“If you’ve got a business, you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen.”
— US President Barack Obama
“Whence does [the State] draw those resources that it is urged to dispense by way of benefits to individuals? Is it not from the individuals themselves? How, then, can these resources be increased by passing through the hands of a parasitic and voracious intermediary?”
— Frédéric Bastiat
Tell me sir, “yes” or “no,” have you stopped beating your wife?
Of the myriad rhetorical tools employed in public discourse today, there are dangerous few more insidious than the false dilemma. Little surprise then that, as the election season circus rolls into towns across the country, this Weapon of Dialectic Destruction (WDD) finds itself a favorite of slick politicians working to curry favor with an increasingly ovine voter mass.
Simply put, the false dilemma is a sly trick of exclusion whereby a speaker (always generously) offers his or her audience the apparently favorable choice between two unfortunately poor options.
“With which horn do you wish to be gored?”
Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke furnished an infamous example when he told a hastily convened meeting in the conference room of then-House Speaker, the permanently-startled Nancy Pelosi:
“If we don’t do this [enact TARP legislation], we might not have an economy on Monday.”
News of the backroom political panic soon hit the streets. One could almost hear the trillions of excited neurons, misfiring in earnest around vacant braincases from sea to shining sea…
“Sure, creating a giant, taxpayer-sponsored slush fund from which Bernanke and his minions could (and would) dole out hundreds of billions of dollars to their bankster cronies is not exactly optimal…but not having an economy on Monday? Surely that’s worse, right?”
But were these the only two options? Your money or your…economy?
What about letting profligate institutions go broke? What about adhering to the market principle of Too Stupid to Succeed rather than capitulating to The State’s self-serving version: Too Big to Fail? Where might the economy be if the weak hands had been eliminated from the market, ceding what remaining value they had on the books to institutions that had exercised prudence and good judgment while future bailout recipients busily indulged in excessive risk-taking and reckless profligacy?
We’ll never know, of course…because Bernanke, Paulson, Pelosi & Co.’s false dilemma scared enough people into thinking there was “no other option.”
Known variously as the either-or fallacy, the fallacy of exhaustive hypotheses or, more colloquially, plain ol’ black and white thinking, the false dilemma is both deceptive and destructive. First, because it lures unsuspecting listeners into a misguided belief that their choices are limited to those offered by the speaker and, second, because it attacks the creative process by which new ideas come to “market” by slamming the door closed on alternative possibilities.
Take the above quote, from none other than President Barack Obama. Speaking to supporters in Roanoke, Virginia on Friday afternoon, Mr. Obama channeled the intellectually insufferable Massachusetts Senate candidate, Elizabeth Warren, in declaring that:
If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help. There was a great teacher somewhere in your life. Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive. Somebody invested in roads and bridges. If you’ve got a business — you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen.
Implied here is the false notion that, without roads built by The State…there would be no roads. Without schools constructed by The State…there would be no education. Without the “unbelievable American system”…creative individuals wouldn’t be allowed to thrive.
In other words…
Textbook false dilemmas.
Nowhere is a free market alternative presented. And it’s little wonder why. At the precise point the free market ends, the tyranny of The State begins. Nowhere do the two overlap. (Crony capitalism, mixed market economies and the rest are NOT free markets.) Clearly, therefore, it is in The State’s best interest to see that free market activity is marginalized as far as possible in order that The State itself might occupy ever more space in people’s minds and, by extension, in the economies they are “allowed” to build.
So profoundly have certain false dilemmas bored their way into people’s “thinking” that supposedly able-minded individuals have stricken the very possibility of free market cooperation from their mental map.
Indeed, some confused people even contend that, were we to ignore the iron-fisted directives of The State, we would promptly descend into a Mad Max-style dystopia, in which a collection of unchecked territorial monopolies would roam the planet, stealing and damaging property at whim and torturing, imprisoning and killing whomever they so wished.
Strange then that these same people would “remedy” this apocalyptic nightmare by supporting The State…a collection of unchecked territorial monopolies that roam the planet, stealing and damaging property at whim and torturing, imprisoning and killing whomever they so wish.
These individuals are sorely misled…victims of the false dilemma. They are so misled, in fact, that they find themselves circling back to a position that sees them fervently supporting an entity that tirelessly labors to turn their worst fears into harsh reality. Worse still, they continue to mislead others by repeating such vapid nonsense.
Unlike The State’s obedient apologists, advocates of the free market don’t need to pretend to know the best solution to each and every problem — something F.A. Hayek called the pretence of knowledge. We simply need to cede the discovery process to free individuals acting in their own self-interest.
