Bizarre and Stupid

Monday, April 07, 2014

Walter Williams writes a column on what he calls "Bizarre Arguments and Behavior", in which he catalogues explicit or implicit political arguments that are "so asinine that you'd have to be an academic or a leftist to take them seriously". It's hard to tell whether Williams really thinks that even leftists take the arguments seriously, or whether by "bizarre", Williams is focusing more on the affront to common sense or on the fact that so few people get called on them.

Here's my favorite, which would fall into the implicit category:

[T]o reach its secondhand smoke conclusions, the Environmental Protection Agency employed statistical techniques that were grossly dishonest. Some years ago, I had the opportunity to ask a Food and Drug Administration official whether his agency would accept pharmaceutical companies using similar statistical techniques in their drug approval procedures. He just looked at me.
The obvious question, regarding how the EPA got away with this, Williams had already answered with the first part of the above paragraph:
Decades ago, I warned my fellow Americans that the tobacco zealots' agenda was not about the supposed health hazards of secondhand smoke. It was really about control. The fact that tobacco smoke is unpleasant gained them the support of most Americans. By the way, ...
Enough Americans, disliking cigarette smoke, but not being wary enough about the government meddling to make it stop, tossed common sense aside in favor of an expedient excuse for an improper expansion of government power. That is, short-range, disconnected, magical thinking won out.

It is an interesting coincidence that I first encountered the Williams column at a web site that also runs a recurring feature on incompetent criminals. The thought process of criminals, the blanking-out of the big picture (i.e., of all kinds of bad consequences of the behaviors that they contemplate) that Ayn Rand termed "evasion", also leads to strange rationalizations and behavior, the latter sometimes farcical. It bears closer examination:
Dropping below the level of a savage, who believes that the magic words he utters have the power to alter reality, they believe that reality can be altered by the power of the words they do not utter--and their magic tool is the blank-out, the pretense that nothing can come into existence past the voodoo of their refusal to identify it.
The criminal wants your money -- so he ignores the fact that you earned it and he could earn some for himself -- and takes it. How is that any different from someone who hates cigarette smoke and has thugs ban cigarettes -- rather than adopting simple measures and exerting a modicum of effort to avoid the smoke whenever possible? And is it any surprise that someone who practices such behavior often enough ends up in (sometimes farcical)  predicaments? (Magical thinking by voters is worse, since it causes even innocent people to suffer the same fate unjustly.)

America is so rife with asinine rules based on ridiculous premises that people of all stripes are becoming alarmed, but the basic solution is easy to see: If someone advocates a given measure -- no matter how appealing it might sound -- more of us should insist on having a good rationale for it or not support it at all. (This is harder than it might seem: In the case of second-hand smoke, one would need solid scientific evidence that it is bad and sound reasons for thinking that banning tobacco is a proper function of government.) There is no room for evasion of any kind on any point -- or the chickens will come home to roost, in the form of a similar rule you at least find inconvenient.

Perhaps if more of us voters insisted on solid arguments from politicians, our neighbors, and ourselves, we would need less solace from "stupid criminal stories", and our society would start becoming less of a paternalistic kleptocracy.


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