Of Ad Hominems and Incentives
Sometimes people ask me for examples of ad hominems and I have trouble finding nice clean examples. I’ve written about this here. (A couple of commenters pointed out that the example I gave is an example of poisoning the well which is a form of ad hominem.
But in perusing comments on EconLog in the last few days, I think I’ve found a fairly straightforward example. And this example is from a generally civil commenter whom I’ve often disagreed with, but who, if I met him, I think I would probably like. So that makes it an even better example than otherwise because it’s easy to accuse people of ad hominems when they’re nasty or uncivil.
Here’s the ad hominem, from commenter Alan Goldhammer:
Perhaps I would take [Bryan] Caplan a little more seriously were he to resign his position at a state funded university and move to one that is fully supported by private funds. After all, if public funding of education is not worth the investment, why is he taking a salary from taxpayers and perpetuating the problem? I’ve been troubled by his writings on this topic but then I’m one who has been a staunch supporter of public education as I saw the benefits that my parents accrued and both of my degrees came from state universities.
Alan is judging the quality of Bryan’s arguments in part on the fact that he takes taxpayer money as an educator while advocating the ending or substantial reduction in the use of taxpayer money in education. But Bryan’s augment has to be judged on logic, on reason, and on data. I’m about at page 115 now and I’ve read every footnote and I’m impressed. I can’t think of a single sentence so far where the fact that Bryan takes taxpayer money should affect how I evaluate that sentence.
Moreover, there’s a deep irony in Alan’s using this particular ad hominem. If one were to judge Bryan’s argument by his taking taxpayer money–and I emphasize that I don’t advocate doing that–one would have to put more weight, not less, on his argument. Why? Incentives. Commenter BC said it best, in response to Alan:
Hmmm. Any employee of a state-funded university faces a conflict of interest in writing about education subsidies because they benefit from those subsidies. (A subsidy nominally given to a student that must spend that subsidy at a university is actually a subsidy for the university.) Yet, Caplan is willing to argue against such subsidies, so I’m not sure why you wouldn’t take his views seriously. Those employees that argue *in favor* of their subsidies are the ones who may be conflicted.
If a tobacco company researcher found that smoking causes cancer, wouldn’t you take him seriously? It’s the tobacco company researchers that claim smoking doesn’t cause cancer that may be conflicted.
Feb 28 2018 at 8:17pm
But heâ€™s not really commenting on the argument, heâ€™s commenting on Bryan. Actually this seems akin to Bryanâ€™s interest in betting. Itâ€™s not exactly the same because Bryanâ€™s payoff may be different from the social value but itâ€™s broadly in the genre of putting your money where your mouth is. That may not tell us whether to take the argument seriously but it could tell us about Bryan.
Feb 28 2018 at 9:58pm
But heâ€™s not really commenting on the argument, heâ€™s commenting on Bryan.
Yes. That’s the issue.
Feb 28 2018 at 10:14pm
To be fair, Bryan identifies himself as a sort of whistleblower. That’s not unreasonable. But whistleblowers generally do not say that their industry brings a net loss to society and then go on doing business as usual in that same industry.
As an analogy consider the case of Bill Easterly. After he became convinced that organizations like the World Bank don’t really do any good, he could have found alternative employment or tried to improve the World Bank from within. If he had stayed on at the World Bank doing the same things that he identified as wasteful, that would not indicate a problem with Easterly’s arguments but it would be very odd behavior from a whistleblower.
At this point I don’t think anyone (other than Bryan) can say whether or not Bryan is guilty of continuing to just do business as usual.
Mar 1 2018 at 8:51am
As the “star” of this post maybe I should weigh in (or maybe not given I’m sure to elicit a lot of posts rejecting my thesis). I’m not sure that it’s fair to characterize my original post as an ad hominem. As I noted, I’ve only read Professor Kaplan’s piece in The Atlantic and perhaps that is not a fair characterization of his book (which is currently in the queue on my Kindle).
I am not a full fledged Libertarian but do have libertarian tendencies particularly on social issues. I am a true believer in the value of public education and one can point to massive advances in technology that came through public universities (as well as private universities that have received Federal funding). The example of Maurice Hilleman’s education in Montana is but one small example of this that was in the cited NY Time article posted on Dr. Kaplan’s section (the evolution of the biotechnology industry may be the premier macro example). One commenter pointed out that there was an opportunity cost to that education but one can make that argument about almost everything.
