Bryan Caplan  

Straw Men Rule

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Wars of Negligence... Paul Krugman on inequality...
Yesterday I was on a panel on drug policy with a Virginia state senator.  As you'd expect, I made the case for full drug legalization.  And as you'd expect, he objected.  What's striking, though, is how he objected.  His top arguments for roughly sticking with the status quo:

1. Hard drugs should be banned because they cause serious health and safety problems.  Yea, so does alcohol, but the Prohibition era shows that banning alcohol was a bad idea. 

2. The people of Virginia think that illegal drugs should be illegal, but they don't think that alcohol should be illegal. 

3. There have to be boundaries.  Our boundary is that alcohol is legal for 21-year-olds, but illegal drugs are illegal for all ages. 

If I were an staunch opponent of drug legalization, I would have yearned to decry the senator's arguments as straw men.  The rejoinders are all too obvious, starting with:

1. Alcohol and tobacco cause more harm than hard drugs.  And the negative side effects of modern drug Prohibition have been more serious than the negative side effects of historical alcohol Prohibition.

2. Virginians are wrong about a great many things; why not this?

3. You can say, "There have to be boundaries" about every stupid law on Earth, past and present. 

Strictly speaking, though, none of the senator's arguments count as straw men.  Why?  Because he wasn't attacking bad arguments for a view he opposed.  He was giving bad arguments for a view he accepted.

The senator was a smart, articulate, experienced man.  Why then didn't he present decent arguments for his position?  The best explanation is also the simplest: He doesn't know any decent arguments for his position.  How is that possible?  Because the vast majority of people who favor drug prohibition don't know any decent arguments for their position, either.  No one has to foist "straw man" arguments on the mainstream; the mainstream owns those crummy arguments.

Of course, the fact that few supporters of X know any good argument for X doesn't prove they're wrong.  But it should at least make us very suspicious about the validity of X.  And this holds even if some rare bird crafts high-quality arguments for X.  As I've explained before:
Suppose I'm right that almost everyone initially supports populist policies for inane reasons.  If some of these people grow up to be sophisticated intellectuals, what do you think they're going to do when they realize that the arguments that originally convinced them are just plain stupid?  Are they going to dispassionately put aside the worldview that inspired them to become intellectuals in the first place, then calmly weigh the intellectually serious arguments for and against every feel-good policy on the books?  Or are they going to act like defense attorneys - to use their powerful intellects to zealously defend the populist policies they've always loved?
In any case, my meeting with the senator underscored what I've long maintained: In democracies, straw men rule.  Politicians don't calmly search for the best possible policies.  They don't even calmly search for intellectually impressive arguments for popular policies.  Instead, they present popular arguments for popular policies - intellectual merit be damned.

P.S. The senator also quipped something along the lines of, "If you don't like my policy positions, run against me in the next election!"  This is directly analogous to a professional wrestler saying, "If you don't like my policy positions, let's wrestle for it!"  Winning an election, pinning a man, and being right are three very different things.




COMMENTS (17 to date)
mark e writes:

I, for one, applaud your effort Bryan.

You are correct, of course...it's simply a very easy political calculation to oppose legalizing drugs, and we all know politics and reasonableness do not always good bedfellows make.

My contention is that there is simply way too much economic momentum behind keeping the ridiculous drug-law quagmire status quo safe.

The judges, defense attorneys, prosecutors, clerks, probation and prison/jail officers, cops, clerks, substance counselors all benefit from the current system and although there does seem to be some slight progress from some of the the interested groups lately, I just don't see them ever willingly conceding all that money and power just on the basis of sensible arguments.

Adam B writes:

Is there video of this debate? I'd love to watch it.

Stefan writes:

On the other hand, making policy is only partially about 'being right'. Getting (re-)elected matters too, at least in some political systems. This isn't Plato's Republic. An academic's confusion?

Rob Rawlings writes:

On "1. Hard drugs should be banned because they cause serious health and safety problems. Yea, so does alcohol, but the Prohibition era shows that banning alcohol was a bad idea. "

If the prohibition era had shown that banning alcohol was a good idea - would Brian have supported using that precedent to ban hard drugs ?

James writes:

Your analogy at the end doesn't work because we all know professional wrestling is fake whereas in politics... Well, on second thought, you analogy with pro wrestling is pretty sensible.

Nathan W writes:

It's easier to help drug users when they have nothing to fear from the law.

We could give out information for support services at every purchase, far better than they get from their current dealers.

Greg G writes:

>---"In democracies, straw men rule. Politicians don't calmly search for the best possible policies. They don't even calmly search for intellectually impressive arguments for popular policies. Instead, they present popular arguments for popular policies - intellectual merit be damned."

This is a great example of the very kind of bad argument that this post purports to combat.

Do you think bad arguments are any less prevalent in undemocratic states? If so, then make that argument. In not, then what's your point?

Putin has become very popular in Russia despite making arguments aren't exactly the result of a calm "search for intellectually impressive arguments."

foosion writes:

What rules is simplistic arguments that sound good or have emotional resonance for people who don't have the factual background or sophistication to understand the issue.

