An Error of Multiplicities

Imagine a nation containing two jurisdictions, A and B. Imagine further that the population of jurisdiction A divides neatly into two groups: 51%, who oppose and do not receive transfer benefits from the federal state; and 49%, who receive such benefits (whatever their expressed beliefs). Imagine also that the population of jurisdiction B divides neatly into two groups: 67%, who support but do not do not receive transfer benefits from the federal state; and 33%, who receive such benefits (whatever their expressed beliefs).

The majority in jurisdiction A oppose transfer benefits; yet a higher share of people in that jurisdiction draw benefits than in jurisdiction B, where a majority support such programmes. None-the-less, these figures provide no evidence of hypocrisy in jurisdiction A. Possibly no one there who draws benefits speaks out against them or works to prevent others from receiving them.

In the real world, things are messier. (There'd be six relevant types of people.) But I sometimes see it argued that the people of certain jurisdictions are hypocrites simply on the basis that a majority there oppose some set of entitlement programmes, while at the same time a higher share of the population in that district (than of populations in other districts) draw benefits from that set. The hypothetical case above illustrates the fallacy of that argument.

If we had just one jurisdiction, in which a majority opposed some set of benefits yet a large share of people drew those benefits, the idea that there were some sort of hypocrisy wouldn't naturally arise, unless it were suggested that a majority drew those same benefits. Knowing about other jurisdictions doesn't tell one what one needs to know about that one jurisdiction. But many people get befuddled by the multiplicity, especially when the narrator tells them what they are predisposed to believe.

(There's here also another, perhaps more important fallacy, which I discussed in an entry more than five years ago. People who do not believe that some order should prevail can participate in that order without being hypocrites. It is when they deliberately act to sustain an order against which they express themselves that they are acting as hypocrites.)

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