Strawman: A Logical Fallacy Explained


Seen this meme posted by your conservative friends? It’s a classic strawman fallacy.
Click here to see it larger.

Ah the strawman, my least favorite logical fallacy.

As luck would have it, I was considering a blog entry — or series of them — about the various logical fallacies used in political and religious debates, and then I saw this meme (see image at right) posted on Facebook by conservative friends. I added the “strawman” in red across it lest someone think I’m propagating it too.

The simplest definition of “strawman” is “you’re arguing against something I didn’t say”. More accurately, it’s when someone exaggerates or misrepresents — or completely fabricates — an opponent’s argument in order to make it easier to attack or to make one’s own argument appear more reasonable.

In the case of the example meme here, it’s true and well-known that progressive commentators say various services should be paid for by the government, which gets its money from taxes, and therefore free for those who couldn’t otherwise afford them. The meme leaves out everything except the “free” part of the argument, which makes the argument easy to attack, since these services obviously come at a cost to someone.

So the argument, for anyone posting the meme, is this: “College isn’t free; therefore you can’t have free college — by definition.” (Same for healthcare and birth control, or any other service that progressives want the government to provide.) Yay! You win the argument!

Not so fast. No one is saying professors and doctors should work for free, that construction companies should donate their time and materials to build colleges and hospitals, that pharmaceutical companies should take a loss on birth control measures by giving them away.

We progressives actually do know that it costs money to run a hospital or clinic, to educate, and to provide birth control. In fact, they actually cost quite a bit, more than many people can afford — which is the problem we’re trying to address in the first place.

Only the incredibly dull would think this is what progressives are saying. Not all conservatives who share this meme are incredibly dull — some of the people I saw “like” this meme on Facebook are actually very intelligent. This means they’re intentionally misrepresenting the argument, or have been duped by someone else who’s intentionally passing along incorrect information about the topic.

We progressives actually do know that it costs money to run a hospital or clinic, to educate, and to provide birth control. In fact, they actually cost quite a bit, more than many people can afford — which is the problem we’re trying to address in the first place.

◊ Actual Concerns Of Conservatives

Having been a conservative-leaning libertarian independent for several years, I do know their argument and I won’t intentionally misrepresent it here, though it might be fun to do so (“Only rich people should have healthcare or college!”) No, their concerns are real and legitimate, if ill-informed.

1. They worry about working hard to pay more taxes so other people can “leech” off the government. It doesn’t seem right when you work 40 or 60 or 80 hours a week just to make ends meet because the government takes a quarter of your earnings from every paycheck and some of what they take is given to people who didn’t work for it. I used to work day and night at a supermarket, every night of the week, barely keeping my head above water, and it chafed me to meet people who sat at home with a brood of children except when they paid for groceries with food stamps or went to cash their first-of-the-month checks.

Conservatives’ concerns are real and legitimate, if sometimes ill-informed.

2. They worry about the rising national debt, that our creditors (mostly China and Japan) will come calling someday, threatening to break our metaphorical legs like a Mafia enforcer. They’ve been told repeatedly that the reasons for the debt are liberal spending, welfare fraud, silly studies financed by the government, and other relatively small blocks of federal spending. If someone brings up a giant budget item like the Iraq War or defense in general, they insist it’s necessary to defend our freedom, because they worry about crazed foreign dictators or vicious terrorist groups attacking us.

3. They worry that free handouts don’t encourage the work ethic needed to “keep our country great”. If the government’s just going to give me food, education, a home, clothes, an iPhone, etc., then why should I work? I’ll just sit at home collecting checks and free stuff until our government goes broke and all of society breaks apart.

4. Conservatives also have (fairly inaccurate) memories of an earlier time when you could work your way through college, pull yourself up by your bootstraps, find a menial job that hard work and dedication would turn into a high-paying career with benefits, and save enough to retire comfortably without being a burden to your children or the government. They believe that version of America has been destroyed, or is being destroyed.

There are other concerns too, but I think these are the big ones when it comes to this particular debate about whether the government should pay for stuff.

