Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Argumentum ad misericordiam: or, the Democratic National Convention '08


Ah, convention time is here again! Unfortunately, this means the Olympic games are now over and now the two parties of our long dysfunctional Third Party System (the First is sort of a misnomer to describe the battles of the Federalists and Republicans from 1789-1817; the Second refers to the Democrats and Whigs, 1828-1852; the Third, of course, began in 1856 when the Republican party ran it's first Presidential candidate, John C. Fremont) are taking their own crack at political propaganda. Without the power of the state to repress opposition and criticism, unlike the authoritarian hosts of this year's Olympic games, the American parties must rely on appeals to reason, or, short of that apparently Herculean effort, fallacious arguments. This has been true for some time, and both parties deal in fallacies as a matter of course. The same fallacies often, but both parties deal in some fallacies more than others. Next week, when Republicans gather in Minnesota to nominate Arizona Senator John McCain, I will focus on their fallacy of choice (you will have to wait till then to figure out what that is if you cannot already guess). But this week is the turn of the Democrats and so I will focus on their favorite fallacy, the argumentum ad misericordiam, or the appeal to pity.

This is a classic political fallacy. For those unfamiliar with the world of formal logical fallacies, the argumentum ad misericordiam is typified by an appeal to some sort of sad anecdotal story in order to then plead for an action/conclusion of some kind. For example, Al Gore was/is famous for pointing to an old person he had met whose medical and prescription drug bills amounted to more than he could afford, and thus the government should do "something" to bring down costs or to nationalize the insurance system, etc. It is a fallacy because instead of establishing the actual issues involved in such a policy decision, i.e. what is and is not a right, why, what is the proper role of government, etc., it simply tells an emotional story. An emotional story which is likely to make people feel sad or sympathetic and thus skip over all the actual issues such a decision should and does require (i.e. the actual premises of the argument) to justify the conclusion. The hallmark of a fallacy is that it takes a shortcut from the question to the answer without the necessary steps to prove it. In this case, the person using the fallacy wishes for those listening or reading to suspend their thinking and to base their judgment on their sympathetic feelings.

After just two days of their convention, the fallacy has already been used ad nauseum. While the examples could be listed endlessly and will no doubt pile up even higher as the convention crescendos tomorrow and Friday with the formal nominations of Senators Biden and Obama, I wish to focus on two of the principle speeches from the first two days. Namely, those of Senate candidate Mark Warner of Virginia and Senator Hillary Clinton of New York, and their repeated uses of this fallacy. These speeches could be critiqued for any number of reasons, for instance Mark Warner begging the question(s) when he said: "Look at health care. If we bring down costs and cover everyone, not only will America be healthier, we'll be more competitive in the global economy." How will "we" bring down costs? Why are costs high or increasing? How will the country be healthier if costs go down when it's already among the healthiest societies the world has ever known? How will this make the country more competitive? Competitive at what? Why is this a legitimate concern of the government? The list goes on and nowhere in the speech does Mr. Warner even recognize that such questions exist and require answering. Then there is Senator Clinton, who uses the ad misericordiam fallacy like it's going out of style, when she absurdly invoked Harriet Tubman's advice to runaway slaves as a parallel to present day America and for imploring people to vote for Senator Obama. There were numerous faults one could criticize (as there will no doubt be next week), but as this fallacy will come to dominate Senator Obama's message even more than it already does, there is value in exposing it fully and specifically.

The questions Mr. Warner was interested in asking and attempting to answer were embedded with appeals to sympathy and ignored the more important and fundamental questions. He said: "How many kids have the grades to go to college but not the money? [Ironically, he provides no answer to this, nor does he make an attempt to figure out why college tuition keeps going up, i.e. the increasing amounts of government money being pumped into the system, which is, ironically enough, his probable policy solution] How many families thought their home would always be their safest investment? [I don't know, but what does it matter? Mr. Warner makes a good point, real estate is an investment, it may be a relatively safe one, but it's an investment all the same. Who is not aware that investments sometimes go bust?] How many of our soldiers come back from their second or third tour of duty wondering if the education and health care benefits they were promised will actually be there? [What is he talking about exactly? Presumably this is a reference to the problems at Walter-Reed Army Medical Center, but he doesn't say exactly. As far as ad misericordiam fallacies go, he doesn't even provide a specific instance where something like this has occurred. Given that he fails to do that, it's no surprise that he forgets to address the question of what a republican government's exact obligations are to the veterans of its armed forces.]" The more important and fundamental question? Why should the government be concerned with these things and thus be doing "something" about them? Answering this is crucial for then discussing what actions are warranted, if any. Why does he not ask or answer these critical questions? If he could answer them persuasively, without the use of fallacious reasoning, it would go a long way to bolstering his policy solutions. It's curious he fails to do so. It's curious he fails to even attempt to do so.