When confronted with a problem deserved of our best solution, voluntarists first ask, “Is there a peaceful, market-based solution here? Might, for example, freely-associating individuals work together to build schools, roads and bridges? Might free competition stand guard against coercive monopolies? Might the market process of creative destruction weed out inept and/or corrupt businesses, rather than reward them with stolen property?”
Like the election process itself, in which well-intentioned voters saddle themselves with the misguided obligation to choose the “lesser of two evils,” the false dilemma lulls individuals into thinking there is no alternative, no preferable option, no choice that does not, at least to some degree, rely on compromising their values and morals. No choice that does not involve the hired gun of The State. No choice, in other words, that does not render them party to evil.
Surely we can think a little harder than that, Fellow Reckoner, beyond the iniquities perpetrated by the political left and the right. Instead of a system based on force and coercion and violence, instead of extracting money from people for “services” by threatening to put them in cages, peaceful, cooperative individuals learn in time to welcome and celebrate a system such as here described by Hayek:
“Spontaneous order is a system which has developed not through the central direction or patronage of one or a few individuals but through the unintended consequences of the decisions of myriad individuals each pursuing their own interests through voluntary exchange, cooperation and trial and error.”
When it comes to false dilemmas, we need not slavishly impale ourselves on one of The State’s two horns, but only to open our eyes. The free market alternative invites decent people everywhere to stand up and confidently declare, “It’s time to cut the bull.”
Joel Bowmanfor The Daily Reckoning
Joel Bowman is managing editor of The Daily Reckoning. After completing his degree in media communications and journalism in his home country of Australia, Joel moved to Baltimore to join the Agora Financial team. His keen interest in travel and macroeconomics first took him to New York where he regularly reported from Wall Street, and he now writes from and lives all over the world.
“If you’ve got a Peace Prize, you didn’t earn that. Someone else made it happen.”
Leave aside politics for a moment. Consider me, a product of (mostly) USA public education system (including two undergrad degrees: Computer Science and Spanish Literature). I do not recall EVER learning about logic or rhetoric save in: consumer education (deception in advertising) and electronics (Boolean logic). Not even in intro to philosophy. What little I know of logical fallacy is from outside interests or reading. Takeaway: the Powers that Be don’t want us sheep to know too much of their game.
“Choose The State, or choose illiteracy.
Choose The State, or choose dirt tracks on which to haul your goods.
Choose The State, or nobody will help you…nobody will cooperate with you…and you will be alone, unable even to survive, much less thrive.”
you misconceive the state. we’ll save that for later, but for now, tell you what. there are plenty of areas around the globe where there is no state, nothing to impede you, nothing to hold you back, nothing to tell you what to do about anything at all. better yet there are plenty of areas where YOU can be the state, be your own cacique. go live there. see how far you get.
you may have to hike in ….
Except, we don’t have to engage in theoretical speculation. We know what happens when there is no state. Somalia is a current example. So unless human nature is somehow very different in Somalia compared to the US, we know that no state DOES mean some Mad Max dystopia.
Ah yes. The infamous, “If you don’t want a state, go live in Somalia!” statement. Yes, such a great example, an area where the last hundreds of years has been full of states, governments, warloads, etc causing poverty and havoc among the population, so when the government actually collapses, you say, “hey, look!! A place with no government!!! Go live there and see what a stateless society is!!!” Discounting how the area ended up in that condition in the first place.
“Discounting how the area ended up in that condition in the first place.”
discounted or not, it should now be exactly what the stateless advocate. and yet you seem to think it is unattractive? oh come on! think of it! no rules! no regulations! no epa! no irs! no police! no gun laws! and yet … no interest in it? “we don’t want THAT.” I’ll bet you don’t, which is my point.
lots of other areas too though. the american deserts, northern canada, australian outback, wide swathes of china, siberia, many parts of central and south america, and others, are virtually stateless. even areas that have nominal governments can be cheaply bribed to allow you to do whatever you want, they won’t care.
so what are you waiting for? no-one is stopping you! hop to! freedom and productivity await you in the unregulated wilderness! and by “wilderness” I don’t necessarily mean “unpopulated”.
but even if they’re populated you still may have to hike in ….
add antarctica and south georgia to my lesson in geography. but you can’t hike in there….
also I forgot to mention how mussolini made the trains run on time, that the genocides and wars of the past hundred years were carried out by authoritarian states in the name of the latest ideology, but my strawman argument would fall apart and you’d consider me a bigger troll than usual.
Wow gman sounds like you are advocating dictatorship for the sake of trains running on time? Glad you weren’t a jew on one of those efficient trains. I’d rather have my freedom and hike in, thank you.
