Policy Paralogism

Confronted with a real or imagined social problem, most people first grab for an ostensible solution that appeals to their prejudices, and then for an argument (in favor of this policy) that seems plausible to them. That approach is not ideal, but might still result in good policy if people would poke at each such argument, to see whether it were actually logical, and move away from proposed solutions in cases in which none of the arguments withstood examination. Unfortunately, people don't generally test their arguments; words strung together in emotionally satisfying ways are embraced as if any reasonable person would accept them.

I came upon an epitomal example of this behavior, in the wake of a recent mass shooting at a school. Someone posted a graphic macro suggesting how guns might be treated analogously to motor vehicles and and declared

Let’s go through this one more time…maybe they will get it. And yes, people will obtain guns illegally. And yes, people kill people. But doing nothing means more die.

(Underscore mine.) Now, there are various problems with the suggestion that guns should be treated analogously to motor vehicles, and perhaps someday I'll labor all that occur to me. But here I want to focus on that assertion doing nothing means more die. To the poster, it apparently seems that any reasonable person would accept that this assertion is an argument for the policy that he favors. Let's poke at this use, to see whether it is actually logical.

It is surely true that if we do nothing different, then people who have not yet died will die, and in this sense more will die. But, as a matter of logic, that doesn't mean that there is something that we can do such that people would not die, or even that fewer would die. If we somehow had an optimal social policy, and found that people died, we could still say that if we did nothing different then people would die. So, one question that we might ask is of whether a change in social policy would cause fewer or more people to die.

And I'm not simply talking about whether a change in social policy would cause fewer or more people to die at the hands of shooters who are not state officials, or even about the more general question of whether a change in policy would cause fewer or more people to to die at the hands of shooters of all sorts, but about the question of whether the change in policy would result in fewer or in more deaths across all causes. For example, a policy change might lead to greater use of IEDs. (The deadliest mass murder at a school in American history was effected by a bomb.) The answer is not known a priori.

There is also the issue of other costs. For example, some jurisdictions have a lower rate per capita of homicide, but a higher rate of rape. One doesn't want to switch from one set of policies to another simply on the basis that if we do nothing then more will be raped, and likewise one doesn't want to switch from one set of policies to another simply on the basis that if we do nothing then more will die. I don't think that any utilitarian calculus is actually reasonable, but one that simply counts lives is plainly inhumane. And it would be childlike to think and childish to insist that, with some set of policies, the global minimum for each costs could be achieved simultaneous to that for every other, let alone that such a fantastic minimum could be found by first finding the local minimum for one cost and then seeking the local minimum for another.

The poster has presented an example from just one class of policies, and declared doing nothing means more die. Plainly, there are other possible policy responses, so that the relevant comparison is not simply between adopting the policy that he favors and maintaining the status quo.

Moreover, if his argument were adapted to the defense of other policies, he and others might be provoked to examine that argument more carefully. His words might be left essentially unchanged, but the macro replaced with one discussing a policy of a different sort. For example, someone might propose that each person above the age of 10 years old be interned in a mental-health camp, until and unless experts appointed by the state certified that he or she was not a danger to society. I'd like to think that, if the original poster had earlier seen the very same words used in defense of an internment policy, then he would have immediately poked at the argument to find the illogic. I'm quite sure that most people who applauded or would have applauded his words in the context in which he did use them would have found their illogic in the context of an argument for rounding-up American youth and throwing them into camps. Well, they should have poked at the argument where they actually found it.

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