Given that most people have better things to do than study complex issues, this is rational behavior on their part, but bad for policy. Alas, as the saying goes, democracy is the worst system except for all of the others.

pongogogo writes:

Brian, only read your blog post but the panel was on drug legalization, the senator has taken this to therefore not be a moral question (should I have access to drugs?) but rather a legal question (should the state allow free access to drugs?). You're arguing at cross purposes. The senator might actually agree with you, but he's democratically elected, and on this issue needs to a) think within the terms of what laws he can change b) think about what makes good policy for citizens of Virginia. Therefore I don't think 2) should be dismissed out of hand at all. It's grounded in political reality.

Jameson writes:

For an academic, you seem unbelievably naive about the role of politicians. All the evidence would seem to suggest that politics attracts those who understand power and popularity, not those who care about the soundness of arguments. Like it or not, these politicians are smarter than you when it comes to actually doing politics.

Fine, you say. You're more concerned with having right beliefs. OK, then don't talk to politicians in order to get good arguments. Talk to the people who care about good arguments, namely, people like yourself.

As for this part:

Suppose I'm right that almost everyone initially supports populist policies for inane reasons. If some of these people grow up to be sophisticated intellectuals, what do you think they're going to do when they realize that the arguments that originally convinced them are just plain stupid?

I'd like to see some solid evidence to support your conjecture: "Or are they going to act like defense attorneys - to use their powerful intellects to zealously defend the populist policies they've always loved?"
My personal experience suggests this is wrong. People who grow up to be sophisticated intellectuals often rebel against the positions they grew up with, precisely because they're so enraged that they ever got duped. Now, of course that doesn't lead them to dispassionately weigh all the evidence from then on. On the contrary, it usually causes them to overreact, rejecting their previous beliefs all the more viciously in proportion to their embarrassment at having ever held them.

Floccina writes:

Therefore I focus on convincing voters to legalize and among the arguments that I use, I include an argument that has a payoff for them. That is: you will be able to get medicine that you need cheaper because you will not need a prescription.

Dick White writes:

What is the most objective source for data supporting the assertion: tobacco and alcohol cause more harm than hard drugs?

gene marsh writes:

"[Politicians] present popular arguments for popular policies - intellectual merit be damned."

I dont mind that so much as people who concoct popular arguments for plutocratic policies- intellectual honesty be damned.

RES writes:

"2. The people of Virginia think that illegal drugs should be illegal, but they don't think that alcohol should be illegal."

This could be a straw man only to a question such as "Is society better or worse off with drugs illegalised". Even then it may have relevance on the basis that conflict between public will and the law (such as occurred during prohibition) can be bad for society.

However, on a general debate on US drug policy it is directly relevant, because democracy means the will of the people merit consideration. This holds true also when they're supporting what's bad for themselves.

"They don't even calmly search for intellectually impressive arguments for popular policies. Instead, they present popular arguments for popular policies - intellectual merit be damned."

And that explains in a nutshell why they have risen far in politics and you in academia. Getting things done in society is about persuasion, not being right. Given those good at persuasion rather than intellectual merit are running the country, it's a lesson for academics to get better at persuasion.

CC WAN writes:

It is not surprised to hear something like that because that is how the politics work. Before the election, candidates need to pick a public issue that is popular all over the country, choose the side that most people supported to make sure they can have enough votes to be senator. No matter how stupid that issue they think, they will act like that is what they believe until they no longer in the political world. What they say may not be what they think. Being a politician is different from other career. Everyone in it is wearing a mask, so what they say can never be trusted.

Steve Tran writes:

I found it interesting how you included the prohibition of alcohol with the current “prohibition” of drugs. As many have learned by now, prohibition in the 1920s would lead to numerous intended (i.e. tax revenues decreasing) and unintended consequences (i.e. the growth of mobs and huge black markets).

With the case of drugs, some economists refer to it as an example of elasticity. Most studies have seemed to suggest that the demand for illegal drugs is inelastic. It has also been argued that the prohibition of illegal drugs has resulted in prices for those drugs being higher than they would be if they were legal. Essentially, prohibition raises the costs of supply. In some ways, one could correlate the current “drug war” with alcohol prohibition. Since the manufacturing and sale of alcohol was deemed illegal back in the day, once people ran out of their own personal booze stash, they resorted to other methods in obtaining it (i.e. black markets or producing their own homemade liquor). In the end, more harm was created than good.

So while I can understand the opposition’s viewpoints towards legalization, is it not the individual’s choice as to whether he should inflict certain items into his body?

As for your comments regarding politicians not searching for the best policies: How do you determine what policy is “best”? Would it be best from the perspective of what’s good for society? What’s good for individual rights?

Austin Huang writes:

It is interesting how the government wants to deny the legalization of drugs. The drugs could be used for all sorts of good in the world. Sure, not all drugs could be put into good use, but the ones that can be put into good use should. The government could even put taxes on the drugs like they do for soda, or the government could impose subsidies for the people who do not take drugs. The government should let the people decide if they would want to take the drug or not. Their will be people who will choose to abuse the drug. If the government is worried about the people being addicted to drugs then they should stop, and educate the people about the side effects of abusing the drug. People can be addicted to many things and start to use more than they need to. For example, food alcohol, tobacco, and many more. Yet the government has not made food, alcohol, or tobacco illegal. The government does not need to impose so many laws and boundaries and try to protect the people from the truth. As long as the government can educate the people on what happens to the drugs side effects, then the people should be responsible for their own actions.

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