Wednesday, September 10, 2003

The Argument Clinic

Micah Ghertner does a nice job of defending Radley Balko against Al Giordano’s scurrilous attack. Essentially, Giordano plays the “silly libertarians must be ignorant, naive, stupid, or evil to believe what they believe” card. Ghertner correctly identifies this as the ad hominem non-argument that it is.

There is one aspect of Giordano’s post that Ghertner doesn’t give the battering it deserves, however, so allow me to take it on. Giordano repeatedly cites Radley’s lack of personal, hands-on experience as a reason to doubt his positions. On the issue of globalization, Giordano notes that Radley has apparently never “learned any of the languages these mythical ‘poor people’ speak” or “done his own heavy lifting in his research [on globalization].” On the issue of prison rape, Giordana urges Radley to “Spend some real time in jail - as an inmate - and then come back and talk to us about prison rape.”

These arguments (if you can call them that) are individual species of a broader genus known as “if you haven’t been there you just can’t understand.” Other members of this genus include “until you can get pregnant, you don’t get to express an opinion about abortion” and “if you haven’t ever worked for the minimum wage, then how can you advocate eliminating it?” The implied claim behind all these positions is that the only valid knowledge is that which is gained through direct personal experience.

I wonder if those who take positions like these would affirm similar statements about non-favored groups, such as “unless you earn over $100 grand per year, you don’t get to support high marginal tax rates,” or “unless you live in a country that is going to get punished by the Kyoto Protocol, you have no business supporting it”?

I encountered a version of this argument a few weeks ago, when I was discussing globalization (yeah, it’s a popular topic) with an intelligent -- and very left-wing -- couple I met at a book reception. After I’d made several economic arguments in defense of globalization (to which I didn’t think they had responded very well, though some observers may have disagreed), they played their “we’ve traveled in the third world, have you?” card. Well, no, I had to admit -- I don’t make enough money to afford vacations in places I’d like to visit, to say nothing of hellholes. What, I wondered, did they think I would see in such places that would change my mind? The clear implication of their statement was that, upon seeing such terrible privation and squalor, I’d reject capitalism. But first, I don’t support globalization because I think life in Pakistan and Indonesia is hunky-dory; on the contrary, I support globalization because I think life there is pretty horrible. And second, their economies are very far from being capitalist, so it would be pretty weird for me to blame their terrible conditions on an economic system other than the one they have.

I suppose they might respond that the poverty of third-world nations is attributable not to their collectivist and totalitarian domestic economic systems, but to the international capitalist system. Okay, fine -- I think that’s wrong, but let’s suppose it’s true. That only strengthens my point, which is that something other than direct personal experience counts as relevant knowledge. If both of us can look at the same squalid conditions, and you can blame them on capitalism while I can blame them on collectivism, then isn’t it apparent that further study, of both a theoretical and empirical character, is required? Yet that is just the kind of evidence the anti-globo crowd is usually disinclined to consider, unless, of course, it’s just raw data (e.g., “The richest fifth of the world’s people consumes 86% of all goods and services while the poorest fifth consumes just 1.3%”) that really proves nothing on its own. Facts do not speak for themselves; they require interpretation.

Ultimately, the “if you haven’t been there” arguments constitute intellectually suspect appeals to emotion. They invite you to make decisions on complex policy issues on the basis of your gut reactions to images of the sad and pathetic, instead of careful analysis. Worse, the argument is deployed in conversation and debate with the clear purpose of dismissing analysis and discrediting the speaker who offers it.

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