The term "straw man" gets thrown around a lot lately. Is everyone just obsessed with scarecrows and Guy Fawkes, or have bloggers been going to too many "Burning Man" events? It turns out a straw man is a particularly poetic image for describing a simple rhetorical technique. Since the technique is intended to mislead and confuse, it's not surprising that those who rely on it the most try to muddy the waters by misapplying the term. We are told constantly by loudmouths on the right that this or that liberal position is a straw man. Since they are often wrong it behooves us to know exactly how to recognize and defuse it.
Imagine two professional wrestlers getting ready for a bout. We'll call them Lefty and Righteous. In his pre-game event Lefty pumps up his fans by telling jokes about Righteous and making fun of his past fights. Humiliated, Righteous has a life-sized straw effigy made of Lefty which he takes to his fan event, and he brings down the house by pointing out all the weaknesses and flaws in his straw mock-up. The night of the big fight arrives and the excited fans are a bit surprised to see Righteous dragging the straw man into the ring with him. They are quite taken aback as the bell rings and Righteous body-slams the doll, ignoring his flesh and blood opponent, but they are driven to astonishment as Righteous breaks the dummy's little matchstick arms and legs and pounds it into a broken, twisted mass on the mat. The referee raises Righteous' arm and declares him the winner. Lefty shrugs, uncertain exactly how he lost, but vows to fight better next time.
This metaphor illustrates the Straw Man Fallacy. In rhetorical match-ups you can always win if you fight only with opponents whose positions are weak. But what if your opponent's position is strong? In that case you have to spend the effort up front redefining your opponent's position in order to weaken it, a process called "setting up a straw man." Your imaginary opponent should hold a position superficially similar to your real opponent's position but one that is much harder to defend. If done successfully it's a simple matter to knock down the straw man and declare victory. While this would be a transparent and patently ridiculous ploy in the world of wrestling, in the world of ideas it's relatively easy.
Let me cite as an example this essay putting part of the Libertarian case against taxation. (This has been cited as a counterpoint to my post on risk.) The author starts erecting his straw man, a simulacrum of a bleeding-heart tax-and-spend liberal, right in the very first sentence.
Suppose you wanted to get rid of economic inequality.
By posing this hypothetical, our author is creating an imaginary liberal foe for him to argue against, one who wants to eliminate wealth inequity. While liberals do indeed view the growing gap between rich and poor with alarm, nobody would seriously suggest a policy which tries to simply erase these differences. Instead, we view the inequity as a symptom of a larger problem, a systematic bias in the economic system which leads to shared social ills and individual suffering. We want to eliminate poverty, not wealth inequity.
It is true that you could find some hardcore Socialists who would say that all wealth should be shared equally. While these people are technically on the left of the political spectrum, it's still setting up a straw man to imply that this represents the peak or even the mainstream of liberal thought. It does not. Moreover any argument that would be used against the tenets of radical Marxism would not work against liberal ideals that are rooted in capitalism. Marxist revolutionaries want to do more than just tinker with the tax code.
After some rather pointless dithering the author continues:
So let's be clear what reducing economic inequality means. It is identical with taking money from the rich.
Here he compounds his first fallacy with a second. Not only is he building on his initial straw man by telling us how this hypothetical liberal wants to address the problem of wealth inequity, but he's also couching it in a form which does not consider all possible options. Even if a primary goal of liberalism was to reduce wealth inequity, which it's not, the author does not permit us to consider any option but naked wealth redistribution. Another approach, that of raising everyone's standard of living, he dismisses out of hand even though it might very well accomplish the goal if inequity was measured as a ratio. This author's straw man is not just a radical but a simpleton as well.
Thus we know everything we need to know about the figurative opposition in sketchy black and white. Liberals all want to eliminate wealth inequity through redistribution of cash. Of course once such a straw man has been established it's not very hard to show how absurd such a policy would be. The only real surprise is how long this author takes to get around to that and how many other errors he makes in the process. Here's a good one:
Economic inequality is not just a consequence of startups. It's the engine that drives them, in the same way a fall of water drives a water mill. People start startups in the hope of becoming much richer than they were before.
