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Wednesday, November 1, 2006

On Bad Arguments

It’s regrettable but not surprising that many people are ignorant of economics, of history, and of all the other disciplines that are important to our understanding of society. Equally regrettable, but much more surprising, is the number of people who simply are unable to think clearly. 

People who think clearly understand how to distinguish logical from illogical arguments. These people also recognize that an argument’s relevance is just as important as its logical coherence. I’ve become more and more convinced that many of the disputes that typically rage over this or that public-policy issue would disappear if only people were better, clearer thinkers. 

Here are two kinds of fallacies I’ve recently encountered that reveal not so much an ignorance of economics or of some other academic discipline but instead, a wearisome inability to think straight. 

Ad hominem arguments. At our blog, Café Hayek, Russ Roberts and I often write in favor of free trade. Invariably, each post brings comments and e-mails by persons alleging that we favor free trade only because we are tenured college professors. The allegation is that the relative security of our jobs is what prompts us to oppose protecting domestic firms and workers from foreign competition. Presumably, those who level this allegation believe that once Russ and I are revealed as being employed in relatively secure jobs, the argument for free trade collapses. 

An argument’s merits are independent of the identity of the persons who advance it. Whether or not free trade increases or decreases per-capita GDP, ordinary people’s standard of living, or total employment obviously has nothing to do with the kind of job a free-trade advocate has. To dismiss the argument for free trade simply because one of the persons advancing the argument is thought to have a secure job and hence nothing to lose and everything to gain from free trade would be like dismissing the argument for freedom of religion on grounds that priests and rabbis are among the persons who support this freedom. 

Of course, a person’s personal situation might indeed bias his evaluations of arguments in favor of, or opposed to, policies that affect him closely. Likewise, an individual’s personal distance from the likely actual consequences of a particular policy might cause him to think less carefully about that policy than he would if he stood to be affected more heavily. These practical realities, though, don’t affect an argument’s merits. When I argue for free trade I present chains of reasoning and empirical data. Challenges to these substantive elements of my argument are fair and relevant. What’s unfair is to avoid engaging the reasoning and empirical data; what’s irrelevant are personal accusations flung at those who advance substantive arguments. 

To ignore substantive issues and instead to dismiss an argument simply because of the identity of an argument’s proponents is verbal barbarism. 

A related problem with ad hominem arguments is that if the arguer’s personal situation is the chief criterion for evaluating his case, there’s no logical way to evaluate it if someone else in a different situation also makes it. Notice that ad hominem arguments implicitly assume that a case is illegitimate if advanced by someone with nothing to lose (or with something to gain) by its acceptance. It follows that the only valid argument is one made by people with something to lose. So if one lone midwestern auto worker argues in favor of free trade despite the relative precariousness of his job, is the validity of the case thereby reestablished? 

More interestingly, if we are entitled to dismiss someone’s arguments about a policy simply because he will gain (or will not be harmed) if the policy is adopted, then we can dismiss anti-free-trade arguments made by workers who fear they will lose their jobs if trade becomes freer. We need not engage the substantive arguments of such persons. So if a steel worker from Ohio or textile worker from South Carolina argues against free trade, the “logic” of ad hominem argumentation entitles us to dismiss this solely on the grounds that he stands to gain materially if these protectionist arguments are accepted. 

Without denying that people are frequently led by their personal interests to accept or reject arguments, it remains true that the merits and demerits of any argument are independent of the identity of those who advance or oppose it. 

Economics is not politics. Another illogical (and especially annoying!) allegation routinely hurled at those of us who favor free markets is that we are necessarily political partisans, usually of the GOP. The “reasoning” goes like this: Boudreaux argues in favor of repealing the minimum wage; George Bush seems skeptical of raising the minimum wage; therefore Boudreaux supports all, or the great majority, of the Bush administration’s policies. 

It’s exasperating to be accused of supporting the entire Bush agenda simply because of a few (usually only superficial) similarities between what I endorse and what George Bush or the GOP endorses. And it’s downright maddening to be told—as I am told frequently—that my support for, say, cutting taxes is illegitimate because tax-cutter George Bush detains people without trial at Guantanamo Bay or because he imposed tariffs on steel. 

Why do so many Americans insist on seeing every public-policy issue as a battle between Democrats and Republicans? And why assume that intellectual and moral arguments about policy issues are little more than highbrowed versions of political battles? 

Politically Possible?

Which reminds me of a final frustration: the popular assumption that an argument about the merits of a potential change in policy is legitimate only if that policy change enjoys a realistic chance of being adopted in the foreseeable future. 

Correspondents tell me more times than I can count either that my position on X is illegitimate because it has no chance of being adopted, or that I should stop wasting my time championing politically impossible causes so that I can devote my time to pushing for changes that are “possible.” 

The legitimacy of a policy proposal is not determined by its political prospects. For example, the argument for separation of church and state would have stood no chance of being accepted in medieval Europe. But the merits of the argument then would have been no different from their merits today. Almost all arguments for liberty were at one time accepted by just a tiny handful of people and enjoyed no prospect of being adopted in the foreseeable future. Those of us alive today owe much to those courageous thinkers of centuries ago who challenged the supremacy of the state over the individual even though their chances of personally witnessing the popular success of their arguments were nil. 

Intellectual skepticism and humility are always necessary. None of us should ever become so confident in his own genius that he refuses to take seriously challenges to his beliefs and arguments. But not all challenges deserve serious attention. Challenges that are illogical, challenges that display a fundamental absence of clear and logical thought, should be dismissed out of hand. To engage them is to waste time—illogically.

  • Donald J. Boudreaux is a senior fellow with the F.A. Hayek Program for Advanced Study in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, a Mercatus Center Board Member, and a professor of economics and former economics-department chair at George Mason University.