Arguments Going to Extremes

September 24, 2013
Posted by Jay Livingston

Extreme comparisons must be irresistible.  Why else would people argue that same-sex marriage is no different than marriage between a man and a dog or that aborting a 12-week fetus is as the moral equivalent of killing a twelve-month old child?  And then there’s Hitler.   
Godwin’s Law: As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches 1.
But it’s not just online. It happens in print, and it happens in face-to-face discussions. Perhaps in math puzzles, the extreme hypothetical can be an effective strategy. But people are not math puzzles, and in the real world, those extremes rarely happen.

Despite its attractiveness to the speaker, the extreme comparison rarely convinces anyone who doesn’t already agree, and it can often backfire. The person who makes the extreme analogy looks morally obtuse, unable to tell the difference between Hitler and Obama, or Hitler and Bush, or Hitler and economic and social change.*

Recently, Greg Mankiw, a prominent economist not given to immoderate language, didn’t summon Hitler, but he used an equally silly analogy in a paper defending the very rich and attacking government aid to the poor.  He began,
government has increasingly used its power to tax to take from Peter to pay Paul. Discussions of the benefits of government services should not distract from this fundamental truth.
Hence the next subhead:
The Need for an Alternative Philosophical Framework
Mankiw then used that alternative philosophy to draw an analogy between the money we pay in taxes and our precious bodily organs:
Thus, the same logic of social insurance that justifies income redistribution similarly justifies government-mandated kidney donation.
Give them an inch, and they’ll take a kidney.

And now we have Robert Benmosche, top guy at AIG, going Mankiw one better in defending the huge bonuses that banks and financial firms paid out while they were crashing the economy.   The uproar over bonuses,  says Benmosche,
was intended to stir public anger, to get everybody out there with their pitch forks and their hangman nooses, and all that – sort of like what we did in the Deep South [decades ago]. And I think it was just as bad and just as wrong.
Yes, you read that correctly. Complaining about those bonuses is “sort of like” lynching, and the executives and traders sitting on their multi-million dollar bonuses are like Black people killed by racists. Sort of like lynching and “just as bad.”

The Wall Street Journal tactfully omitted this quote in their article (here) lauding Benmosche (“At AIG, Benmosche Steers a Steady Course”). The WSJ probably thought that Benmosche’s comparison would draw attention away from the idea that the bonus-critics were misguided and focus that attention instead on questions about the CEO’s moral universe.

Only three days later did the WSJ print the fuller version of the interview ( “AIG’s Benmosche and Miller on Villains, Turnarounds and Those Bonuses” )

HT: Ryun Chittum at the Columbia Journalism Review

* During the 2008 primary campaign, Hillary Clinton, talking about the decline in good jobs, said, “They came for the steel companies and nobody said anything. They came for the auto companies and nobody said anything. . . .” an obvious reference to ““First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out, because I was not a Socialist. Then they came for the Jews . . .”  (The NYT story is here. I remember this one because I blogged it at the time.)

UPDATE Sept. 25: As I was writing this, Ted Cruz was on the floor of the Senate arguing against funding Obamacare. Giving in to the President on healthcare, he said, was like  – you guessed it  –  appeasing Hitler in 1938.

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