Saturday, December 13, 2008

The Demonization-Strawman Fallacy

The worst feature of partisan politics is a form of strawman argument encouraged by demonization. Its general form is as follows: our opponents wish to impose their policies upon us for nefarious ends. Their primary motivation is greed, treachery, moral turpitude, sloth, or a simple desire for power. Because of these motivations (which are quite obviously evil) our opponents must be stopped at all costs.

There are several components to this fallacy. The root is demonization, the opinion that the opposition is evil. This is a fallacy in and of itself without solid proof of deliberate malfeasance (unambiguous criminal action.) But it also rests upon a broad claim of priveleged insight into the psychology of the enemy; the claimant is in fact asserting a telepathic mastery over the inner life of his opponent. Yet no one may claim such a mastery, so this too is false. So far, we have two fallacies: the claim of evil intent without proof, and the psychologistic claim of telepathic omniscience; in large part the detritus of a hundred years of Freudian nonsense.

The result of these fallacies is a third fallacy of the strawman form; those arguing for a position state the contrary position in its weakest form, which bears little or no resemblance to their opponents' actual arguments. The effect of this fallacy depends on the current beliefs of the viewer. Those already amongst the converted feel vindicated, and now believe that their opponents are not only wrong, but evil, which means that they cannot be bargained with, only crushed. This attitude encourages vitriol and violence. Opponents, on the other hand, will be affronted by the stupidity of the pundit, who appears to be incapable of grasping even the simplest of arguments. They will consider their opponents to be fools at best, bald faced liars at worst--and if they are the latter, then it is they who are evil. Such a split is almost impossible to heal, because both sides now think the worst of the other.

To see this in action, consider two examples, one from the right, and the other from the left. Supporters of the Iraq war on the right argued that those opposed to the war were soft on terrorism, traitors, and collaborators with enemies of the West. A few of these opponents did fit this description, and there was no shortage of Islamicists willing to jump on this bandwagon in order to generate sympathy for their cause. But many regarded Iraq as a distraction from the real problem which would make it worse, and were wary of the very opportunities it presented for Jihadist propaganda. Iraq diverted resources and attention from Afghanistan, where there was no doubt of a terrorist presence, and while there was little question that America could win the war in Iraq, no effort had been paid to winning the peace. Iraq might still end up as an extremist theocracy, the sister state of Iran. Hardly a word of this ever reached the ears of viewers of Fox news.

The other example is Naomi Klein's The Shock Doctrine. The thesis of this book is that free market fundamentalists, followers of Milton Friedman, exploited or even created disasters to impose their own economic doctrine upon helpless peoples. Never does it seem to occur to Klein that Friedman and his associates earnestly believed that these policies were the best chance for these people to recover, and that they believed they were doing them a genuine kindness. Nor was this belief without merit; globalization has indeed enhanced the average standard of living throughout the world, discouraged war, and enriched, overall, even the poorest. It simply never occurred to Friedman and company that their economic ideology might have some serious limitations. Klein does not address these limitations (other economists were left to do that work): Friedman's theories are based upon the mythical Homo Economicus, a human being who is all wise and all knowing. But Homo Economicus does not exist. Homo Sapiens, on the other hand, employ heuristic modes of reasoning which are prone to systematic errors, often leading us to make decisions which are irresponsible and very much against our own best interests, creating bubbles and busts and leading to irrational expenditures and debts and all manner of self-destructive behaviours. We don't even know how to prevent much of this, but neither does the free market. Friedman et al simply did not consider what might happen if their theory was wrong. They really did believe it, and believing it, thought that what they were doing was the right thing. There was no nefarious intent on the part of Friedman and the Chicago school.

Nor did the fiscal libertarians ever equate what they proposed with any form of totalitarian rule. How could they, when the whole point was to provide individuals with "The Freedom to Choose." Never did it occur to them that by sweeping aside large swaths of rules and regulations created over generations by democratically elected governments, they might in fact be imposing an undemocratic order. They were caught in their own frame of language, which emphasized the benefits and concealed the dangers.

The ideas of the Chicago school, of course, did lead to a great deal of ruthless exploitation by people who saw an opportunity to take advantage of a chaotic situation to make a quick buck. It created moral hazards. But Friedman had no such intention, and might now be as stunned and perplexed as former Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan, who was caught like a deer in the headlights by the economic collapse. We now find ourselves in a place which was simply not on their map--and since it is not on their map, they have no idea of how to get anywhere from here.

