Two Fallacies (Or Three?)

In discussing and debating economic and political issues, there are some rather ridiculous fallacies that are commonly manifested in public discourse. These fallacies are not directed at the content of one's ideas so much as the character of those advocating them, and therefore can be seen as ad hominems. They are misunderstandings or misrepresentations of the character of people who adhere to certain ideas.

One of the most common of these fallacies in political discourse is the accusation that someone opposes a given goal because they disagree with the means that other people advocate towards achieving the goal. This is fallicious because it assumes that there is only one possible means to the desired end in question. In particular, when people get so used to a traditional method of doing things, when it seems to people that this is how it always was and always must be, they tend tend to assume that the given means is the only possible one towards the end in question. This method of looking at the world ends up as a defacto defense of the status quo, for any proposed alternative can be immediately shot down as insane or impossible. And any objection to the currently popular means towards the goal in question is misrepresented as an objection to the goal in itself.

But the fact that I may oppose the compulsory provision of something does not mean that I oppose that thing in itself. What I oppose is not the ends but the use of coercive means towards those ends. I simply do not think that the ends ever justify the means. I am a non-utilitarian or non-consequentialist. This is not to say that I don't care about consequences at all so much as the fact that I view the consequences as becoming irrelevant if the given means towards those consequences is immoral in itself.

To use an example, I oppose the government provision of welfare. A common reaction would be to accuse me of being a heartless *** that lacks empathy for the poor and needy. But this would be a complete misreading of my character and intentions. In opposing government welfare, I am not opposing the act of giving money to the less fortunate in itself, I am opposing the political means towards that end, which is the forced redistribution of wealth by the state through taxation. I fully support any individual's choice to personally give their wealth away to others or to voluntary form institutions to cater to the needy. What I oppose is the means of stealing from anyone else in order to do this. My opposition to government welfare says nothing about my personal willingness to voluntarily give my money away to or give help to poor people.

This fallacy is all over this place in public discussion of economic policy. The great French laissez-faire economist Frederic Bastiat pointed out this very problem over a century ago when he stated the following: "Socialism, like the ancient ideas from which it springs, confuses the distinction between government and society. As a result of this, every time we object to a thing being done by government, the socialists conclude that we object to its being done at all. We disapprove of state education. Then the socialists say that we are opposed to any education. We object to a state religion. Then the socialists say that we want no religion at all. We object to a state-enforced equality. Then they say that we are against equality. And so on, and so on. It is as if the socialists were to accuse us of not wanting persons to eat because we do not want the state to raise grain."

Another common fallacy is the accusation that someone personally supports a given goal or preferance because they support someone's freedom to persue that goal or preferance. Or, alternatively, the accusation that someone does not support someone's freedom to persue a given goal or preferance because they do not personally prefer the thing in question. These fallacies are used to imply that people have personal preferances which they do not actually hold in reality, or in the case of the alternative fallacy, that they are authoritarians who wish to impose their whims onto everyone else. One could in theory hold onto all sorts of illogical and horrible personal views yet confine them to a voluntary context. Even such nonsensical ideas such as racism.

To address the initial fallacy equating support for people's freedom to do something with a personal preferance for it, the fact that I support someone's right to engage in a given activity does not necessarily mean that I personaly favor or advocate that activity. As the classic Voltaire saying goes, I disagree with what you say but to the death I will fight for your right to say it. I do not personally support or engage in polygamy, homosexual activity, prostitution, heroine use, gambling or racist speech.

Yet I fully support the freedom of anyone else to voluntarily engage in such activities provided that they do not force me to engage in them myself. This in no way makes me a polygamist or racist coddler or what have you. To paint a picture of me in which I am some kind of active and supporter of these things is an inaccurate assault on my character. My support for personal freedom does not necessarily translate into a personal preferance for whatever activies people engage in with their personal freedom.

In short, I make a clear distinction between that which is immoral for any human being to engage in and that which I do not personally prefer. On one hand, I actually think that ethics should be absolute and universally applied to all human beings. I am am as far from being an ethical subjectivist or hedonist as it gets. On the other hand, things that are mere personal preferances cannot really count as ethics. They are matters of taste or whim.

There are plenty of things in this world that I do not personally prefer. But I do not advocate the prohibition of these things. I personally dislike B.C. Rich guitars. Rap music annoys me. I hate the taste of beer and find drunks to be generally beligerant in their behavior. I never understood how people could appriciate a nearly blank canvas with a dot on it as good art. I find McDonald's burgers to be too small, not particularly tasty and a rip off. I dislike religious beliefs with a burning passion. And if I see anyone doing the Macarena one more time, my head is going to explode!

But you won't ever see me advocating a government ban on any of these things. In economic terms, I can oppose them using my own freedom by simply abstaining from purchasing or funding them, and urging others to do likewise. In social terms, I can oppose them by writting and speaking against them to other people. And on some level at the end of the day I'm just going to have to put up with the fact that not everyone shares my sense of aesthetics. Besides, the world would be boring if everyone were clones.

Published Thu, Dec 6 2007 6:26 PM by Brainpolice


# Economists » Blog Archive » Two Fallacies (Or Three?) said on 07 December, 2007 03:01 AM

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