Always nice to have an authoritarian state… unless you’re the unpopular minority.
(the gman above Bob is not me. but I’ll answer Bob’s question anyway.)
“Wow gman sounds like you are advocating dictatorship for the sake of trains running on time”
am I? of course libertarians (using the word broadly) would automatically think so, because they experience any imposition or restriction upon themselves as immoral. but all I’ve said is, the freedom you say you want is out there – go get it!
but you can’t. can you? have you ever wondered why?
For once, gman is right. (I’m as shocked as anyone that I’m saying this.) You do need SOME semblance of a state to get the basics done: to establish rule of law, to build and maintain roads, and (maybe) to maintain a postal service.
Rule of law DOES NOT mean a police state. It simply means being able to walk the streets without fear of being shot. However romantic it might be to think of every man walking about with a revolver on his hip, his freedom protected by the warm squeeze of a trigger, this is no way to live.
Trust me, I have worked in the lawless backcountry of Paraguay and the FATA (tribal areas of northwest Pakistan which border Afghanistan). The absence of a functioning government in these regions means vigilante “justice”. It means people like Pablo Escobar and tribal warlords rule.
There is a happy medium between the statist totalitarianism of the Soviet Union and the freewheeling libertarian “paradise” of Somalia. Dunno where it is, will let you know once I find it.
LoL the postal service! That should DEFINITELY be handled by the market. All we need are defense of person and property rights. The anarcho-capitalist argument is that these services can be provided by the market and that the State is the biggest violator of these rights.
Would we degenerate into warlord rule if we tried private courts and police for hire? I honestly don’t know, but our government is currently out of control.
A really good article!
Because it somewhat supports my view of course that you should not compromise the truth; and there is no such thing as the often touted win-win which in the short term is win but in the longer term is lose-lose.
“but my strawman argument would fall apart and you’d consider me a bigger troll than usual.”
It’s not possible to consider you a bigger troll than usual.
“Rule of law DOES NOT mean a police state … There is a happy medium between the statist totalitarianism of the Soviet Union and the freewheeling libertarian “paradise” of Somalia”
bingo. but not for a libertarian. they want all the benefits of living in an ordered society, but none of the costs.
“Dunno where it is, will let you know once I find it.”
oh it’s always shifting. government is the confluence of shared cultural and economic interests, combined with the authorized power to influence those interests. as the population changes those interests change, therefore government changes. of course there are problems – undue influence, shut-outs, corruption, you all know the drill – but the basic purposes remain. if a government fulfils those basic purposes it tends to endure. if it fails those basic purposes it tends to fall.
and that is why libertarians cannot find the freedom they seek. to them freedom means enjoying the benefits of an ordered society without them having to participate in it or to pay the costs of it. they want to socialize the costs while privatizing the profits. they want to make it on wall street and then bury it on main street – on THEIR private main street. they want to be permanent tourists in someone else’s nation. they want to swoop in like a comet in a blaze of profit and then swoop out, away from all those sheeple and their rules and their government.
because, you see, libertarians biggest problem is not government. it is other people.
“Would we degenerate into warlord rule if we tried private courts and police for hire?”
yes, of course. which is exactly why some advocate it – they think they will end up as the new manor lords. “king’s justice” and all that.
“our government is currently out of control.”
yes. it is. the answer is to regain control. if we can.
gman there is a distinction between libertarian and anarchist you are ignoring. The libertarian seeks to limit government while the anarchist seeks to abolish it. They both oppose statists that don’t recognize any limit on legitimate government action.
The libertarian form of government is simply having an entity form an ultimate authority, subject its actions to set rules and guidelines, and have it secure basic rights of the citizenry. Hence Somalia is more of a sore subject for anarchists than libertarians.
The libertarian argument against the statists is that there is rarely (if ever) a justifiable cause for government intervention into economic affairs. The reason for this is twofold:
1. Governments are grossly ignorant of the workings of a market economy.
2. There is a great conflict of interest when infringments on economic freedom can be used for political gain.
Chad, before the term was watered down, libertarian meant anarchist. Society would need to accept the nonaggression axiom to prevent warlords.
In the blueprint for libertarian society, “For a New Liberty”, “Mr. Libertarian” Murray Rothbard says:
“It is now clear that there will have to be a legal code in a libertarian society….The legal code would insist on the libertarian principle of no aggression against person or property, define property rights in accordance with libertarian principle, set up rules of evidence (such as currently apply) in
deciding who are the wrongdoers in any dispute, and set up a code of maximum punishment for any particular crime.