◊ Easily Rebutted

It’s not difficult to rebut these concerns, which is one reason I eventually became a progressive.

1. The “leeching” represents a very small amount of money, relatively speaking. I attacked this point-by-point earlier this year. Also, providing birth control would help trim the numbers, thus saving money.

2. Both parties drive up the national debt, just for different reasons and in different ways, as I described a year ago. Republicans do it by cutting taxes for the wealthy and large corporations, or giving them outright subsidies. Both parties do it by voting for unnecessary and expensive wars. Democrats do it by supporting the expansion of giant social programs, including Social Security, Medicaid, food stamps, etc. There is also very little danger that our creditors will come calling as long as we continue to make regular interest payments, as I explained two years ago.

Additionally, most of the programs/services being suggested by progressives will pay for themselves, either immediately or very quickly, as I’ll discuss further below.

Most of the people receiving “handouts” actually are working hard, or want to.

3. Most of the people receiving “handouts” actually are working hard, or want to. I have already written about this. Our economy and society is set up in a way that it’s very difficult for those in poverty to break free. To get a good enough job to pay for education, you must first be educated. To be considered for a good job, you must have dependable transportation, be well-dressed and groomed, etc., all things that can only be paid for after you get a good job.

4. That version of America never existed for most people. Yes, there was a time when a low-paying job could get you through college, but only because state colleges received vast subsidies from the government to keep costs low. Today, it’s not the case at most universities. Not only has minimum wage not kept up with the times, but education’s cost has skyrocketed. While there are exceptions to the rule, most people remain in the income bracket they were born into.

Conservatives also conveniently forget that the America they remember also had higher corporate taxes and a higher tax rate on the wealthy than we have now. Lowering those rates did not result in the “trickle down” that some claimed would occur; the rich just got richer.

◊ Actual Concerns Of Progressives

When it comes to the three “free” items offered above, what are progressives actually saying?

1. Birth Control

Providing birth control is empowering to women. Before science made birth control relatively easy and dependable, women simply could not have equal opportunity in the modern work force. But science did make birth control relatively easy and dependable; today the only reasons many women don’t use it is either ideology or cost. The first is a choice; the second serves only keep poor people poor, which hurts the economy in the long run.

Women lose their jobs for getting pregnant, regardless of the circumstances leading up to the pregnancy. And because women are still the primary caregivers for children, they have a harder time getting their jobs back after giving birth, usually work less hours, and have a harder time getting promotions. (Men are rewarded for being fathers while women are penalized for being mothers.) And nearly half of all children in the U.S. are born to single mothers.

It’s been said that if men could get pregnant then birth control would be free and available everywhere. I’m not completely convinced this is true, but it is food for thought. With men, there is rarely a question of whether they should quit their high-paying CEO job to stay home with a child, but with women in the workforce, it is always implied.

Forcing low-income women to bear the brunt of birth control costs when they’re already struggling is immoral, and costs the rest of us in the long run.

I don’t want to live in a world where unqualified people get their education paid for because they were born rich while qualified people are refused at the door because they’re poor.

2. College

Higher education is near-vital in today’s world. Those with degrees generally earn enough to live comfortably, while those without generally do not. (I have personally been denied higher-paying jobs for which I was otherwise qualified simply because I did not have a bachelor’s degree.) For the wealthy and upper middle class, college costs for their children are just another budget item. For the lower middle class and the poor, the only thing separating them from opportunity is the rising cost of college. (And student loan debt cannot be discharged in a bankruptcy the way other debt can.)

I don’t want to live in a world where unqualified people get their education paid for because they were born rich while qualified people are refused at the door because they’re poor. This stinks of classism and hearkens back to a time when national leaders were chosen based on who their fathers were. Winning the “birth lottery” should not be a qualification for college.

3. Healthcare

Again, it comes down to classism, or “wealthism” if you will. We don’t believe one person deserves life-saving treatment — or even quality-of-life care — just because they were born rich, while someone else deserves to die or live with easily-treatable conditions just because they were unlucky enough to be born poor.

