous to commit offenses against children and the elderly?  Not all murders are the same, sometimes they have special conditions (premeditation), sometimes they have special victims (police, children, politicians).  None of this is unusual or strange.  

Cohen's argument stinks in other ways.  He alleges a slippery slope without attempting to establish it.

The real purpose of hate-crime laws is to reassure politically significant groups — blacks, Hispanics, Jews, gays, etc. — that someone cares about them and takes their fears seriously. That's nice. It does not change the fact, though, that what's being punished is thought or speech. Johns is dead no matter what von Brunn believes. The penalty for murder is severe, so it's not as if the crime is not being punished. The added "late hit" of a hate crime is without any real consequence, except as a precedent for the punishment of belief or speech. Slippery slopes are supposedly all around us, I know, but this one is the real McCoy. 

Criminal acts of speech, thought, expression (and even religion) get punished all of the time.  It's not that hard to draw relevant distinctions (there will certainly be hard cases, but that's what the judiciary is for).

This op-ed is too full of confusion for one post, so I'll stop with the following:

I doubt that any group of drunken toughs is going to hesitate in their pummeling of a gay individual or an African American or a Jew on account of it being a hate crime.

Um–I really doubt this, but it also seems irrelevant.