Sunday, February 12, 2006

ambiguous collectives & other statist myths

Since I know that most people go through years of schooling and never learn one lick of logic, I thought I'd pass some along today. From Hogeye Bill's Dictonary of Logical Fallacies comes the following:
Ambiguous Collective
[Rel] The use of a collective term without any meaningful delimitation of the elements it subsumes. "We" "you" "they" and "the people" are the most widely used examples. This fallacy is especially devastating in the realm of political discussion, where its use renders impossible the task of discriminating among distinctly different groups of people. I often challenge those who commit this fallacy to eliminate from their discussion vocabulary all general collective terms, and each time they want to use such a term to use instead a precisely delimiting description of the group the term is intended to subsume.

An antecedentless pronoun is an example in the singular of the Ambigious Collective fallacy. Here are two examples of the Ambiguous Collective fallacy: "Last November, 77% of us voted in favor of term limits." In this statement, who exactly are the "us"? The speaker wants to convey the idea that term limits are very widely supported, but if in fact the 77% refers only to those who voted, that subgroup may well be a quite small percentage of the total population. "We need to train doctors to teach us how to get and stay healthy." In this statement, who are the "we" and who are the "us"? Is the speaker trying to promote socialized medicine by advocating government control of the medical schools? When he says "we need to" does he really mean "the government should"? And is the "us" merely a subtle way of saying "me"?

Examples of this fallacy violate my senses regularly and I've been meaning to get the subsequent frustration off my chest. Recent examples include: "we invaded iraq", "we need some sort of government to exist", "we love the fuggin power ballads". My question to those who use the ambiguous collective term "we" is this - who the bloody hell is "we"???

Well... what's the answer? Is it explicitly you and me? Our class? Our family? Our town? Brown-eyed people? No...well who then? I can tell you right off the bat that I never agreed to nor took part in any invasion of Iraq, I don't consent to nor need any sort of government telling me what to do, and I sure as hell don't like power ballads.

Are some of these people trying to suggest that people living on the land known as the United States of America are owned by some sort of being or institution, and thus all such people can be collectively referred to as "we" and that we have no mind or autonomy of our own? Am I part of some gang, club, or cult that I'm not aware of?

Truth is, there is no "we". There is, however, an "I", and there is a "you". There is no living, breating, observable "we" that individuals can point to. The State, it's minions, and it's actions certainly cannot be lumped together with you and me and referred to as "we". On this last point, I refer to an entry on the new anarcho-capitalist FAQ (also by Hogeye Bill) that is pertinent enough to share:
8. What are the myths of statism?
The paradigm of statism divides the world into competing States, and men into subjects of those States. The State generally succeeds in buying the services of "court intellectuals" to convince the people that wise leadership is necessary, for their own good, inevitable, and at any rate better than any alternative. Here are some common myths:

1. We are the government.
This is perhaps the most insidious myth - a form of extreme victimhood. This Stateholm syndrome is a virulent form of Stockholm syndrome. This identification with the ruler is ubiquitous in statist societies. A person who's never been near a military jet might say, "we bombed Iraq" or "we are fighting to bring democracy." In fact, the ruling elite are making the decisions, and their milfare minions are doing the killing. It is very important to avoid using the slave we in speech, as it impairs critical thinking. Beware the ambiguous collective. It may takes practice to be instantly able to translate "Support our troops" to "support the ruler's hired goons."

2. The government acts for the common good.
There are problems with this vulgar utilitarian view. What is the common good? (No one agrees.) If we somehow knew the common good, how do we implement it? (No one knows.) Even if we implemented a plan, how do we know it would have the desired results? (We don't, and coercively imposed social planning often has substantial perverse consequences.) There are also institutional objections to the myth. Why would the State act for the common good rather than the interests of the rulers. The rulers make the decisions, and have incentives like all men. Public choice theory is a more reliable prediter of political behavior than naive faith in Pollyanna pluralism.

3. Government is the only way to solve problem X.
This is the fallacy of government solipotence - the erroneous belief that only the State can solve society's problems. In fact, every valid service that governments now perform can be done more morally, and usually better, by voluntary means. Virtually every current government service has been done, at some time in history, by voluntary means. Private roads, private courts, police, and legal systems, cheap private health insurance, mail delivery, quality control certification, wildlife preservation, and so on have all been done privately.

4. State and society are are the same, or at least closely allied.
Similar to myth #1, this is an attempt to obscure the important difference between society and State. Society is the sum total of all voluntary human interactions; the State is the institution of monopoly force and legal plunder. They are mortal enemies. The more power government gets, the less power society has. The struggle between liberty and authority is a zero-sum game.

The example of an ambiguous collective provided in the FAQ is another popular one that needs to be ridiculed and rejected. "Our" troops? Who the hell is "our"? I don't own any troops, and if I did, I certainly wouldn't send them off on missions to spread evil (er, "freedom" and "democracy") abroad. If they really are mine, I should be able to instruct them to stop killing people and return home immediately, but alas, I cannot.


Blogger B.W. Richardson said...

Careful - we may need to do something about people like you who tell the truth about the emperor's clothes. :-)

10:00 AM  
Blogger jomama said...

The meme/phrase that always makes me roar with glee is "we need to take our country back".

Tis a song sung by idiots, a dirge, and more than likely will become a funeral dirge for many.

Fine post.

9:06 AM  
Blogger Ali Massoud said...

That hogeye bill is one smart cookie.

8:39 PM  

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