Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

More Than Intentions

Don Boudreaux of Cafe Hayek makes a good point which is too often glossed over in political debate:
Writing about health-care, Paul Krugman asserts that “conservatives … don’t want Americans to have universal coverage” (”The Defining Moment,” Oct. 30).

Among the earliest lessons that I teach my freshman economics students are (1) intentions are not results, and (2) to oppose a government program is not necessarily to object to the intentions stated by that program’s advocates.

Paul Krugman obviously teaches his students differently, for he clearly believes that (1) if government intends for Americans to have universal health coverage, then the result will be that Americans actually get universal health coverage, and (2) anyone who opposes a government program promising universal health coverage is a person who objects to Americans actually getting universal health coverage.
This is perhaps the most common fallacy of all in political argument for people to follow the form: I support bill/candidate X because I think it will have good result Y. You don't support X. Therefore you don't care about Y.

Generally speaking, Y is a very general positive sentiment while X is a very specific prescription. Examples:

"You don't support abolishing NAFTA, because you don't care whether ordinary Joes can make a decent wage in America."

"You don't support school vouchers, because you don't care whether poor kids can get a good education."

"You don't support the current health care reform legislation, because you don't care whether poor people can see a doctor when they're sick."

What this approach ignores is that the topic of dispute in politics is often not whether some general good should be achieved, but whether a particular proposal will actually contribute to the general good -- and if so whether its effects will be more positive than negative. This type of intention-based argumentation is an attempt to shut down any discussion on whether a proposal will have the desired effect (and whether its negative side effects will outweigh its intended benefits), and as such it strikes at the very root of reasonable political discussion.


Zach said...

This is a great post

As they say at the Acton Institute, "Piety does not equal technique"

Anonymous said...

Paul Krugman is a surpassingly excellent economist but at best a mediocre pundit. I stopped reading his column early in the Bush presidency because his writing was as predictable as a stopped clock: everything wrong was President Bush's fault. Granting that Bush really was a crappy president, I still didn't gain anything at all by reading Krugman's take on him.

Krugman supported Clinton in the primaries but now regards President Obama as a member of his team, and thus has trained his blunderbuss on Republicans who oppose his agenda. I still don't bother reading him.

Tom Simon said...

I support bill/candidate X because I think it will have good result Y. You don't support X. Therefore you don't care about Y.

This is, after all, just a transposition of the famous Politician’s Syllogism:

Something must be done.
This is something.
Therefore, we must do this!

It’s sad, but hardly unexpected, to see Krugman committing such an obvious fallacy. Do Nobel Prizes have expiry dates?

Anonymous said...

Krugman's Nobel was for his work in economics, which was indeed world-class. No, they won't revoke his prize just because his work in other areas is inferior. Nor should they.

Tom Simon said...

Frankly, if a man is capable of committing such an obvious whopper of a fallacy in any area of his life without noticing it, I don't trust him to get his sums right in a field as difficult and technical as economics.

Anonymous said...

Tom, Krugman is living proof that your assertion is wrong.