The rest of us pay for their care anyway via our increased costs, which would be much less if they’d been treated earlier instead of waiting until it was an emergency.

One study found that 18,000 Americans die each year because they didn’t have medical insurance. Without insurance, people wait until their condition requires a visit to the emergency room, where costs are much higher than at clinics or doctor’s offices that require insurance. They can’t pay that bill for the same reason they can’t get insurance, and so the rest of us pay for their care anyway via our increased costs, which would be much less if they’d been treated earlier instead of waiting until it was an emergency.

The U.S. spends more per person on healthcare than any other nation and has worse health than many of them.

Progressives see these problems and then see that the only thing any other nation has ever come up with that makes it better is “socialized medicine”.

It doesn’t mean “free”. It means we pay for it better than we do now, and we get better healthcare out of it — even poor people.

◊ It Won’t Bankrupt Us — It Will Pay For Itself

1. Birth control — regardless of method and even over the course of many years — is less costly than giving birth, and less costly by far than raising a child. Currently, we as taxpayers do pay for some of the costs of raising children born into poverty, and we all help pay part of the costs for every uninsured mother who gives birth. Government providing birth control at no cost will save money for everyone, especially those who need it most.

2. While a higher education isn’t necessary for every good job, and some don’t want it, providing it for those who are qualified and want it will not cost much. Already the U.S. government spends about $70 billion on financial aid for college students. That’s more than the $62.6 billion currently being collected per year in tuition fees by U.S. universities. Insane, right?

Not to mention the boost to our workforce productivity if more employees were better educated, the boost to our economy if college students didn’t spend the next 10 or 20 years paying off loans and instead bought houses or cars, and the thousands of qualified people who could go if they could afford it.

There will always be better or fancier universities for the sons and daughters of the wealthy, and we’re willing to live with that. We just think anyone who’s qualified should get to attend.

3. Healthcare is more difficult to calculate, because it affects so much and is affected by so much (air pollution is to blame for 200,000 early deaths every year, for example). Even the most astute economists offer differing opinions for why the U.S. healthcare system is so expensive and why needed medication is so expensive here compared to elsewhere.

Even if “free” healthcare doesn’t pay for itself in the long run, it certainly will not be as expensive as some people claim.

While not all preventative care saves money, some types are known to — for example, the cost of childhood vaccinations is far less than dealing with the diseases they prevent.

Currently, more than 25 cents of every dollar spent on healthcare in the U.S. goes to “marketing, billing, utilization review, and other forms of waste”. It’s estimated that a national health insurance program could save as much as $150 billion on paperwork alone.

Around $100 billion in wages and benefits are lost every year because of the uninsured, while it would cost only $50 billion to insure them all, according to the Institute of Medicine.

A thorough report from 2009 showed the U.S. far behind major economic competitors when it comes to the spending:health ratio; workers elsewhere are healthier than us, but spend less on it — in nations with national health care systems.

Our government already spends a trillion dollars per year on healthcare for low-income people, which is about a third of overall healthcare spending in the U.S.

In another very long entry, I listed several actions we could take that would bring down prices almost immediately: pricing transparency, insuring the uninsured, reasonable tort reform, more sensible shifts for doctors/nurses (because their too-long shifts are often responsible for costly mistakes and hurt their own health), transparency in billing, building a healthier citizenry, and focusing on safety in general.

◊ Conclusion

The strawman fallacy is an easy one to fall into, because it’s easier to believe your opponent’s argument is stupid than to counter the real argument, and because it (usually) oversimplifies the problems and solutions.

Most political issues aren’t simple. They’re complex. “Build a wall!” is an example. Everyone who’s thought about it for a minute knows we won’t, can’t, and shouldn’t build a wall between the U.S. and Mexico, but it’s easier to say it (or attack it) than to discuss the actual complexities of illegal immigration. “Make college free!” is the same way.

Republicans and conservatives (not always the same people) would have you believe that progressives are either pie-in-the-sky idealists who think everything should be free or poor people looking for handouts from the government, voting for anyone who offers them free stuff. And it’s easier to push this false message with a simplified strawman fallacy like the meme above.

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