Mr. Warner fails because he assumes, wrongly, that the answer is self-evident and agreed upon. He says so quite frankly: "I think we are blessed to be Americans. But with that blessing comes an obligation to our neighbors and to our common good. So you give every child the tools they need to succeed. That means quality schools, access to health care, safe neighborhoods. Not just because it's the right thing to do -- of course it is -- but because if those kids do better, we all do better." (emphasis added) Blessed to be Americans? What does that mean? It wasn't an accident that our country is where it is materially and is what it is politically. There was no divine favor or fortune involved, just concerted human action motivated by human ideas. Where does this obligation to others come from? Given the religious overtones of the word "blessed" one can only assume that it is the ethos of altruism flowing from the Judeo-Christian-Islamic ethical tradition. Where do the rights of these children come from? Why do they have a right to these "tools" of quality schools, health care, and safe neighborhoods? He may be correct. Indeed, if by "safe neighborhoods" he means police and the adherence to and prosecution of the laws he certainly is correct. While that goal is merely the government fulfilling its role and protecting its legal monopoly on violence, the other alleged rights are the products of other private citizens taken from one group (educators and doctors) and given to others, in this case children (children, next to the elderly, are a favorite of those who employ the ad misericordiam fallacy). While that distinction seems obvious, Mr. Warner passes over it and merely asserts that it's the right thing to do, case closed. This hardly constitutes an actual argument.

Mr. Warner was not yet finished tugging at heartstrings, he continued by focusing in on a particularly ridiculous, but nonetheless effective, "problem." Mr. Warner said:

"Let me tell you about a place called Lebanon: Lebanon, Virginia. Lebanon is in the coal fields of southwest Virginia. The population of that whole town could fit right here on the convention floor. Lebanon is like many small towns in America: It has seen the industries that sustained it downsized, outsourced or shut down.

Now, some folks look at towns like Lebanon and say, "tough luck. In the global economy, you've lost." But we believed that we couldn't and shouldn't give up on our small towns and expect the rest of the state to prosper. And that's what brought me, toward the end of my term, to the high school gym in Lebanon. To announce that we were going to bring over 300 high-tech jobs. Jobs that paid twice the county average.

One student told a reporter from the Washington Post that before this, he always thought he'd have to move away to raise a family and get a good job. I just heard from this young man, Michael Kisor. Today, he is a junior at Virginia Tech. His older brother just moved back home to Lebanon because there was an information technology job open for him that was just too good to pass up.

That's a story worth rewriting all across America."

Why is it a story worth rewriting? Since when is moving for work something to be disdained and discouraged? The story of America has always been the incredible freedom of movement for opportunities elsewhere from our earliest colonial days to the present. Mr. Warner lauded his own business failures earlier in the speech: "After I graduated law school, it didn't take long to realize that America really wouldn't miss me as a lawyer. So I started a business. My first company failed in six weeks. My next one was much more successful. It failed in six months. And then, a buddy of mine told me that there was this new idea. This thing called "car telephones" ... "cell phones." Friends told me, "Warner, you're crazy. Get a real job. ... No one's going to want a phone in the car." But I saw a different future. And with luck and a lot of hard work, I got in on the ground floor of the cell phone industry." Given his own failures and subsequent success, why disdain failure and (SHOCK!) change in the economy? Failure and change are what frees up resources to do something more productive and more valuable. His story actually illustrates this concept. If Mark Warner had remained a lawyer, he'd have been wasting his aptitudes and abilities, he says so himself quite openly. It was Mark Warner's failures and calculated risks to employ himself in the economy where he could be most successful that led to his eventual success. You'd think he'd be for breaking down whatever barriers exist within the economy so that his story becomes even more common than it already is, but, curiously, he does not. If Lebanon's economy fails then the young people will seek opportunity elsewhere, probably in one of the south's burgeoning cities. One of the great lasting legacies of slavery and the Civil War for the South has been it's economic backwardness and provincialism. Mr. Warner's solution is to try to "bring" jobs to small towns and keep people in them, but what kind of solution is that? It's certainly not a solution derived from his own life. If a person loves small town life so much, why is it the responsibility of government to try to make sure there is a job, let alone a good one, to allow them to stay in a small town? What about people in big towns and cities who want to live in small towns? What about people in small towns who don't like small towns and would rather live in cities? What about people who wish they made more money or were happier at work or would rather not work but still have money, clothes, a house, etc.? Is it the purpose of government to fulfill every random whim of any random citizen? Mr. Warner is either oblivious or duplicitous, and just as wrong either way.

