Who Was More Persuasive?

Thursday, May 10, 2018

Image via Pixabay.
I have recently run across two fundamentally different critiques of two fundamentally similar proposals. On the one hand, we have Jonathan Decker, chief economist for the National Pulse, critiquing Bernie Sanders's "Jobs-for-All," which he correctly identifies as a massive income redistribution scheme. On the other hand, we have professor Jaana Woiceshyn of the University of Calgary analyzing Universal Basic Income. The one is basically a thought experiment exploring what the practical implications of "Work-for-All" would look like, while the other -- unusual for a discussion of public policy -- discusses the moral implications of a proposal. It is interesting to consider which one might be more likely to convince the man on the street that income redistribution is a bad idea.

Considering the Decker piece first, it does raise some serious questions, such as:
If the plan is "Jobs-For-All," does that mean the government can't fire people? Are they really "guaranteed" a job? What if a person constantly shows up late? What if they put in little effort at work? What if they are on Facebook group chat all day? Furthermore, what is the incentive to do a good job if, no matter what, the job is "guaranteed"?
He then goes on to quote economist Arthur Laffer at length on the problem posed by redistributing wealth. Laffer ends with a reductio ad absurdum:
The more you redistribute, the greater will be the total loss in income. The limit function here, which is really interesting, is if you were to redistribute income totally, if everyone who made above the average income, you tax them 100% of the excess, and everyone who made below the average, you subsidize them up to the average income ... Everyone would have the same income. If you actually did that, I will stipulate, today ... everyone will end up equal, at zero. At zero. No one will work.
That might be true, if everyone followed the plan that far, and the economy didn't collapse first. But on top of that objection, this commentary, like much else before it, suffers from a more important problem. It fails to address the fact that the plan is immoral. A reader could easily dismiss Laffer as a nerd -- since such a scenario is never going to happen -- and leave this piece thinking Sanders has a great idea, but that there are a few kinks that need to be worked out. Perhaps chronic loafing at a federal job could lead to fines or jail, for example. (Yes. This is not far removed from the various forced labor schemes seen in totalitarian countries. No. I wouldn't put it past supporters of this scheme to think it's a good idea.) If you regard serving your fellow man as more important than the prosperity Laffer seems to hope you care more about, you haven't really been dissuaded from Sanders.

Now let's look at the Woiceshyn piece on Universal Basic Income, which briefly considers arguments pro and con, and then considers the basic principle both sides are failing to address. The Elephant in the Room is justice. "The primarily principle that applies here is justice. According to justice, people should get what they deserve." From that point, she contrasts justice with egalitarianism, which motivates all redistributionists, and as a result of connecting virtuous action with practical results, is able to make a multi-pronged argument (that is also well-integrated with reality) against the proposal:
But the principles of egalitarianism and altruism are fundamentally unjust and inconsistent with the requirements of human flourishing. Therefore, such principles are impractical and destructive, as all social experiments based on them have shown (ultimately leading to Venezuela today, Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge, and the Soviet Union, for example).

As Ayn Rand convincingly argued, the two fundamental requirements of our survival and flourishing are reason and freedom. It is by using reason, by thinking based on facts, that we solve problems and obtain values, including the material values on which our lives depend. To be able to think and produce, we need freedom from coercion by others. When the government collects taxes from us -- by force -- and 'redistributes' them to those who 'need' them more than us, for the sake of equality, it commits a fundamental injustice.

Such injustice is a disincentive against thinking and producing. It leads to fewer material values being produced and makes everyone worse off -- including the recipients of government's largesse, such as those getting the basic income that other people's production is supposed to pay for.
Only a committed egalitarian (who is almost certainly a lost cause, anyway) could read Woiceshyn's whole argument and say something like, "But Universal Basic Income is motivated by high ideals." And few would dismiss it as "too abstract" (i.e., divorced from reality). Also, note that Woiceshyn also does not spend lots of time quibbling over details of implementation, because it has already become clear that the plan shouldn't be implemented. Yes, we should address the likes of Sanders, but we should do so as efficiently and as effectively possible so we can spend more time making a constructive case for capitalism.

-- CAV


Anonymous said...

Hi Gus,

Here's a possible means of persuasion - Reality Therapy for College Credit!


c andrew

Gus Van Horn said...

This would be a lot funnier if there weren't so many people working on starting this show and including me in the cast.

Hint for passers-by: I am a middle-aged pro-capitalist.

Dinwar said...

I think the question starts from a flawed premise: Namely, that we can evaluate persuasion as a universal. I've found that to be pretty far from the truth. In some cases yes, the arguments showing the immorality of these policies works. However, they only work on someone who is capable of viewing things from a fairly high conceptual level. Not everyone can do that (and the percentage is declining in the Western World), and for those people providing more concrete arguments is more effective.

I remember when my wife was pregnant and we went to see the ultrasound. I called my parents to talk about it, and my mother said "Now it's real, isn't it?" I was genuinely confused. My wife had done two home pregnancy tests and had the doctor verify it; I knew she was pregnant. My mother and I were persuaded by different approaches, though. She had to see the direct evidence--the beating heart of the fetus. I accept more indirect methods. The same principle is applicable to persuasion in general.

Of course, all of this is rendered mostly irrelevant by the fact (demonstrated by your own post) that we are attacking these flawed ideologies on all fronts and via all methods. It's just a question of picking the right tool for the job!

Gus Van Horn said...


I agree that different people may find different kinds of evidence more compelling (in your example, both kinds of information are consistent with a pregnancy), but I think one can generalize about what kind of argument is more persuasive based on how the human mind works when it properly forms an abstraction.

Laffer is correct, for example, in what the limiting case would be for "Jobs-for-All" in a mathematical model. (This doesn't mean the model can be actualized.) That said, one can attempt to persuade with an inappropriate level of abstraction or with floating abstractions, and be unconvincing because of the tie to concretes that properly-formed abstractions is either not clear or is missing altogether.