Sunday, July 11, 2010

The Straw Man

I received an e-mail a couple of days ago with the following story asking me my opinion of it. I thought it may be useful for the purpose of discourse to talk about it here instead of confining my answer to the eyes of a single person.

An economics professor at a local college made a statement that he had never failed a single student before, but had once failed an entire class. That class had insisted that Obama's socialism worked and that no one would be poor and no one would be rich, a great equalizer..
The professor then said, "OK, we will have an experiment in this class on Obama's plan". All grades would be averaged and everyone would receive the same grade so no one would fail and no one would receive an A...
After the first test, the grades were averaged and everyone got a B. The students who studied hard were upset and the students who studied little were happy.
As the second test rolled around, the students who studied little had studied even less and the ones who studied hard decided they wanted a free ride too so they studied little. The second test average was a D!
No one was happy.
When the 3rd test rolled around, the average was an F. The scores never increased as bickering, blame and name-calling all resulted in hard feelings and no one would study for the benefit of anyone else.
All failed, to their great surprise, and the professor told them that socialism would also ultimately fail because when the reward is great, the effort to succeed is great but when government takes all the reward away, no one will try or want to succeed.

Could not be any simpler than that.

I'll be very up front and blunt about my feelings on this story. It is plainly the most ridiculous piece of mindless propaganda that I've seen. Really. It is that bad.

I'll start at the easiest place here, which is the obvious fact that the story is fiction. I doubt anyone seriously considered that the story could have really taken place just as I doubt that the author really expected anyone to think that. It's pretty clear that the author was trying to make a political point of which the means of delivery was secondary.
The problem with this is that his point is completely nullified by the far-fetched scenario in which the point is clothed. There are socialist students on college campuses. Yep, it's a fact. But to suggest that somehow this professor got an entire room full of socialist students in an economics class is laughable. Please give me a somewhat plausible premise.
The idea of the college campus as breeding ground for socialist indoctrination is one of those myths that conservative talk radio just can't let go of. I've got quite a bit to say as far as debunking this myth but that may distract from the point so I'll leave it for another time.

Now for the important part, the point the author is trying to make. The argument is threefold:
Obama's presidential policies are socialist

The grading policy used by the "economics professor" is an example of socialist policy

The socialist principles that Obama's policies are based upon (and displayed in the professor's exercise) don't work

The big problem with this tale is that two of the three premises of the author's argument are blatantly false and the other is irrelevant because of the falsehood of the other two.

I'll start off with the second part of the author's argument because it's the easiest to debunk. The idea that a socialist government just passes out equal rewards regardless of input of effort just doesn't hold up to reality. That kind of policy has existed but it is generally known better as communism, and even then it is an incredibly flawed and simplified example of it. The confusion of communism with socialism is an easy error to make given their history of working with one another but that hardly means that they are the same thing.
The basic idea behind the modern socialist ideology is that food, shelter & medical care are human rights that should not be dependent upon a person's income and that these basic necessities of life are to be provided to the public by the government. Under such a system the economy still functions much as it does in any other capitalist nation with the exception that these necessities are to be exempt and provided without cost. In such a system there is still a great deal of variance in the levels of income among the public, the distance between the richest and poorest citizens just isn't so great and the poorest aren't homeless/dying of curable disease/starving to death.
It isn't my intention to argue that this system of government works or does not work, there are a multitude of valid arguments for and against it and that isn't my point. My point is that the exercise used by this "economics professor" isn't an example of socialism at all, any economics professor (or student for that matter) could tell you that. This alone makes the point of the story worthless but it doesn't contradict the idea that Obama's policies have been "socialist".

This part of the argument is a little harder to combat because of the wide range of things that people can consider socialistic and also because it relies heavily upon the idea of intent, and the only person who could tell us that with any amount of authority is Obama himself. Even without getting in his head though, I am extremely comfortable in saying that Obama is anything but a socialist.
The big scare of socialism is most prominently used in the fight against Obama's health care proposal but as much as one looks at the actual proposal this idea of a socialist takeover of the medical system just doesn't match reality. The largest part that even remotely resembled socialism, and is used as an example of socialism, is the now abandoned proposal for a government insurance program.
The problem with the view that this is a somehow socialistic program is that it is restricted to a very small percentage of the public and that the overall system of non-governmental insurance programs would continue to not only exist, but continue to rake in consumer money hand over fist.
The most extreme among proposals was to create a government insurance program that would compete with other private insurance companies on the open market to establish a very basic coverage for those who were unable to afford healthcare elsewhere. I would like to see an explanation for how a government competing with private business on the market is socialism. It's not a socialism I've ever seen before.

The other area in which Obama has had the accusation of socialism hurled in his direction is in regards to his stimulus program. It really doesn't take a history major to see that such a program has been used before and has proved to work relatively well in helping to restore a functioning economy through the creation of jobs.
The theory behind it was based upon the economic theories of John Maynard Keynes, among other economists of his time, and was first put to the test in the United States during the Great Depression. According to Keynes the best way to counteract a recession within the economy was to increase government spending for the purpose of job creation.
I won't go any deeper into his theories but he had written several books on the subject and has had incredible influence on the way in which modern economists view the world and economic developments, so much so that, "Milton Friedman, the nation's leading conservative economist, who was Presidential Candidate Barry Goldwater's adviser on economics," said, "'We are all Keynesians now.'" (Click Here to read the article from which this is quoted, it is an interesting read for anyone interested in American economic history.) For those of you who don't know who Milton Friedman is, he is best known as the man behind Ronald Reagan's "trickle-down economics."
My point here is that the policy of stimulus programs is based upon economic theory that has garnered the support of some of the most conservative (and non-socialistic) economists in our country and is anything but socialistic. The entire purpose of such a project is to return the capitalistic economic system back to a healthy recovery.
Even if such theory was considered socialistic, it hardly applies to the exercise undertaken in the story above. Nowhere in such a policy is it ever suggested that everyone obtains equal rewards for unequal work.

I don't especially feel the need to even address the third part of the author's argument as I've already shown why the assumptions it is based upon are false. It's extremely clear that the type of example given by the author of this tale has very little to do with anything Obama has proposed.

TLDR (Too Long Didn't Read) version:
The story isn't an accurate description of socialism

Even if it was, Obama's policies are not socialistic

Even if Obama's policies were socialist, the story relates to them in no way whatsoever

The story uses a commonly used logical fallacy known as a "straw man." In such an argument one describes their opponent's philosophy in a simplistic and inaccurate manner for the purpose of knocking it over with ease as a display of the power of their own argument. Of course it was easy to show that Obama's policies in the story won't work, they have no basis in reality whatsoever.

As always, don't take this as approval for Obama. He's done plenty to make me unhappy with his presidency thus far as well, I just choose to use some form of reality for the basis of my criticism rather than arguing against some fictional existence.

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