July 30, 2008

Logical Fallacies in Politics

On Sunday, George Stephanopoulos presented Justin Wolfers "gas tax challenge" to John McCain. The challenge, which still remains unanswered, is to find any coherent economist willing to support Senator John McCain's proposed gas tax holiday. Here's the bizarre conversation:

Stephanopoulos: Not a single economist in the country said it'd work.

McCain: Yes. And there's no economist in the country that knows very well the low-income American who drives the furthest, in the oldest automobile, that sometimes can't even afford to go to work.
This is a pretty good example of the fallacy of ad hominem (Latin: "argument to the man, argument against the man), something that has taken the political world by storm. Th fallacy works like this; Person A makes claim X, there is something objectionable about Person A, therefore claim X is false.

Using that formula we can break down the argument into it's pieces.

Economists claim that the gas tax holiday will not benefit the public.
Economists are not part of the lower class who struggle to pay for gas.
Therefore the claim that the gas tax holiday will not benefit the public is false.

This type of logical fallacy can be powerful and cause people to shake their heads in agreement, "those who aren't like me can't understand." The reality of the situation though should be clear using a few other examples. By McCain's reasoning only those infected with HIV should be allowed to assess the potential good or harm a new treatment program will offer HIV patients. Also by his reasoning only those in government are able to hypothesize about the effects of a new law or directive. These examples should make it pretty clear that this type of reasoning in false.

Dissenters love this type of attack because it avoids the question of whether or not the policy would work and falsely associates the presenters faults as faults of the argument. Here's the real truth behind this type of fallacy. It doesn't matter whether Hitler or Gandhi was the person presenting the argument, their personal characteristics have no bearing on whether or not the statement is true or false. If both were alive today to give their assessment of the gas tax holiday there is a possibility that they would reach the same conclusion. On the same token two people who have lived awfully similar lives and hold the same values could come to different conclusions. A gas tax holiday will act according to the laws of the market and large economic principles I don't understand, nobody's personality will change its effect so it is false logic to attack the personalities and characteristics of those presenting an argument.

Economists by and large base their decisions off of the optimal societal outcome, that is, they analyze the proposal and base their judgments off of the merits of the argument in question alone in determining whether there will be a net gain, loss or push due to the proposal. It is disturbing that we can appeal to expertise when it is convenient, yet dismiss it as out of touch and irrelevant with it conflicts with illogical policy prescriptions. Who turned on the rationality vacuum?

Besides, wasn't this supposed to be a summer gas tax holiday, my calendar says summer is almost over!

Sphere: Related Content