[Note: Before moving to Senator Clinton, I briefly wish to take issue with Mr. Warner's historical contention that Thomas Jefferson was "the founder of our party." As a former governor of Virginia, this is inexcusable. While it is obviously tempting to wrap oneself in Jefferson, there is no good historical reason for the Democratic Party, let alone it's modern version, to do so. Jefferson's party, often referred to at the time as the Republican party, was a temporary organization whose only purpose was to defeat the Federalist party. Once that was done, the victorious Republicans ruled briefly with no or laughably minor opposition before splitting into new competing parties. One of those parties took the name of the Democracy, and was based around Andrew Jackson, a man who invoked Jefferson's policies and memory, though ironically Jefferson disliked the man from Tennessee. Henry Clay, who led the other (Whig) party, also claimed Jefferson's mantle and could do so credibly since he had been a loyal Jeffersonian Republican. Obviously the Democratic party survives to this day, but it does not advance the political ideas of Jackson (or Jefferson) anymore. The ideological founders of the modern party are William Jennings Bryan and Woodrow Wilson, not Jefferson and Jackson.]

Senator Clinton is a past master in the ad misericordiam fallacy, she wields it with ease and, unlike Mr. Warner, with great (though not too great, too many details can often spoil the effectiveness of the anecdote) specificity. Her first use of it was a real classic, right up there with anything Al Gore ever dug up: "I will always remember the single mom who had adopted two kids with autism. She didn't have health insurance and discovered she had cancer. But she greeted me with her bald head painted with my name on it and asked me to fight for health care for her and her children." Good god, what else might have happened to this poor woman to make her story sad? Perhaps if she had burst into flames upon meeting candidate Clinton it would make her story even more effective, but only slightly given how pathetic a story it already is. Of course, this woman is supposed to be more sympathetic because of her altruism, as she apparently purposely adopted not one autistic child, but two! Why she would do so is a bit of a puzzler, but ok, to each his own. But how foolish is she to adopt two children with developmental disorders while apparently having no health insurance? The fact that she then came down with cancer (and apparently is getting treatment without insurance, hmmmm........) only highlights how little thought she put into her actions. But, Senator Clinton tells us, we must provide her with health insurance. Not, as is often alleged, to get her treatment since her baldness tells us she is already being treated unless she randomly decided to shave her head, but to pay for that treatment. Why? No answer. Obviously, if the story did not move you to suspend your reason and accept the conclusion without question then you're obviously a bad person.

She then followed up with an equally dubious repetition of the fallacy: "I will always remember the young boy who told me his mom worked for the minimum wage and that her employer had cut her hours. He said he just didn't know what his family was going to do." Since these stories are from her recent run for the Democratic presidential nomination, one can only assume that this boy's mother is working under the new Democratically sponsored increased minimum wage. The Democrats increased the minimum wage in the midst of a faltering and weak economy. (Ironically, Senator Obama is now advocating a further increase of the minimum wage as part of his economic plan) Any honest economist will, at least, concede that minimum wage laws are price floors for the price of labor. As is the case with price floors in other markets, minimum wages will decrease the number of jobs and/or the number of hours offered by employers who hire unskilled labor. This is just another reason that people should try not to work in minimum wage jobs as careers, let alone decide to have families when in such positions. No one concerned with unemployment or decreased hours should ever advocate minimum wages, let alone increases in them.

Even more perversely (though unsurprisingly), Senator Clinton advocated more unionization. Unions are notorious for restricting the supply of skilled labor and forcing the price of their competitors, unskilled labor, up to make it a less attractive alternative in the face of violent, disruptive, and destructive union strikes. So her attempts to appeal to pity continually falter badly and become useless under the assault of even basic thought, but then again, they're not designed to promote thought. Instead, they are meant to short-circuit thought, and all too often they do precisely that. In grand fashion she finished it a pitiful fury, telling her listeners that "the future of our children hangs in the balance," and to "think about your children and grandchildren come Election Day." Presumably those without children should think about their potential children or other people's children and grandchildren. And since we're all seemingly responsible for everybody else, other people's children and grandchildren may as well be everyone else's.

This form of collectivism is alarming and it goes unacknowledged by its advocates (and "opponents" in that other political party) who will not deal in their ideas honestly and fully with voters. Why? is a curious question, but one which I do not care to speculate on at the moment. Americans deserve an honest debate in actual ideas and not unreasoned sob stories. Tearjerkers that are all too often about people who don't actually deserve our sympathy. But, more importantly, even if the situation is genuinely worthy of pity, these stories are inconsequential towards justifying the proffered conclusions. Ironically, Democrats are advocating government intervention for problems and calamities caused by government intervention. Contrary to the rhetoric of Democrats and Republicans, the American economy is hardly free and open, it is a mixed system of governmental interference and command elements with a previously much freer market. Whether it is health care, education, the broader economy, or anything else in the litany of calamities that is being bewailed, the culprit is almost always the previous round of government solutions to previous government-created disasters. And on and on it goes led by the good-natured, but unreasoned, sympathies of the American people.

2 comments:

N8 said...

I disagree with some of your methodology here -- the important question regarding health care is not whether the United States is among the "healthiest the world has every known" -- since that includes thousands of years with many civilizations that had no effective medicine, and little understanding of human physiology.

A better questions is how healthy is the U.S. in comparison to our peers -- the answer is not very. We also pay more to be less healthy. Therefore the best question is trying to figure out why we pay so much, and get less in return.

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