Straw Men Rule
By Bryan Caplan
Yesterday I was on a panel on drug policy with a Virginia state senator. As you’d expect, I made the case for full drug legalization. And as you’d expect, he objected. What’s striking, though, is how he objected. His top arguments for roughly sticking with the status quo:
1. Hard drugs should be banned because they cause serious health and safety problems. Yea, so does alcohol, but the Prohibition era shows that banning alcohol was a bad idea.
2. The people of Virginia think that illegal drugs should be illegal, but they don’t think that alcohol should be illegal.
3. There have to be boundaries. Our boundary is that alcohol is legal for 21-year-olds, but illegal drugs are illegal for all ages.
If I were an staunch opponent of drug legalization, I would have yearned to decry the senator’s arguments as straw men. The rejoinders are all too obvious, starting with:
1. Alcohol and tobacco cause more harm than hard drugs. And the negative side effects of modern drug Prohibition have been more serious than the negative side effects of historical alcohol Prohibition.
2. Virginians are wrong about a great many things; why not this?
3. You can say, “There have to be boundaries” about every stupid law on Earth, past and present.
Strictly speaking, though, none of the senator’s arguments count as straw men. Why? Because he wasn’t attacking bad arguments for a view he opposed. He was giving bad arguments for a view he accepted.
The senator was a smart, articulate, experienced man. Why then didn’t he present decent arguments for his position? The best explanation is also the simplest: He doesn’t know any decent arguments for his position. How is that possible? Because the vast majority of people who favor drug prohibition don’t know any decent arguments for their position, either. No one has to foist “straw man” arguments on the mainstream; the mainstream owns those crummy arguments.
Of course, the fact that few supporters of X know any good argument for X doesn’t prove they’re wrong. But it should at least make us very suspicious about the validity of X. And this holds even if some rare bird crafts high-quality arguments for X. As I’ve explained before:
Suppose I’m right that almost everyone initially supports
populist policies for inane reasons. If some of these people grow up to
be sophisticated intellectuals, what do you think they’re going to do
when they realize that the arguments that originally convinced them are
just plain stupid? Are they going to dispassionately put aside the
worldview that inspired them to become intellectuals in the first place,
then calmly weigh the intellectually serious arguments for and against
every feel-good policy on the books? Or are they going to act like
defense attorneys – to use their powerful intellects to zealously defend
the populist policies they’ve always loved?
In any case, my meeting with the senator underscored what I’ve long maintained: In democracies, straw men rule. Politicians don’t calmly search for the best possible policies. They don’t even calmly search for intellectually impressive arguments for popular policies. Instead, they present popular arguments for popular policies – intellectual merit be damned.
P.S. The senator also quipped something along the lines of, “If you don’t like my policy positions, run against me in the next election!” This is directly analogous to a professional wrestler saying, “If you don’t like my policy positions, let’s wrestle for it!” Winning an election, pinning a man, and being right are three very different things.