Can philosophy (specifically the branch of philosophy concerned with logic) help us make sense of how we make choices in elections, and understand what those choices mean? In this piece I take a quick look at the recent general election, and in the next I look in more detail at last year’s EU Referendum.
Having come through a general election campaign fairly recently, we have all heard plenty of examples of a logical fallacy known at the ignoratio elenchi, whether we realised it or not. It is a common (though informal) fallacy knowingly employed by politicians for rhetorical effect. One example will suffice by way of illustration.
Andrew Neil, in his TV interview with Theresa May, asked this question:
How do (you) get the extra money for the NHS? Where will the extra 8 billion come from?
Theresa May replied:
Andrew, what we have done, if you look at our record, is shown that we can put record sums of money into the National Health Service at the same time as we’re ensuring that we’re building that strong economy. And that’s what we’ll do for the future. Our economic credibility is not in doubt. It’s the Labour Party who’s in the dock when it comes to responsibility.
Neil’s was a straightforward question. The government can expect non-taxation-based revenues (interest, rent, dividends, etc.) at a rate of around 2%-3% of GDP. The remainder of government expenditure is funded by taxation (or, in the case of borrowing, deferred taxation). Thus, if expenditure rises, then revenue must rise, and this inevitably means revenue from taxation. It does not follow that rates of tax must rise, assuming that the Laffer Curve holds true; but the money must come from somewhere.
You will notice that Mrs May fails to answer Mr Neil’s question. First she claims that the Conservative government had put ‘record sums’ into the NHS. Given that NHS funding (in money terms, at least) has only fallen during three of the last 40 years, this is an unremarkable claim. But Neil’s question was not, “Are you spending more on the NHS than your predecessors?”
Mrs May then implies that a Conservative government would lead to a stronger economy. That a stronger economy would necessarily result in increased tax revenue is an inference we have to draw for ourselves.
Finally she, understandably, impugns the economic credibility of the Labour Party. At no point in her answer does she spell out how a particular sum of money (£8bn) will be raised.
Argumenta ad Hominem
The sideswipe at the ‘Corbynomics’ of the Labour Party is an example of the fallacy known as the Argumentum ad Hominem — going for the party not the party’s arguments. Most people, including long-time Labour voters, would agree with Mrs May about the likely economic incompetence of the Labour Party at the moment, but Mrs May’s ‘argument’ was not really an argument at all. She could have avoided the ad hominem by drawing attention to the fact that in recent interviews, Labour politicians had been unable to give a satisfactory account of their own manifesto costings, for example. But that would only have drawn attention to the fact that she had failed to do any better (and had arguably done worse) in her own answer.
The ad hominem argument, like most informal fallacies, is an example of verbal trickery. The conclusion might still be true (it would indeed be unwise to allow Corbyn to become Prime Minister), but the argumentation is sloppy, if it is there at all. It’s likely, after all, that the Conservatives now regret making personal criticism of Jeremy Corbyn a central plank of what one can only in the weakest sense of the word regard as their ‘strategy’. They were right to suggest that Jeremy Corbyn’s ‘vision for Britain’ would have been economically disastrous, but they should have argued clearly why this would be the case, not relied on implication. Ad hominem arguments may work for as long as the homines they attack are suspect or unpopular. If the homo in question is, or becomes, popular and admired, then the argument can start to work in reverse. Asking people whether they would rather live in Theresa May’s or Jeremy Corbyn’s Britain seemed like a slam dunk back in April. By the final weeks of the campaign it was a counterproductive disaster. It’s for similar reasons that politicians regularly indulge in ad hominem arguments against bankers, but never against nurses.
The other informal fallacy demonstrated in the Prime Minister’s answer (above) is the Ignoratio Elenchi, or ‘an ignoring of a refutation’. This is the fallacy upon which almost every politician relies. It is the fallacy that Aristotle considered to be the root of all fallacies of argument. It is an informal fallacy insofar as the argument itself may be sound (albeit incomplete) and the conclusion true, but it is a species of verbal trickery because it fails to answer the question asked (or refute the counterargument given) either partially or wholly. It is also the fallacy that Mrs May probably made the most use of, having been programmed to answer questions in a robotic and repetitive way:
Questioner: What specific demands will you be making in Brussels during our Brexit negotiations?
Theresa May: What’s important is that we get the best deal possible, and I’m clear that no deal is better than a bad deal.
