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.