Within the framework of such a code, the particular courts would compete on the most efficient procedures, and the market
would then decide whether judges, juries, etc., are the most efficient methods of providing judicial services.”
To further clarify, it’s no aggression against person or property UNLESS the other person aggressed first. This is articulated in the book.
Google: Somalia, Failed state, economic success. Interesting reading.
Success is relative to your perception of it.
Seems that there may be not enough consideration for culture, values and beliefs. For this reason, I believe Jean-Jaqcues Rousseau’s “city state” may be the way to go: little governments espousing the values, etc of its community.
Some “city states” may be anarchic, some libertarian, some centrally planned, etc but always the state should be meeting needs (culture values and beliefs) of its society in some form or another.
The problem is that the successful city states will automatically attract the inhabitants of the bad ones: Gresham’s Law.
Bad money drives out good, or rather, “bad” drives out “good” and the whole process begins all over again:
“… time to breakdown … a time to lose … (and) a time of war …” and
“… That which hath been is now; and that which is to be hath already been …”
“I have seen servants upon horses, and princes walking as servants upon the earth.”
“gman there is a distinction between libertarian and anarchist you are ignoring. The libertarian seeks to limit government while the anarchist seeks to abolish it.”
yes. the anarchist seems more honest. the libertarian seeks to limit any government contact upon himself, while keeping that which benefits him but for which others pay almost all of the cost. the libertarian’s approach to government is nothing more than personal minimax.
“it’s no aggression against person or property UNLESS the other person aggressed first.”
say your neighbor smelts gold in his back yard, and the mercury fumes are drifting over to your property. is that aggression on his part? if it isn’t can you tell him to stop anyway?
actually, to be clearer – libertarians want government, they just don’t want it to touch THEM.
gman(whichever one you are), you have a big chip on your shoulder against libertarians, don’t you. The arguments you’ve presented are shockingly ignorant strawman nonsense. How about this: if you love state-run/state-controlled everything, then why don’t you go to DPRK? That would be your utopia, wouldn’t it? As for me, I’ll take my very small town in BFE with essentially no governmental intervention, minimal taxes, and more freedom than you’ll ever find in the USSA. The USSA is a good place to be FROM, but no longer IN.
“gman(whichever one you are), you have a big chip on your shoulder against libertarians, don’t you.”
not at all, I love ‘em. I merely point out that when you consider them objectively, they’re not so different from the “moochers” that they criticize so strongly. they’re just like everyone else, pushing what benefits themselves while sweeping everything else under the rug. I simply pull back the rug.
this is not the same thing as advocating DPRK – that is a false dichotomy. it’s not a choice between autistic free-floating move-to-BFE-cause-everyone-else-is-stupid individualism and überstat. a healthy individual and a healthy state will value each other and work as a team. to the extent that the state is effaced then society devolves into competing manorlord camps that destroy each other. to the extent that individuals are effaced then society ceases to function. both are valuable and both are necessary in their proper roles.
perhaps I am not expressing this well but I’m pressed for time.
Yes air pollution is a form of aggression against person. You would file a lawsuit against your neighbor. Or it might be not severe enough to be worth the expense.
America got along just fine without a strong federal government. From 1607 to 1789, roads were built, commerce and expansion flourished all without our Rebulicrat overlords and their litany of alphabet agencies. How did these folks ever manage without untalented bureaucrats? Hard work, skill and finding people with similar interests to your own.
After 1789, when the Fed came into existence, is when things began spiraling out of control. History is full of facts, which are easily ignored by modern day people because they think HUD has been around forever.
“the libertarian seeks to limit any government contact upon himself, while keeping that which benefits him but for which others pay almost all of the cost”
Exchange the word libertarian for any other group and the phrase remains just as true. That is the libertarian contention against arbitrary government action; that it is irresponsible to grant the government the leeway to bestow groups or persons with special privelages at the expense of others.
Do you find it at all funny that you used that phrase while arguing to have the costs of government heaped on a wealthy minority (who will receive no discernable benefit) so that the majority of people can benefit from goods and services they did not pay for?
BDCs are soaring while banks are suffering. Banks are still working through nonperforming portfolios while regulators continue to restrict them.
There’s an easy recipe you can use to root out the strongest stocks on the market right now.
America’s Strategic Energy Weapon, Part II
The quack policy that was good for stock owners in North America turned out even better for those in Japan.
From under which fetid igneous formation did these IRS slugs slither?
Why following market skeptics can protect you in the long run.
From “Bits” to “Atoms”… Digital Innovation Finally Comes to the World of Real Stuff