I don’t feel much like talking about politics tonight nor about public policy. My thoughts are running in a different direction. Still, a very brief comment. Tomorrow, I will go to to that direction.
A fair bit of public policy is based on this logical equation, if a then b. Governments rely on it all the time in presenting their arguments.
If we introduce new security restrictions, we will reduce the risk of terrorist attack. If we make drivers do more hours before they get their driver’s licenses, we will reduce road fatalities. If we impose new restrictions on swimming pools, we will reduce drowning deaths among the young. If we impose licensing and inspections conditions on septic tanks, we will reduce water pollution. If we introduce new controls on advertising of certain food stuffs, we will reduce obesity.
This form of argument is highly persuasive. If you agree with b, then how could you argue against a? You try it some time. People will generally say that b is a good thing, therefore you must support a. If you don’t, watch out. In fact, you are generally dealing with a logical fallacy.
Just because I or the Government assert that a equals b doesn’t prove a damn thing. The relationship has to be proved. Further, even if a relationship does exist, then you have to ask about the cost. Is the price we pay worth the gain?
If you follow this approach, ask these questions, you will very quickly make yourself unpopular at dinner parties and indeed with politicians and some public servants. Consider this scenario.
You are at a dinner party or the pub where someone is supporting the anti-terror legislation, arguing that it will prevent terrorist attacks from IS or whatever. Now you say I don’t understand this. How will the proposed legislation stop terrorism? We have lots of controls and surveillance. Why aren’t these adequate?
Often this will reduce the conversation to a sometimes apoplectic halt at once. However, if the other side in the conversation mounts a reasonable case, then you move to the second question. I am worried about the cost to all of us from these measured in reduced freedom. Do we want this extra surveillance? Are the gains worth that cost?
Now if your role is to learn and not persuade, you may be forced to accept the argument if the other side puts forward a persuasive argument. But you will at least have learned something.
I suspect that the most useful thing that we can do as bloggers, commentators or commenters is just to ask questions, to make the other side prove its case. Of course these things are matters of judgement. However, that does not remove the need to subject argument to logical analysis.