Sunday, September 16, 2018

The Rhetroical Strategies of Sensible Conservative Commentators

In the increasingly out-of-control comments on my harmless little article about an old TV show, one of our regular commentators wrote the following:




Andrew Stevens said...
Eh. I grew up poor. There were a lot of problems - crime, drugs, growing up fatherless, etc. But we were relatively quite poor in the U.S. We were far wealthier than virtually every human being who had ever walked the planet prior to 100 years before. Sure, my mother had to avail herself of our church's food pantry, used food stamps, and free school lunches to feed us, but we didn't actually lack for food. My clothes may have been hand-me-downs, but I was clothed.

I realize that most people think poverty causes crime, drugs, etc., but I think that's just a slander on poor people. My grandparents grew up even poorer than I did and did not become alcoholics, drug addicts, or criminals. So I am strongly of the opinion that the arrow of causation goes the other way. Obviously, I am also strongly of the opinion that not all poor people are criminals, alcoholics, drug addicts, etc. Many people are poor from bad luck or because they have been denied opportunities due to race. And obviously poor children are always poor due to bad luck.

As I said earlier in this thread, I am for a Universal Basic Income. I far prefer just giving poor people cash instead of our current inefficient paternalistic bureaucratic methods. And I think it would be enough to lift many people out of poverty though the primary benefit of that would be to allow them to relocate out of poorer neighborhoods. I think that it would still not cure poverty. It seems obvious to me that there are people who, if you just give them money, would simply waste that money to live indolent, drug-besotted, miserable lives. Take the Kennedys, for example.


My thoughts wouldn't fit into the comments box, so I am starting a new posting. I am not charging anyone for this, but if you find it interesting then the decent socialist thing to do would be to redistribute some of your wealth to me via Patreon. The decent conservative thing to do would be to give me an honest days pay for an honest days work in the expectation that someone else might do so for you, again, via Patreon. 


The core of Andrew Stevens argument appears to be: 

1: Some poor people do not become criminals.

2: Therefore, poverty is not a cause of criminality.

3: However, the majority of criminals are poor.

4: Therefore criminality must cause poverty.

I am not for the moment interested in whether or not this argument is logically valid. (NOTE: It isn't.) What interests me is the rhetorical clothing Andrew chooses to present it in. 

"I grew up poor...My grandparents grew up poorer than I did and did not become alcoholics, drug addicts and criminals."

The writer begins with a proverbially bad argument, one that is frequently deployed to characterize a certain sort of muddle-headed, blimpish thinking. It is classically stated as "My Uncle Louis smoked a hundred cigarettes a day and lived to be eighty three" or "I was regularly caned at school and it never did me any harm." He must be flag signalling that he rejects normal forms of reasoning and wishes to argue from gut feeling instead. 

c.f "You can prove anything you like with statistics" and "This country has heard quite enough from experts."

"We were far wealthier than virtually every human being who had ever walked the planet prior to 100 years before. Sure, my mother had to avail herself of our church's food pantry, used food stamps, and free school lunches to feed us, but we didn't actually lack for food. My clothes may have been hand-me-downs, but I was clothed"

The next move is to deliberately blur definitions; in ways that do not advance the argument but do introduce a certain amount of fog. Certainly, we can define poverty as "dying from malnutrition" and "actually having to go to school naked"; equally clearly we can define poverty as being "significantly poorer than those around you." Andrew appears to be claiming that relative poverty cannot statistically be a cause of criminality because it is distinct from absolute poverty which is at best a non sequitur and at worst nonsense. I suspect it is introduced into the argument to smuggle in the idea that the poor people nowadays (as opposed to when I were a lad) are whingers who complain too much.

"I realize that most people think poverty causes crime, drugs, etc., but I think that's just a slander on poor people."

Next, we go for some false indignation, and an attempt to shift the burden of proof. Note that this could have been done either way. Andrew says "How dare you say poverty causes crime! That insults poor people!". but he could equally have said "How dare you say poverty causes crime! That insults the victims of crime! Poverty is no excuse!"

The idea is to create a false dichotomy between complete autonomy on the one hand and complete determinism on the other: so if something has a social cause then individuals are absolved from blame; but if individuals have personal responsibility there cannot be a social cause. At a more fundamental level, the idea is to say "liberals are amoral: they don't believe in personal responsibility."

Either fat people are fat because they choose to be fat and could instantly become thin tomorrow by simply choosing to eat less; or else they are string puppets forced to be fat by forces over which they have no control. The idea that social environment can make it easier to make bad choices or hard to make good ones is rejected out of hand.

Many people are poor from bad luck.... And obviously poor children are always poor due to bad luck.

