The Straw Man Straw Man
By Bryan Caplan
When I criticize painfully foolish positions, people occasionally accuse me of “straw manning” my opponents. I say the shoe’s on the other foot: They’re straw manning me. Consider the following:
1. Criticizing specific person X for a painfully foolish position he doesn’t hold.
2. Criticizing a specific person X for a painfully foolish position he holds.
#1 is clearly straw-manning, but #2 isn’t straw-manning at all. If X actually accepts a ridiculous view, there’s nothing illogical or sneaky about pointing out its absurdity.
OK, what about “collective straw manning” – questionably accusing a group for its painfully foolish positions? Now we have:
3. Criticizing a viewpoint for a painfully foolish position no adherent holds.
4. Criticizing a viewpoint for a painfully foolish position some adherents hold.
5. Criticizing a viewpoint for a painfully foolish position many adherents hold.
6. Criticizing a viewpoint for a painfully foolish position most adherents hold.
#3 clearly qualifies as straw manning. But #4, #5, and #6 only count if the critic claims the painfully foolish argument is more widespread than it actually is. If you claim that most adherents of a viewpoint make a painfully foolish argument that only a minority actually holds, you’re being intellectually unfair. If you claim that most adherents of a viewpoint make a painfully
foolish argument that most actually holds, the fault is theirs for holding it, not yours for exposing it.
To validate accusations of straw manning, then, you can’t just focus on the bone-headedness of the views the critic imputes to his opponents. No, you have to study public opinion, to compare the alleged prevalence of the bone-headed views to their measured prevalence. And as a public opinion researcher, I can tell you that tons of bone-headed views are very popular indeed. Indeed, bone-headed views are so ubiquitous that you can easily spend your whole life without hearing even a whisper about their inadequacy.
Examples: I can truthfully say that until I started studying economics when I was 17, I had never heard that the minimum wage or drug safety regulation had any conceivable downside. “Raising the minimum wage makes the poor richer, end of story” and “Stricter drug safety regulation makes everyone healthier, end of story” weren’t straw men. They were the only men in sight.
Of course, what’s good for the goose is good for the gander. While my conclusions are unpopular, many people who share my conclusions make painfully foolish arguments. Like: “The drug war’s a failure because there are still drugs” and “Immigrants don’t hurt native wages because they only do jobs that Americans won’t do.” I’ve heard libertarians (and more than a few non-libertarians) say them many times. So when critics of libertarianism attribute these crummy arguments to libertarians in general, I can’t fairly accuse them of straw manning, either.
So when does straw manning become a live issue? Consider:
7. Criticizing leading adherents of a viewpoint for painfully foolish positions held by the viewpoint’s rank-and-file adherents.
8. Criticizing the best adherents of a viewpoint for painfully foolish positions held by the viewpoint’s rank-and-file adherents.
To qualify as straw manning, of course, the leading/best adherents have to reject the rank-and-file’s painfully bad positions. Since leadership is largely a popularity contest, straw manning leading adherents remains fairly rare, too. Few intellectual leaders rise to the top of their local pecking orders by pedantically explaining all the ways their side should amend their beloved tenets.
Straw manning viewpoints’ best adherents is much more common. To seriously attempt it, after all, you have to actively search for the smartest, most thoughtful advocates of conclusions that rub you the wrong way. It’s far more convenient is to assume the best adherents of the viewpoints you disagree with are scarcely better than the rank-and-file. And it is this assumption that most reliably leads to genuine commission of the straw man fallacy.