Beware combo fallacies

Hypocrisy is a common criticism leveled at free market advocates.

The criticism is that since free market advocates use and benefit from various forms of government programs like roads, Social Security, fire protection, Medicare, public education, libraries (I threw that one in there) and so on they are hypocrites for suggesting that such programs could be carried privately.

The implication is that unless free market advocates refuse to use these programs as a matter of principle they are not credible.

A couple examples from the last week stick out in my mind.  In one, a commenter on a local blog pointed out that Ayn Rand, libertarian heroine, relied on Medicare near the end of her life.

Below is another example from the comment section at Cafe Hayek, where a commenter charges Don Boudreaux with this hypocrisy:

I take it you (and your blog buddies) vehemently oppose support of any kind of “welfare state;” though, I’m betting you have no problem with the many and various forms of corporate welfare that abound, or the state university systems which apparently provide for your education and career, or the Internet (still regulated by the GAC) which provides a very public platform for your right-wing ideology…and I could go on, but you get my point.

Don responded: “I oppose ALL government programs, including support for higher education.”  Great.  But, I think Don’s response is unnecessary.  He took the commenter’s fallacious bait.

The hypocrisy criticism is a combo fallacy.  It combines a red herring (aka ‘changing the subject’) fallacy with an ad hominem (aka ‘name calling’).

Whether Don is a hypocrite, or not, has no bearing on whether he is correct.

The roots of this combo fallacy tactic can be traced to Kindergarten recess. It should not be so becoming for supposedly well-educated and bright folks to use as adults.

The ad hominem part of this combo fallacy is a personal attack (“hypocrite”) meant to put the accused on the defensive and respond to the red herring.

If you change the topic of conversation away the merits and demerits of free market vs. government to defend yourself against the hypocrite charge, the red herring fallacy succeeds and little productive discussion will take place about the original subject.

When faced with this combo fallacy, I think it’s best to keep to the topic at hand.  Here’s an example of a response that could do that:

Whether or not I’m a hypocrite has no bearing on the correctness of my point.  Would you like to discuss my point?

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What is fallacy?

In a conversation this evening, I mentioned that one motivation for this blog was to combat fallacy.  My counterpart said that I was the first person, besides himself, in years he has heard use that word.

That caused other conversations where I pointed out fallacies to flash through my mind.  I often receive bewildered looks when I say that word.   I assumed the looks reflected disagreement.  But, maybe they simply didn’t know what I meant and they didn’t want to ask.

I admit, before I became familiar with the term I would not have known.  I think the non-intuitive nature of the meaning of fallacy may be on par with economic rent.   Neither term is used enough in everyday language to have gained an intuitive understanding.

For example, most people intuitively know that profits can be made in capitalism.   They do not intuitively know that profits can also be made from economic rent.  Economic rent is such a blind spot, in fact, that most folks commonly mistake profits from economic rent as profits from capitalism.

They also mistake fallacy for legitimate argument.

So, what is a fallacy?

A fallacy is faulty reasoning where the conclusion doesn’t follow from the premises given.  A fallacy doesn’t necessarily say the conclusion is wrong, just that the conclusion can’t be made from the premises given.

Here’s an example of a fallacy:

It rained here today, so it will not rain tomorrow.

My premise is that it rained today.  My conclusion, based on that premise, is that it will not rain tomorrow.   But, rain today usually has no bearing on whether it will rain tomorrow.

Notice, my conclusion may be correct.  It may not rain tomorrow.  But most people will agree that the logic I used to arrive at my conclusion is not correct.

Fallacies come in many varieties.   There are common fallacies that you have probably heard of like ad hominem attacks or red herrings and many more.

Over the years, I have found the list of informal fallacies at the Nizkor Project website to be a handy and valuable resource for checking and re-checking to help me identify fallacy.

Being able to spot and identify fallacies is like the Jujitsu of discussion allowing you to make progress without having to state and defend a case of your own.  Simply pointing out incorrect reasoning turns the argument back on your discussion partner and causes them to rethink their logic.

Most important, it often focuses the discussion on the root cause of the disagreement — the faulty reasoning on which the conclusions are based.