The Worst Argument in Politics

How to make a bad argument without realizing it.

Plenty of people have strong opinions about politics, but most of them are quite bad at making arguments for their preferred policies. Often this is an information problem. Public policy is frequently complicated or complex. Complicated in the sense that, even when we can predict the outcomes of policy interventions, understanding all the moving parts in order to make accurate predictions demands quite a lot of knowledge—knowledge non-experts lack. Complex in the sense that many policy interventions have so many interacting aspects, in so many unknown or novel situations, that accurate predictions are, frankly, impossible—even for experts.

In both cases, even if you’re predictions will turn out wrong, or you can’t make a full prediction in the first place, you can at the very least mount an argument for why your preferred policy might be good, or why other policies might be bad. What this means is that engaging in political debate, if you want to do it well, demands a great deal of knowledge. But it also demands an ability to construct an argument with and around that knowledge. It’s here, in my fifteen years of being a professional in the world of politics, that I see the most failure. In short, a great many people are just terrible at constructing political arguments, or in assessing the quality of the arguments they draw on to support their side’s preferred policies.

And if there’s a single, most common way people go wrong in constructing political arguments, it’s in not asking themselves a simple question: “Does the argument I just gave prove too much?”

I’ve been meaning to talk about this variety of bad argument for a while, and was finally prompted to do so now because I came across a perfect example of it on Threads recently. It’s about religion, not politics, but it’s a particularly clear version of what I have in mind, so let’s start there.

There’s a lot wrong with this argument, but the problem I want to highlight is this: If we take this argument seriously, then it tells us that anyone who asserts the non-existence of anything is “contradicting themselves” and has “no solid foundation” for their claim that whatever it is doesn’t exist. Yes, it’s true that it’s difficult to turn up evidence that God doesn’t exist. But it’s also difficult to turn up evidence that leprechauns don’t exist. This isn’t to say that disproving God is as simple as disproving leprechauns, but rather than what sounds at first blush like a plausible argument that atheists are irrational is, instead, an argument that commits the person making it to a whole lot of conclusions they don’t believe.

The mistake, then, is in not asking, “What else does the argument I’ve just given prove?”

Now, maybe your argument is solid, and, even though it points to conclusions you don’t like, you’re willing to bite those bullets in the name of consistency. Or, you need to add additional steps to show why your argument leads to its conclusion in this particular case, but not in others where it also seems to apply. But to do either, you first need to acknowledge this feature of your argument. Instead, in my experience, most people who advance arguments that have this feature aren’t even aware of it. (You can see a version of this in many of the bad arguments against AI.) The result is that argument that look solid to the person making them turn out to be rather easy to dismiss.

Here’s an example: It’s common for people who oppose private schools, or who support socialized medicine, to argue that both education and healthcare are extremely important and necessary for a quality life. Because of this feature, they must be provided by the government—and not just paid for by the government, because otherwise tax credits for private schools, or subsidies for private insurance would be fine. And this sounds plausible. Except that if you stop there, you’ll need to answer why that argument doesn’t apply to everything else that’s also extremely important and necessary for quality of life. Few people who oppose private education or support socialized medicine also argue that the government should manufacture and distribute all the food we eat or the clothing we wear, but life is pretty hard without decent food and clothing.

So if you stop with “It’s important, therefore government should support it,” you’ve made an argument that doesn’t hold up to much scrutiny, unless you’re also arguing that government should give us our food and clothing, too. Just like arguing that the impossibility of proving non-existence means you should believe in God doesn’t hold up to much scrutiny unless you’re willing to accept this is also why you should believe in leprechauns.

If you don’t want your argument to pretty much fail on its face, you need to instead recognize when it looks to prove too much, and then give reasons why, in fact, it doesn’t. That’s how you build a better argument.

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