Another idea comes in under the radar. Class and wealth are part of a game -- a game which has winners and losers, but which is essentially fair. To complain is to be a unsportsmanlike. You are poor because the neutral dealer dealt you a poor hand; you are poor because you rolled a double one on a pair of fair dice.

Andrew does not make the argument that this is true: he just takes it for granted. And he does not consider the alternative point of view: poor people are not poor due to "bad luck" but because society is run in such a way as to keep them poor (apart from Mr and Mrs Exception.)  

The question of whether the poor are poor because of bad luck or because the rich won't increase their wages is, in fact, not relevant to the argument in hand. It might be that poverty results from honest bad luck, and that people who are dealt a bad hand are much more likely to become criminals. It might be that the house is crooked, all the dice are loaded, but poor people carry on as best they can and don't turn to crime to improve their circumstances.

"So I am strongly of the opinion that the arrow of causation goes the other way."

The claim here appears to be that while in a few exceptional cases people are relatively poor because an arbitrary supernatural force called "luck" has made them so; the majority of them started out wealthy, made a free choice to spend all their money on alcohol and drugs, or to take up criminal activities, and as a result ended up on welfare. This is the contentious claim on which the whole argument rests: and no argument or evidence is provided -- we are just informed that the writer has a strong intuition that this so. 

c.f I just happened to feel that going to war with Iraq was the right thing to do. 



Andrew correctly says that moving people out of poor areas or giving them free money would not abolish poverty. He concludes that poverty is an intractable problem because there are a certain number of people who will waste whatever resources they have. Again, this is a narrowly focused false dichotomy "If poverty were soluble, it would be solved by handouts; since some people will waste even these handouts, poverty is not soluble." There may be a buried thought that if a problem is not completely solvable, there is no point in trying to ameliorate it. There is no point in vaccinations because some people will still get sick; there is no point in laws about health safety because reckless people will ignore than. (There may also be a hint that Socialists are silly enough to think that they do know the solution to poverty.)

The alternative position: that poverty exists because of the way we choose to organize society; that simple justice requires that the rich pay more for goods and services so that the wages of the poor can be increased; and that this is most likely to be achieved by trades unions making demands -- does not come into the writer's consciousness. Naturally, as a conservative he doesn't want too much power given to trade unions and fears the results of paying people enough to live on. (I suppose he believes that if the rich are allowed to get as rich as they like they will suddenly decide to pay the poor better wages out of the goodness of their extremely well fed hearts. That is what all conservatives believe, isn't it?) But that point of view isn't reflected in this piece of writing, even as a false opinion to be shot down.



Andrew is happy to have a certain amount of hand-outs to the poor, but skeptical about what he called " inefficient paternalistic bureaucratic methods". When arguing that no-one in the United States is truly poor he says that when he was growing up his family had to rely on "food stamps, and free school lunches" (and also charity from religious organisations.) I am going to hazard a guess that he attended school, and that he took books out of the library, played sport in a park, swam at a municipal swimming pool, and other examples which I have possibly forgotten. That is to say he was protected from the worst evils of even relative poverty because the State redistributed money from the moderately wealthy and used it to pay for things which the poor could use. These are socialist principles; from each according to his ability, to each according to his need. "The left" and the "the right" may well disagree about the extent or degree to which the state should play Robin Hood. (I do not particularly want to take from the rich and give to the poor. I want to take from the moderately well off and use it to buy things which everyone can share.) But however much they may talk of the evils of Communism, it seems that most Conservatives are a little bit Socialist, and doubtless most Socialists are a little bit Conservative.

8 comments:

Gavin Burrows said...

On the other hand he may well be right about the Kennedys.

Andrew Rilstone said...

Well, quite.

JWH said...

"I suppose he believes that if the rich are allowed to get as rich as they like they will suddenly decide to pay the poor better wages out of the goodness of their extremely well fed hearts. That is what all conservatives believe, isn't it?"

I don't think it is what all conservatives believe. I think lots of conservatives believe that empirically more of the poor are better off in a society that allows people to get as rich as they like. They think of it a systemic effect, not an outcome of individual virtue. On the last point, I think many Marxists would agree with them.

Andrew Rilstone said...

it’s like goldy and coppery

JWH said...

?

JWH said...

I mean, I get the reference, but I don't understand the irony...

Andrew Rilstone said...

My extremely apologies.

My VERY FUNNY joke was to give a very simplistic version of what some conservatives might possibly believe and then naively say "that's what all conservatives believe, isn't". The TERRIBLY CLEVER point was that conservatives sometimes give very simplistic versions of socialism and say that that is what all liberals believe.

"Anything I retain now is velvet. Except the coat, that's Prince Albert. Well, all the jokes can't be good. You have to expect that once in a while." -- Groucho Marx

JWH said...

Thanks Andrew - when you explain the tone, the whole thing becomes very clear. And even a little bit funny.

My apologies.