Reductio ad absurdum

Reductio ad absurdum: It means reduced to the absurd. It is a form of argument that reduces your opponent’s argument to an absurdity, in an attempt to show that the argument itself is absurd. But it only works if you point out the logical fallacies in the argument. It doesn’’t work when you simply extend your opponents comments to an illogical extreme, and then argue against this illogical extreme. That argument simply makes you look dumb.

I was fascinated by Senator Marco Rubio’’s response to President Obama’s State of the Union address a few weeks ago. It was chock-a-block full of conservative talking points, and I would like to address one here: his contention that President Obama does not believe in the free market. Rubio said:

“Presidents in both parties – from John F. Kennedy to Ronald Reagan – have known that our free enterprise economy is the source of our middle class prosperity. But President Obama?  He believes it’s the cause of our problems.  That the economic downturn happened because our government didn’t tax enough, spend enough and control enough.”

That is an interesting comment and a standard Republican talking point, but I don’t think I have ever heard Obama say that the free enterprise system was the cause of the economic collapse. Did I simply miss it?

I think what Sen. Rubio is suggesting is that Obama, like most economists, believe that the financial crisis that began with the collapse of the housing market, was caused, in part, by derivatives and collateralized debt obligations based on mortgage backed securities. This is the wild-west side of our capitalist system. But to suggest that criticism of out of control bankers is the same as believing that the free enterprise system is the cause of our economic woes is simply a bizarre form of reductio ad absurdum.

Rubio was not the first to suggest that Obama does not like the free market system. Republicans have been calling him a socialist for years, at least since he first started running for President, if not before. It is obviously absurd, but what does it say about Republicans that they have to reduce Obama’s arguments to an absurd abstraction, and then argue against that?

I think this raises two important questions:

1. Where does this idea come from?

2. What does it mean for our political system that so many Republicans would rather fight against a bizarre make believe version of Obama rather than the real thing?

1. Where does this idea come from?

As I mentioned, Obama did criticize the more out of control aspects of capitalism regarding the world-wide financial collapse in 2007-08. But then again, so did most economists. About the only people who don’t blame the bankers for pushing crappy mortgages, and then packaging them into derivatives and CDO’s, are Republican politicians. They have an alternate theory. In their view it was Barney Frank, and the Federal Home Loan program that created the housing bubble and led to the collapse. Rubio even alluded to this in his speech.

Conservatives also suggest that Obama’s approach to health care amounts to socialism. The only problem with this argument is that the individual mandate they complain about began as a conservative idea (to eliminate economic free riders) and was the centerpiece of Mitt Romney’s supposedly market based plan for health care reform in Massachusetts. So it’s not really health care either.

What about other regulations? Republicans complain that Obama’s regulations are stifling the economy, but is this a sign of socialism? First, the reality is that the modern American economy is far less regulated, on a substantive level then it was in the past. Modern regulation primarily deals with the effects of certain business behavior, and does not deal with the actual operation of the market. Environmental laws deal with the pollution generated from industrial production, work place safety laws deal with the treatment of workers, and new banking regulations attempt to reign in certain economic behavior. None of these directly regulate the operation of the free market. But, once upon a time, this nation had a great deal of direct government involvement in the market. One example is the Civil Aeronautics Board, which controlled the airline industry. This board apportioned routes among carriers, and set fares. In other words, a government board (with representatives of the airlines sitting on the board) controlled the industry. This was eliminated by deregulation in 1978. So, from the beginning of the industry, until 1978, the American airline industry was directly controlled by the government. The government similarly controlled rail and freight shipping, and both were deregulated in the late 70’s (or early 80’s). Obama has proposed nothing like this.

From the 1930’s through the early 1950’s, there were other government boards that controlled major industries, like steel. These began as a product of the depression, and continued during the war to control war production. They were phased out at the end of the war, but elements remained in some industries until the 1950’s. Similarly, the telephone industry was a government regulated monopoly until it was broken up in 1984. Banks were also heavily regulated, starting with massive restructuring of the American Banking system in the early years of the Great Depression. These regulations were eased, starting with deregulation of the Savings and Loan industry in 1986. The newly unregulated S&L’s went on a lending spree, and collapsed a few years later, requiring government bailouts. And then the banks were deregulated in the late 1990’s, and we know what happened then. But the important point is that Obama has not suggested re-imposing any of these kinds of regulations. And even though many call for it, Obama has not called for the re-authorization of the Glass-Stengall act which kept commercial banking separate from investment banking.

It is also worth noting that in the early 1970’s, in an attempt to deal with inflation, both Presidents Nixon and Ford, instituted a variety of price controls over key products and commodities. This is a form of direct economic control found primarily in real socialist countries. It didn’t work, and no one tries in any more. The main point is that Obama is not suggesting anything of this sort.

The reality is that Obama’s actions on the economy are pretty standard modern governmental economic policies. Nothing out of the norm in the modern Western world, and nothing out of the norm in the range of Presidential behavior over the last couple of decades, at least since Reagan. So if it’s not Obama, what is it?
There is now a new breed of economic conservative, steeped in Friedrich Hayek, Ludwig von Mises and Ayn Rand.  They believe in a theoretical and pure form of economic free markets, which hold that the free market must be absolute, and absolutely free from regulation. They also believe that the market is the solution to every problem. They have become free market fundamentalists. And because they believe that the free market must be absolutely free, they view any attempt to regulate the market (even if pale by historic norms) as a dire threat.

2.    So, what does this mean for American Politics?

This view has a number of serious implications, but I’ll address two. First it means that conservatives are fighting against an imaginary enemy. They are note fighting against the real economic policies of Democrats, but their worst fears of what they imagine Democrats want.

It is hard to have a rational debate when you don’t even make an attempt to understand your opponents position and arguments in support of that position. This is obvious from much of conservative rhetoric, as exemplified in Rubio’s speech, and in Senator Rand Paul’s surreply to the State of the Union Address.

This means that means that political arguments are mostly dumb. Each side misconstrues the others policies and motives. Conservatives say that there should be no regulation of the market, and suggest that the founders wanted no government involvement in markets, an argument that is false on its face, as anyone who has read history knows. And in response, many liberals argue that conservatives are ignorant of history and willing to destroy the economy based on an untested theory. And the debate becomes a mutual shouting match.

The second problem is that when the arguments are based on extremes, every fight becomes existential. Republicans believe that they are fighting against someone who wants to destroy the free market (and not the reality that they are dealing with someone who wants to engage in a very mild form of regulation, one which is done in most countries on earth). And since they are fighting to save something fundamentally important, every issue is a battle for the soul of America.

I believe that this explains much of modern Republican behavior. One example is their willingness to stop most of President Obama’s appointments. How else can you explain their decision to stop Chuck Hagel’s nomination as Secretary of Defense? This is also why they are willing to stop nearly every judicial nominee. In their mind they are stopping Obama’s judges, who are furthering Obama’s agenda, which is designed to destroy the free market. In their view they are not being obstructionist, they are saving the nation.

This view means that every Obama policy must be stopped, and stopped at all costs.