There is no doubt that college/university education is not for everyone (on that I agree with Dr. Kaplan). Most if not all vocational training is done at the state and local levels making it very difficult to have a national policy (I’ll leave it to others about whether this is desirable).
According to enrollment figures, George Mason University has an enrollment of almost 36,000 and is the largest research university in Virginia. Should all of those students be pursuing college degrees? My main point that universities are still the major entry point to STEM fields (one might be able to make a decent career as a computer programmer without formal university training though even that is perhaps growing more difficult).
I’ll end by noting that James’s comment above is maybe more in tune with what my original thought was. If I am guilty of anything it was likely a less than well thought out response to Dr. Kaplan but that is one of the perils of our Internet age.
Mar 1 2018 at 9:09am
Jon Murphy – ad hominem is evaluating an argument by criticizing the person making the argument. â€œThe thesis of The Case Against Education is wrong because Bryan did Xâ€ is ad hominem. â€œIâ€™d take Bryan more seriously if he didnâ€™t do Xâ€ is just a criticism of Bryan. Maybe Alan is prone to ad hominems or makes them elsewhere but reread his actual statement.
I agree with Davidâ€™s point in the post that finding true ad hominems is difficult. Often people are just wafting back and forth between different types of arguments rather than fallaciously combining types.
Mar 1 2018 at 9:33am
â€œIâ€™d take Bryan more seriously if he didnâ€™t do Xâ€ is just a criticism of Bryan.
The implication is Bryan, and by extension, his argument is not serious. As you said now twice, this is an evaluation of Bryan, not of his argument. It is, therefore, an ad hominem.
Think about it like this: The statement is if Bryan’s personal characteristics change, and nothing else, he’d become more serious. That is an ad hominem.
Mar 1 2018 at 11:01am
Don Boudreaux recently blogged on this topic: http://cafehayek.com/2018/02/tenure-support-free-trade.html
Mar 1 2018 at 11:03am
That was me.
And what you say is absolutely true.
And so what? That is the point. Of course you can make the opportunity cost argument about almost everything. But the article didn’t. It made no attempt to make a cost/benefit analysis. It was all benefit, all the time, with no attempt to evaluate what was lost to get that benefit.
This is lesson 1 from Bastiat.
Mar 1 2018 at 11:06am
Note: Adding on to my last post, I went to a private Kindergarten, but to public schools from grade 1 thru grad school. So my argument is thus invalid.
Mar 1 2018 at 11:12am
I think the assumption that Bryan is helping to perpetuate the system by keeping his job is unwarranted, even on the margin. If he were to quit, the government wouldn’t permanently defund that position and return the money to the taxpayers, but would simply hire someone else to fill it. Very likely his replacement would be a supporter, or at least less of a critic, of the status quo.
It seems likely that the most effective way for Bryan to oppose wasteful subsidies to higher education is to use his current position to do so.
Mar 1 2018 at 4:04pm
re: “As you said now twice, this is an evaluation of Bryan, not of his argument. It is, therefore, an ad hominem.”
If I said the shirt Bryan wore today was ugly would that be an ad hominem?
Ad hominems are logical fallacies – you have to be basing an argument on a claim about a person. Simply making a claim about a person is not an ad hominem. People like to criticize each other personally and do so frequently in the middle of arguments, but my experience is that actual ad hominems, where the personal criticism is substituting for a logical argument, are rare.
David R Henderson
Mar 1 2018 at 4:22pm
Thank you for your civility in replying. As I said, I think if we met we would like each other and your tone is further evidence that I would likely like you.
Now to substance.
First, a tiny thing, but it’s Caplan, not Kaplan.
Second, I read the piece in the Atlantic a few weeks ago, but I thought it was incredibly on target. If you don’t like the piece, you won’t like the book and vice versa. But what the piece doesn’t have, by necessity given the length, is the long tail of data and reasoning behind what might look like outrageous claims. What I’m loving as I work my way through it is the tight analytics. As I said in my post on the Caplan/Hanushek debate, I thought his numerate computation on the Griggs case was a slam dunk. And my main argument against Bryan’s conclusions had been the Griggs case.
Mar 1 2018 at 4:43pm
If he was continuing to “just do business as usual” I don’t think he’d be getting so much media attention. 🙂
Mar 1 2018 at 5:07pm
@David – My bad on getting the name wrong. I guess I will have to move Caplan’s book up the queue to better judge the argument which I am sort of sympathetic to.
