Catholic Culture Liturgical Living
Catholic Culture Liturgical Living

The Fallacies of the Federal Box

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Dec 16, 2009

One of the classic fallacies, used frequently in political discourse, is appeal to emotion. The idea is to appeal to an audience in a way that causes them to associate favorable emotions with the proposition you are putting before them. The fallacy consists in tricking the audience (or allowing the audience to trick itself) into believing that the proposition in question must be true (or good) because pleasant or noble feelings resonate with it.

This is one of the main fallacies underlying the presumption that the Federal government must take control of the entire medical system in order to provide reasonable medical services to the poor. The argument runs basically like this:

  1. It is both outrageous and very sad that huge numbers of poor people lack medical care in the United States.
  2. The proposed Federal reform of health care will provide this missing medical care.
  3. Therefore, the proposed Federal reform of health care must be implemented.

This argument, incredibly weak on its face, depends on two related emotions for its force: First, pity for the poor who should not have to suffer so; second, anger at all those who stand in the way of Federal reform for deliberately keeping the poor down. The result is that many people instinctively “feel” that to stand on the side of sweetness and light, they must support the Federal health care takeover.

Now, why do I say the argument is “incredibly weak on its face”? I say this because, as should be obvious to anyone, we must know a great deal more about its assumptions before we can assent to its conclusion. We must know, at a minimum, all of the following: (a) The percentage of the population that lacks medical care; (b) The type and degree of medical care this group lacks; (c) The reasons they lack it; (d) How much it would cost to supply it; (e) The nature of the possible mechanisms that could be used to supply it; (f) Whether the proposed Federal reform will utilize those methods reasonably judged to be most effective; (g) Whether the proposed reform involves other significant provisions unrelated to these effective mechanisms; and (h) If so, whether these other provisions are likely to prove deleterious in any way.

I take it as a given—argue with me if you will—that the increasing desire of the public to slow the implementation of the proposed Federal takeover reflects the public’s growing awareness that there is a great deal more to the argument than meets the eye. In other words, their emotions are cooling. I also take it as given that the effort of backers of the takeover to force it through quickly reflects a desire to eliminate the opportunity for this growing public reticence to shape itself into votes.

Now let us frame the argument so that it engenders different emotions:

  1. 15% of American citizens are uncovered by health insurance, many but not all due to poverty.
  2. The proposed Federal reform of health care includes a provision requiring an annual lottery among all households in the United States such that the government will use your tax dollars to pay for the murder of one person out of every 100 households.
  3. But because it will also provide medical coverage for poor citizens, the proposed Federal reform of health care must be implemented.

One person out of every 100 households is equivalent to the approximate number of abortions performed in the United States each year.

There are a great many different ways in which this argument could be framed. We might, purely for the sake of illustration, suggest that the Federal plan provides that, each year, the government will pay the cost of permanently enslaving one person out of every ten Black families. That’s not in the current bill before the Senate, of course, but it is a premise of roughly equal moral weight to just one of the morally reprehensible provisions and likely consequences of the Senate bill.

Still, perhaps it is even more important to note an even more fundamental fallacy at work in this argument, the fallacy that because a highly-publicized solution addresses a particular problem, it must represent either the best or the only solution to the problem. This is a variation of what is called the spotlight fallacy, and if you think it is not at work here, ask yourself a question: If you are opposed to the Federal takeover of health care, how many times have you been accused of “opposing health care reform” or “not caring about the poor?” When, I wonder, did Federal policies proposed by the Democratic Party come to be perceived as the only possible solution to this problem?

Of course, your accusers might answer—in somewhat of an emotional lather—that this proposal is all we’ve got to bring the suffering of the poor to an end. Okay, I get that—but let them first explain two things: Why did so many deeply caring proponents of health care reform threaten to oppose the bill if abortion were excluded? And how would your accusers feel about putting their own spouse, or mother, or brother, or daughter, or even themselves, in our little Federally-sponsored lottery? Of course, if your accusers are morally bankrupt, disingenuous, or simply terribly confused, they’ll dismiss both the relevance of the first question and the moral equivalence of the second. But if they’re none of these unfortunate things, they might just begin to analyze the entire argument. If they do, they’ll also start thinking outside the Federal box.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and See full bio.

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  • Posted by: - Dec. 18, 2009 10:12 AM ET USA

    Entirely too logical. Go to your room now, and get in touch with your inner child. :-)