Convenient Definitions Make for Lousy Debates

Over at the League, Elias Isquith has a post about wealth inequality in the U.S. Down in the comments, one Lyle writes;

To see how a truly free market works I encourage folks to look at the 1870/1880s in the railroad business (note that only the UP/Cp got loans from the govenment, while the Northern Pacific and the ATSF and SP got land as well as 10 years earlier the IC.

This prompted me to respond:

Wait, a “truly free market” where they all got subsidies, some in the form of loans from the government, others in the form of land? Seems a bit funny to condemn as an example of a “free market” something that so much government involvement.

Which prompted the following response from Elias:

Yeah; and I’m not sure Lyle is Scottish, anyway.

Now Elias writes some very nice political analysis, but there’s a carelessness with definitions here that deserves a sharp rebuke. Simply put, there is a difference between a market in which the government is providing subsidies for favored economic interests and one in which it doesn’t. To note that distinction is not to engage in the no true Scotsman fallacy, but to emphasize that different outcomes result when government gives subsidies, and when it doesn’t. We can even use Lyle’s own sphere of industry for examples, by comparing the railroads that were subsidized with the Great Northern Railway, the one that didn’t go bankrupt or have to completely rebuild its original route. To claim there’s a no true Scotsman fallacy here is to pretend that actual differences don’t matter.

There’s a bizarro world aspect here, where no matter how often a free market advocate insists that rent-seeking/subsidies is an interference with the free market, some anti-market liberals insist on defining free markets as including such rent-seeking. So here’s my question for folks like Elias: What term would you have us use for a market where the government is not giving out subsidies? Because we can’t have a serious discussion until we are imputing the same meaning to terms, and I have a gut feeling that the whole purpose of this eliding of differences is so that you can avoid having to deal with that type of market; that is, so you can avoid having to get that serious about the issue. Is that unfair on my part? Perhaps, but if so it’s pretty easy to prove how unfair it is by demonstrating that you recognize the distinction and working with me on developing common terminology.

But here’s my line in the sand: if you conflate two substantively different things (subsidized industries vs. unsubsidized ones), you are not engaging in serious adult discussion, just cheap partisan game-playing.


About J@m3z Aitch

J@m3z Aitch is a two-bit college professor who'd rather be canoeing.
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6 Responses to Convenient Definitions Make for Lousy Debates

  1. D. C. Sessions says:

    The railroad example is farther back from the edge than some others. You get into much messier issues when you start asking whether the definition of a “free market” includes “intellectual property” and other fun stuff like indentured servitude.

  2. Kevin Donoghue says:

    “What term would you have us use for a market where the government is not giving out subsidies?”

    Maybe an idealised market or something like that? A quick look at the comment you mention confirms that, in Lyle’s world, governments don’t give out subsidies. They are bought: “back then you could be more open and just plain bribe or give stock to a congress person.”

    Of course it’s true that outcomes differ depending on the degree of corruption: “The power of bad men is no indifferent thing.”

  3. cardiffkook says:

    The “progressives” on the League don’t seem interested in intellectual progress. They seem to believe they have the world all figured out, and when you point out the fallacies and lies that they base their ideology on, they just push it away.

  4. @Cardiffkook, I disagree. Calling No True Scotsman is overused at the League, but the problem will fix itself methinks. I actually had it called on me the other day for saying Stalin doesn’t speak for Communism.

  5. I do think that people in general call the “no true Scotsman fallacy” way too quickly (or at least those people who have heard of the fallacy). I usually see nothing wrong with drawing careful distinctions to hone one’s argument more closely to whatever is being argued and to account for exceptions or potential counter-examples.

    Of course, James wasn’t even honing; he was just pointing out that the RR subsidy regime was not a free enterprise system, or at least not a perfect free enterprise system.

  6. James Hanley says:

    D.C.: Yes, there are cases that aren’t easy calls. I wouldn’t have written a post like this if one of those cases had been at issue.

    Kevin: As I understand things, the “free” market is the “idealized” market. That’s sort of the point–we all know we don’t have a perfectly free, or perfectly ideal market. But a market where corporations are buying subsidies just isn’t within the definition of a free market, because there’s no longer competition without government intervention.

    cardifkook: The League’s liberals aren’t any worse than any other ideologues, and they’re better than a lot of them elsewhere. In most cases I’d rather try to talk to a League liberal than a Free Republic conservative.

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