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Friday, September 6, 2013

An Army of Strawmen

Venture capitalist Nick Hanauer and former Clinton speechwriter Eric Liu wrote an article for Bloomberg View yesterday as part of an ongoing series of specious and factually-challenged attacks on those advocating individual liberty.

They compare their purposefully-skewed perception of libertarianism to communism and, to support this thesis, cite examples of extreme, unrepresentative "libertarian" positions. But the imagined rantings of extremist conservatives, who only recently donned the libertarian cape, are hardly representative of the principles of libertarianism.

Their examples are the tired arguments circa 2008, which have long been refuted and are only deposited in the article to lend weight to an otherwise sophomoric rant against ideas they simply don't like. This sort of Sorkin-esque revisionism makes for poor argumentation, but if an honest debate was their goal, they might have bothered to include actual quotes or cite actual arguments.

Instead, they commit to another, equally illogical line of reasoning, as defined below. From Wikipedia:
Poisoning The Well: (or attempting to poison the well) is a rhetorical device where adverse information about a target is pre-emptively[sic] presented to an audience, with the intention of discrediting or ridiculing everything that the target person is about to say. 
Poisoning the well can be a special case of argumentum ad hominem, and the term was first used with this sense by John Henry Newman in his work Apologia Pro Vita Sua (1864). 
The origin of the term lies in well poisoning, an ancient wartime practice of pouring poison into sources of fresh water before an invading army, to diminish the attacking army's strength.
I point this out because definitions of logical fallacies exist for a reason. Poor arguments are used when one is unable to counter one's opponent with sound arguments. These reasonable people can't be bothered to choose a worthy argument to refute, so instead (and in classic Clintonian fashion) they try to head off their own refutation at the pass:
Some libertarians will claim we are arguing against a straw man and that no serious adherent to their philosophy advocates the extreme positions we describe. The public record of extreme statements by the likes of Cruz, Norquist and the Pauls speaks for itself. Reasonable people debate how best to regulate or how government can most effectively do its work -- not whether to regulate at all or whether government should even exist.
First of all, language like "reasonable people" is an attempt to attack your opponent while ignoring your opponent's message."Reasonable people" are merely people you don't agree with, and often people that don't share your soapbox.

And if Ted Cruz and Grover Norquist are the only advocates of libertarianism, we might as well quit right now. Cherry picking extreme and often poor examples of an opponent's position, then attacking them, is the very definition of a straw man argument, and trying in the same paragraph to void pointing out a straw man fallacy is clearly poisoning the well.

With the Pauls, it gets a little muddy, because they are a very public face of libertarianism (even though Rand Paul has stated several times that he is not, in fact, a libertarian). But regardless, there is no attempt to refute anything they have stated, just some vague reference to extreme statements that "speak for themselves" (which is another bias-loaded phrase by the noble authors).

I would be more than happy to explain to these two what the merits of libertarian policies are if they were willing to actually state some, but instead they throw around old, discredited and ridiculously out-of-context examples like Somalia and the Koch Brothers, with the hope that their readers are too dumb or merely uninformed to look anything up for themselves.

You guys are supposed to professional policy analysts and pundits. For those who welcome a real debate, this degree of amateurism is frankly disappointing...

P.S. If they need help finding a genuine libertarian position, let's start with this one: "The U.S. should not get involved in the civil war in Syria." Go!

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