Mar 1 2018 at 5:11pm
I don’t think there’s anything hypocritical about Bryan working at a state-funded university. I wouldn’t hesitate to accept a job at a government agency that I don’t think should exist if they offered me more money (or a more interesting job) than the private sector competitors. Does the world benefit from leaving government jobs to people who love the government?
And even if it is hypocrisy, it doesn’t help the critic’s point. If, say, Bryan is correct about the education system, as well as a self-interested hypocrite in accepting a well-paying government job, is it not a clear example of the government crowding out the private sector by hiring away people at higher than market wages?
I also don’t find the category of argument that goes, “here’s an example of someone benefiting from public education and improving society; ergo, public education is good,” convincing. The argument of critics of public education is not that it doesn’t do anything good; it’s that it doesn’t enough good to justify its cost, and since the cost annually, is in the hundreds of billions, that isn’t self-evident.
Mar 1 2018 at 11:30pm
David, Iâ€™m usually largely in agreement with what you say about this sort of thing. And there is no one who has had such a huge influence on my thinking as Bryan. It’s always better to be against an evil system, even if you benefit from it. But what is wrong with ad hominems in general? It’s common for intellectuals and bloggers to say anything goes in the comments section, so long as it is not nasty or uncivil. The truth, however, is that people don’t like anything that suggests they are morally deficient in some way. But isn’t this important too?
We all are morally deficient in some way, and this partly explains the flaws in our worldview. People who don’t have certain blind-spots are exceptionally rare. I don’t think it’s fair to stop such outliers from making the argument: â€œYou believe in X because you’re morally deficient in this or that way.â€ People really got to think deeply about why they think the way they do. If we build taboos around this, that would make this harder than it is now. A more productive attitude, I believe, is to allow people to make ad hominems, and to not hold it against them. And to make ad hominems freely, expecting them to not hold it against you. We won’t see human nature clearly if we are afraid of seeing people for what they are. And because thought is largely a rehearsal for speech, it would be better if we have a more tolerant attitude toward all this. If we are even afraid of thinking people are morally deficient, we are not going to get very far.
Mar 1 2018 at 11:46pm
If I said the shirt Bryan wore today was ugly would that be an ad hominem?
If you said “I’d take him more seriously if his shirt were not ugly,” then yes.
The comment in question is that Alan Goldhammer believed that he would have taken Caplan more seriously, not because of the content of his argument, but by his employment status.
That’s pretty textbook ad hominem.
Mar 2 2018 at 9:35am
I have an analogy (not having read Bryan’s book).
Bryan is a plastic surgeon in LA. A 66 year-old woman comes in to his practice and wants a nose job. In the course of learning what the woman specifically wants, he learns that she is a waitress who wants to become an actress. She’s never acted before. He advises her that her money would probably be better spent on acting school, learning the trade of acting. (Am I laying this on thick enough?)
The woman is unconvinced. She wants a nose job. If Bryan doesn’t do it, she’ll go to Drs. Smith and Jones down the street. (Who are adequate, but obviously not as good as Bryan! :-))
Is Bryan being hypocritical or otherwise behaving inappropriately if he does the nose job, even though he’s told the woman her money would be better spent on acting/trade school?
Mar 2 2018 at 11:10am
Let’s accept for the sake of argument (I don’t believe this) that Bryan is a big fat hypocrite. What does it tell us about the strength of his argument? Nothing. So not are only ad hominem attacks nasty, they don’t add to the debate. Anything that is all cost and no benefit ought to be rooted out.
In addition, the argument against public education has two parts: 1. it’s mostly signalling, and 2. to the extent it isn’t the benefits are overwhelmingly private not societal. A point the commenter proves when he says he:
I like free stuff too. Doesn’t mean making other people pay for it is justified.
Mar 3 2018 at 1:22pm
I think Bryan’s problem is his lack of hypocrisy.
In general, people are far more uncomfortable with a person who acknowledges the harm their job does but are willing to perform it anyway, than they are with someone who defends an indefensible position in order to align their job and their morality.
And to be honest, if a person chooses to pursue a career they themselves consider harmful to society because of the rewards the job brings them, that *does* speak to their personality. And that applies even if resigning would not lessen the overall harm. After all, we can all imagine this attitude taken to the logical limit.
Anyway, I admire Bryan’s honesty, but I can see why it bothers a lot of people.
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