Stumbling and Mumbling

Author: chris dillow   |   Latest post: Tue, 26 May 2020, 2:30 PM


Bad faith arguments

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One feature of this election campaign is that we are seeing more bad faith arguments. By this, I mean arguments which their advocates cannot sincerely believe, at least not without humungous inconsistency with their other beliefs.

One egregious recent example of this was John Redwood's claim that Brexit is an opportunity for us to "develop policies to rebuild our self-sufficiency in temperate food." It is obviously absurd that someone who claims to support free markets - the essence of which is the division of labour - should suddenly favour North Korean-style Juche. But Redwood doesn't sincerely believe this. He's looking for an upside to Brexit and is clutching at straws (literally?). It's a bad faith argument.

Here are some other examples.

"Labour's call to abolish hospital car park charges is regressive, as it'll benefit richer people who tend to drive."

This misses the point. It's absurd to means-test every transaction: barmen don't ask to see how much you earn before deciding how much to charge you for a pint. Progressiveness or regressiveness should be judged at the level of the system as a whole, not for individual actions.

Which is why I say it's bad faith. Those making this claim aren't saying that, taken as a whole, Labour's policies are insufficiently redistributive. They are just looking for a flaw in Labour's policy and missing it.

"Labour shouldn't scrap private schools: it should raise the standard of state schools."

Simple maths shows the problem here. Average spending on state secondary school pupils is £6200 (pdf) per head. To raise spending to the level of that at a decent private school (say, Oakham) would need an extra £15,000 per pupil. Across 3.2 million (pdf) pupils, this implies extra spending of almost £50bn a year. That's equivalent to a raising income tax by a quarter or VAT by one-third. And this is without considering the practical difficulties of giving each state school an Olympic-sized rowing lake as they have at Eton. Etonlake

Nobody, though, is advocating such a spending increase. Nor are they identifying such massive inefficiencies in the state sector that the elimination of them could get pupils as well educated on £6200 a year as £21,000*. Which is why I say this is a bad faith argument.

"Labour's plans for worker ownership are the confiscation of shareholders' property."

The people arguing this, however, take a very partial attitude to shareholders' rights. Political uncertainty - about Brexit and Trump's trade war - is depressing share prices and costing investors' billions of pounds; we know this because there's a strong correlation between the Baker, Bloom and Davis index of political uncertainty and equity valuations. If you think Labour is attacking shareholders without being equally vocal about the damage done by Trump and Brexit, you are guilty of bad faith.

"We must respect the will of the people on Brexit."

The will of the people, however, is to retain free movement. Which argues for only the softest type of Brexit. Supporters of Johnson's plan - which he himself doesn't understand - cannot, therefore, easily invoke the will of the people.

What's more, the majority of voters favour nationalizing the railways, a wealth tax, worker-directors and higher taxes on top incomes. I haven't heard Jacob Rees Mogg calling for these. Invoking the "will of the people" when you do it so partially is bad faith**.

"Immigration depresses wages and puts pressure on public services."

All the evidence, however, is that it has only a tiny effect upon the wages of the low-skilled, and that EU migration is actually a net benefit for the public services. (See this pdf and the references therein.)

I call this a bad faith argument because those who are opposed to immigration aren't motivated by economic considerations. Almost nobody says: "I was opposed to immigration but having seen the evidence that it does no economic harm I'm now in favour of it." Instead, such opposition is based on non-economic factors, not all of which are racist. Trying to find an economic justification for tough immigration controls is bad faith: it misrepresents your actual beliefs.

To be clear, I am NOT saying that all arguments here are bad faith. There are valid cases to be made against Labour's policies on private schools, car park charges and worker ownership, and in favour of Brexit and immigration controls. Not necessarily persuasive cases, but ones that deserve a hearing. So let's hear them, and not rank dishonesty.

* Is the Michaela Community School a counter-example to my claim? I don't know. Its exam results seem good, but can it match private schools for activities such as sport and music?

** OK, so we've had a referendum on Brexit but not on a wealth tax. But why not?

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