Yet by demonizing the leaders of the Chicago school, their opponents surrender the chance to debunk their theories in their strongest form, which means that followers of the Chicago school will go unconvinced, and will never be forced to address the real weaknesses of their ideas. This amounts, very nearly, to having no opposition at all; Klein's audience is hermetically sealed, and will grow or shrink with the vicissitude of fashion. In five or ten years her arguments may come to sound horribly dated and naive. By going for the emotional jugular she has missed the heart, and the beast lurches on. This is the real weakness with the demonization-strawman fallacy; it is almost completely ineffectual, even against positions which foster genuine evil.

Sunday, December 07, 2008

Conspicuous Exceptionalism

There is a particular rhetorical maneuver which I have encountered on numerous occasions amongst promoters of new age nonsense, pseudo science, conspiracy theories, and religious, political or metaphysical doctrines. This fallacy consist of calling into doubt for the sake of argument a principle which the person accepts constantly in all other considerations and actions. Such a principle is fundamental to their very existence, relied upon not only day to day, but moment to moment, without which their life would not only be unlivable, but incomprehensible. I call this rhetorical dodge conspicuous exceptionalism.

Take, for example, the principle of empiricism; the idea that knowledge arises from experience. There is no commonplace action or consideration which does not take into account facts about the world. Simply to walk across the room requires that you observe and avoid the furniture in it, the shape and size of the room, and the location that you wish to go to. All of these are empirical facts. You cannot even form an argument without reference to the world, and this too is based upon the assumption of the principle of empiricism. Another is the validity of reason, our ability to draw conclusions by logical inference from facts already known. Again, you cannot even begin to make an argument without employing reason, and the very attempt implies an acceptance of the principle. To these I would add the existence of the world, the existence of other people, the assumption that others are conscious, and so on.

Any argument can be summarily dismissed which relies upon calling into question a principle which the arguer must, and does, employ on a constant basis; the person advancing the argument has already given full recognition of and consent to these principles simply by being present in the discussion.

Conspicuous exceptionalism is often used in the epistemological maneuver of radical skepticism, sometimes called the nuclear option because it attempts to destroy the very foundations of knowledge and therefore the basis of all debate. Radical skepticism is an act of wild desperation on the part of the person advancing it, who knows that their case is lost unless the debate is brought to a halt. Radical skepticism is used as means of stopping the opposing argument, after which it is relaxed to slip in the arguers case. As with any form of conspicuous exceptionalism, radical skepticism is never a serious position, merely a temporary refuge from opposing points of view.

Saturday, December 06, 2008

Who Shall Rule vs. How Shall We Rule

In discussions with my friend Pat, one item of distinction between conservatives vs liberals is that conservatives tend to think that the most important question in government is who shall rule, while liberals ask how those in power should be allowed to rule. This especially applies to the American system: republicans believe that the appointed government should have the power to do what is needed, while liberals address the mechanisms of government, so that the systems in place will prevent even the worst people from doing much damage. The republicans believe in laissez faire, while the democrats are in favour of regulation.

If the question is who shall rule, then if the right people are in power, all restraints should be loosened and they should be given the power to do what must be done. This runs both for and against libertarianism, because sometimes those in power are private interests, and sometimes they are in government. The epitome of this ethic is the Bush administration, where the government claimed extraordinary powers, while at the same time providing carte blanche to financial leaders to do as they pleased.

The results are catastrophic.

Social, political, and economic systems are artificial intelligences. They are not human, have no human concerns, and have no qualms about maiming, killing, or debasing their human participants. They have no ethical intelligence. They follow the dictates of their own internal logic. A man who takes money from investors, collects through force or guile a cadre of young girls to be sold as sex slaves, and thereby returns to his investors a great profit, is a good capitalist. He is not a good man, but the market does not concern itself with this. This is not to say that capitalists are evil, or that the capitalist system is evil. Rather, the capitalist system does not, in and of itself, have any regard for ethical concerns. It is merely an instrument, a machine that can be used for good or ill, and so too are religions, political organizations, corporations, media, or other systems of mass persuasion. These are all artificial intelligences, with human participants but with no soul of their own. These are tools, not ends in themselves, and they will act according to their own internal logic regardless of the effects of that logic upon actual human beings. We must not expect such blind processes to deliver, in and of themselves, ethical goods. A conscious and scrupulous human hand in needed to bring their effects to good ends.