Mrs May even tipped us off each time she engaged in this rhetorical sleight of hand by her (over)use of the phrase, “What’s important is…” (Other politicians seem to prefer, “Let me be clear.”) What she was seeking to do was restate the question to her own advantage. The questioner might ask about X, but Mrs May would reply that it was actually Y which was ‘important’. We’ve probably all done this. Most of us can remember having to answer questions in an exam for which we were poorly prepared. Sure, the question might be about Hamlet (which I didn’t read/revise), but what’s important are the features of Shakespearean tragedy in general, as perfectly exemplified by King Lear (which I did read/revise).
In the example given, instead of answering a question about where her government would find £8bn, she answers her own preferred question about whether a Conservative government would be good for the economy. In the end, Andrew Neil asked the question nine times in slightly different ways before moving on. That is a mark of Neil’s skill and tenacity as a political interviewer. Less terrier-like interrogators are more easily fobbed off by fallacious arguments, which is precisely why politicians use them.
Before moving on to the matter of Brexit and more formal logical fallacies, it is worth noting, briefly, the other informal fallacies that reared their heads in the recent campaign:
Argumentum ad nauseam — The constant repetition of the ‘Strong and Stable’ trope would be a good example of this. Simply to repeat something ad nauseam does not make it true, or constitute an argument. The Conservatives needed to show (i.e. argue) how a vote for them would lead to strength and stability, and what it would look like. I suspect all political slogans are in some way guilty of this fallacy.
Tu quoque — “You too!” This is a species of ad hominem that imputes a charge of hypocrisy and it is particularly potent in political argument, from all sides. Examples abound: Labour opponents of selective schools who sent their own children to selective schools, Conservative politicians who talk about improving the lives of the poor despite being quite wealthy themselves, UKIP politicians employing East European cleaners, ‘Liberal’ politicians regarded as harbouring ‘illiberal’ private views, and so forth. No one likes a hypocrite, but this approach does little to engage with the actual arguments.
Straw Man — This is where one attacks a misrepresentation of one’s opponent’s position as though one were arguing with a man made of straw that one had just created. The most obvious example I heard recently was from a postgraduate at the University of Kent who explained when interviewed that he had voted Labour because he “disagreed with the Tory policy of privatising the NHS” (sic).
Slippery Slope — This is a tricky one because some slippery slope arguments might be to some extent sound. For example, much anti-drugs advertising suggests that if you take any drugs (at all, ever) then you will inevitably end up in a downward spiral of misery where you have to sell your own liver to buy crack. That is true for some, but it ignores the fact that plenty reasonably high-functioning teachers, doctors, bankers and yes, even politicians, smoke the odd spliff or do the occasional line of charlie.
One of the clearest examples in the last election was one that I have been guilty of in my Twitter feed, namely the suggestion that a Corbyn government would turn Britain from a G7 country to a European Venezuela in short order. Venezuela is a useful example of a basket-case economic system that Corbyn admires, and is thus a powerful warning of where such economic lunacy leads, but that does not mean that the fate of Venezuela would inevitably befall Corbyn’s Britain (given the centre-left majority within the PLP and assuming that hard-left government would be booted out after one term, if not before).
False Dichotomy — That this is a fallacy has already been shown. We were told that our choices were “Theresa May’s strong and stable Conservative government, or Jeremy Corbyn’s coalition of chaos”. We now know that there was at least one other choice: Theresa May’s rather less strong quasi-coalition government. That is the choice that, for good or ill, the people of the UK made.
This fallacy has undoubtedly become more popular since the rise of Corbynism and the resurgence of the hard Left. The resuscitation of the rotten, poisonous corpse of Marxism has once again infantilised political debate into a binary classification of ‘us’ and ‘them’. The ‘few’ against whom the ‘many’ stand are not so much a numerical minority but the enemy.
Argumentum ad Metum — the appeal to fear. This is probably a fallacy employed more often by Conservatives about Labour than vice versa. As a Conservative, I would say that this is inevitable given that the prospect of socialist government is a genuinely frightening prospect. People ought to fear a Labour victory because it would leave the UK undefended (nuclear weapons) or broken in two (willingness to hold a second IndyRef in Scotland) or bankrupt (hard left economic policies), is how the arguments usually go. On the other side, Labour regularly indulge in their own favourite version: where the prospect of a Tory victory means that we have only “N. days to save the NHS” (when polling day is N. days away).
In the next post I shall look at logical reasoning and the claims of the Remain and Leave sides of the EU Referendum vote and suggest that in this case, the fallacies in play are formal — that is to say invalid arguments rather than mere verbal trickery.