2011/10/10

Of straw men and arguments


George Will makes an interesting assertion in opposition to Elizabeth Warren's famous YouTube talk to a group of supporters:

Warren is (as William F. Buckley described Harvard economist John Kenneth Galbraith) a pyromaniac in a field of straw men: She refutes propositions no one asserts.

Let's look first at exactly what a straw man argument is. G.W. Bush was famous for using them. Bush would address and “refute” arguments that no one was making in the first place. Bush tackled the question that perhaps the Iraq War was making terrorism wordwide worse. There was strong evidence for this, as terrorist incidents worldwide shot up enormously after the Iraq War was launched. But Bush spent his answer insisting that US interests were attacked before the Iraq War was launched. That's all very fine and well and entirely true, but that didn't address the essential criticism, that the Iraq War increased terrorism.

Have right-wingers asserted the opposite of what Warren asserts, that when they build factories and turn out products, that they owe their success entirely to themselves? As a matter of fact, some commenters quoted by the right wing Instapundit do exactly that:

you hired workers the rest of us paid to educate; No, you did not educate them. You babysat them for 12 years. Then I hired them, taught them how to be responsible and show up for work, taught them how to communicate in clear sentences, taught them that there are rights and wrongs and (unlike with your schools) wrongs have consequences in the workplace. Then paid for extended education for my employees so they could continue to improve themselves and better add value to what we do around here.

No, sorry, but when Warren's argument is met head-on and addressed directly by critics, it's not a straw man argument! George Will adds an interesting paragraph:

The collectivist agenda is antithetical to America’s premise, which is: Government — including such public goods as roads, schools and police — is instituted to facilitate individual striving, a.k.a. the pursuit of happiness. The fact that collective choices facilitate this striving does not compel the conclusion that the collectivity (Warren’s “the rest of us”) is entitled to take as much as it pleases of the results of the striving. [emphasis in original]

Of course, Will completely fails to tell us how on Earth government is supposed to “facilitate individual striving” without taking “ as much as it pleases of the results of the striving.” Government is supposed to build useful things for us for free? Sure, I'll go along with Wills' statement near the end of his piece:

Society — hundreds of millions of people making billions of decisions daily — is a marvel of spontaneous order among individuals in voluntary cooperation.

But where is society supposed to get the money to produce “such public goods as roads, schools and police” if society cannot “take as much as it pleases of the results of the striving”? The airy-fairy philosophy of Will falls apart on the practical question of “Where are we supposed to get the money to pay for all of this?”

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