Here (assuming he knows what he's talking about at all) he's deliberately equivocating. When he said "economic inequality" before he was referring to differences in net worth -- i.e. differences between rich and poor. But his usage of "economic inequality" here, as the driving force of economic activity, refers instead to differences in economic value. We could all have the same amount of free capital -- as at the start of many trade-based board games, for example -- but the differences in the perceived value of goods from one person to the next will still drive economic activity.
If I'd been forbidden to make enough from a startup to do this, I would have sought security by some other means: for example, by going to work for a big, stable organization from which it would be hard to get fired. Instead of busting my ass in a startup, I would have tried to get a nice, low-stress job at a big research lab, or tenure at a university.
And we all know that research labs are dull, bureaucratic places incapable of innovation or developing something new like -- I don't know -- the transistor.
Eventually, as with all straw men, our author gets around to ridiculing the absurd position he himself created:
It sounds benevolent to say we ought to reduce economic inequality. When you phrase it that way, who can argue with you? Inequality has to be bad, right?
The "Robin Hood" Liberal, stealing from the hardworking to give to the lazy, is a nearly iconic wing-nut boogieman and yet such a person simply does not exist. The legacy of liberal legislation in this country is one of progressive taxation in which those who have benefited most from the system shoulder more of the costs, and of social programs which work to better everyone's lives and buffer against uncertainty. These are not handouts. The programs which might come closest are Social Security and TANF/AFDC. The crown jewel of social programs, Social Security (and disability) is more of a group insurance plan and payouts are at least partly determined by how much a person contributes over their working life. Temporary Aid for Needy Families / Aid to Families with Dependent Children -- a.k.a. "Welfare," -- is intended to ameliorate the worst aspects of living in crushing poverty, not to redistribute wealth. If it were, the ten million desperately poor Americans who share its 4 Iraq-month(*) budget would each get about $1,800 per year. Not nearly enough to even be considered "wealth."
And yet, considering how little this stereotype is supported by the evidence, this sloppy author was able to set up his straw man with only a few broad strokes. How did he do that? While liberals do sometimes fall back on straw men -- like when they confuse the positions of far right extremists with mainstream Republicans (although that that's becoming more justifiable all the time) -- the right has made the construction of liberal straw men into an industry. Every time you hear a right wing radio mouthpiece or GOP political operative say "liberals want..." or "liberals believe..." or "liberals think..." they are cramming another handful of straw into their ersatz liberal. Everyone has learned to hate the liberal who wants to take your taxes and spend them on pornographic artists, the liberal who thinks that no one should be allowed to display a nativity scene, the liberal who wants to teach homosexual technique in elementary school. But it's all fake. Such liberals don't exist, but we've been blissfully unaware of how we've been duped and we just shrug, vowing to do better next time.
The only really effective defense against the straw man is not to let your opponent define your position. With one or two exceptions the modern Democratic party has been a disaster at this, and has ceded any chance it had to declare its agenda to opposition apparatchiks. So once again it's up to us. It's not enough to voice vague platitudes like we stand for justice or fairness. That could be anything, and the right wing is ready and able to supply any details we leave unspoken. So what is liberalism? What does it mean to be progressive? Why is regulation important? Which is better at ensuring the safety of citizens: government or private enterprise? Why should people with higher incomes pay higher tax rates? Do we really share responsibility for anything? Is poverty something we should all care about? Just what are our moral values?
Be concise and persuasive, and show your work.
- jack *
(*) Following the idea of the "light-year" which is the distance light travels in a year, an Iraq-month is the amount of money spent on the Iraq war in the course of a month -- about $4.5 billion. An Iraq-day is about $150 million, an Iraq-hour about $6 million, an Iraq-minute about $100 thousand, an Iraq-second about $1,500. "Welfare" costs about one Iraq-second per "dependent" person per year.