Furthermore, these systems have the power to shape human beings to their own goals, if their human participants come to see the system itself as having some moral imperative. This belief is a product of the naturalistic fallacy; these processes appear to predate contemporary efforts at regulation and so seem to be the natural order of things. This appearance is in part due to inborn tendencies in human beings, but is also due to the existence of long tradition, and any tradition can seem long if its participants have not bothered to learn any history. Any direct intervention to change these practices is therefore seen as unnatural. The naturalistic fallacy, simply phrased, is that what is natural is good and right. But it is human nature, practice, and history, that we challenge the natural and change it to suit us; nor is the natural good. It is natural that we should die before we reach the age of 40--because that is what happens in a state of nature. Are we content with this? Of course not--we thwart nature at every turn, when natural processes threaten our dearest hopes. It is natural that in primitive societies the people murder each other at astonishing rates. Is this good?

In the case of religion, God becomes the author of the natural, and tradition seals the validity of the status quo. Amongst those ignorant of history and the history of theology, the latest whims of the local pastor become eternal tradition. Yesterday's heresies becomes today's orthodoxies, and the line between cult and religion is erased. So too with economics; free market advocates might be stunned to discover that the system that they champion has only existed in its current form for a decade or two, and that the defenders of the free market that they cite from bygone centuries intended nothing like the current situation. Political ideologues reinvent their ideologies on an almost daily basis, and partisan pundits change their views with the rapidity of the Orwell's rabid mobs in Nineteen Eighty-Four, forgetting the past with the blink of an eye. The enemy is Eurasia. The enemy has always been Eurasia.

Returning to system as moral imperative, this assumption paves the way to serving the machine. Too many of the left see deliberate malevolence when all they are really dealing with is unquestioning accommodation. This too will create true evil in the long run; consider Eichmann. But the mischief is hidden till the bubble bursts, the plane crashes, the bridge collapses, the levee breaks. Layers of abstraction hide the true costs. We have brokers selling financial products that no one understands, and so they cannot see the consequences of their own actions. Adult supervision is required. One should not assume that the people in power know what they are doing; someone must have the job of figuring out what they are doing, and deciding whether it shall be allowed or not. That is what a government is for.

Americans and Canadians hold an estimated wealth of three quarters of a million dollars of intangible wealth per capita--even the poorest of us. Nearly all of this is in the form of trust, and this trust is directed towards or maintained by our governments. We have regulations that safeguard our food, clothing, housing, transport, industry, environment, banks (though, apparently, not in the U.S.), and in Canada, health care. We have trustworthy courts and police, extensive systems of roads, water, electricity, fire departments, welfare, and the popular welfare alternative, prison, which costs four times as much--and yet, a lot of people who rather pay for that than welfare. On any given day I would guess that the average person makes a thousand unconscious decisions which assume the competent action of government, and yet, like a fish who is always wet and thinks that it does not need water, many now believe that government is largely unnecessary. If you really think that the government that governs best governs the least, move to Somalia. The lesson will be short, brutal, fatal--and unequivocal.

But democratic government is not a system of unilateral imposition. In the early years of the Bush administration, and today in the Harper government, those in power hold the misguided opinion that gaining political office is the end of all debates, and that no further compromise is required. This has led Bush to ignore all detractors and to act in a purely partisan manner with his power for veto. Harper, having lost the confidence of the house twice in three months, calls this a coup, grossly misrepresenting the parliamentary system of government. The fallout for Bush was the decimation of the Republican Party; Harper now faces not only the possibility of an opposition coalition, but a knife in the back from his own party. The central principle of democracy is peer review, bringing into play a partial gridlock of various government branches and of opposing parties. Just as in scientific research and in the math tests we all took in school, you have to show your work so that other people can check it. Politicians who can't do this will get a failing grade. This is the real meaning of governing the least. No government can do everything it wants, but hopefully, after the checks and balances have been done, it will do what needs to be done.

Without an insertion of human values through government regulations, no system will produce the results we want. In the early 20th Century, the most successful and prolific serial killers in history thrived in the patent medicine business, poisoning customers and discouraging legitimate medical consultation amongst a vast clientele, with the result that tens of thousands died. The free market system did nothing to prevent this; dissatisfied customers may discourage others from buying your product, but dead men tell no tales. Without regulations to prevent certain kinds of ruthless profit seeking behaviour, the free market system poses moral hazards which will draw people into them, and these people will not just be ruthless sociopaths, but the Eichmanns among us, those of weak character who lack the capacity for ethical reflection needed to avoid such traps. The wild and unrestrained methods of financial institutions permitted financial managers to compete in a race to the bottom. It would be just deserts to visit a plague on all their houses and let all the banks crash and burn, but the money they have been gambling with is ours, and it will be our money that will be lost. The greatest irony is that the final product of all this freewheeling speculation will be that the government will hold the reins of these institutions, and that the very people let loose to do as they pleased will now have the government as their boss. I'm not certain that this is the solution either. Rather, this is the dog breaking its neck after being allowed to run on too long a leash.