Somalia and Binary Thinking
There is a refrain that one comes across from time to time when debating the merits of libertarianism that, in crude terms, goes something like this:
What you libertarians don’t understand is that we need a government to provide essential services like roads and courts. There’s no way you can privatise these services, so you libertarians will just have to get over your hatred of government. If you want to see where libertarian philosophy will get you, look at Somalia.
Now by itself, this isn’t an especially interesting argument, you just point your interlocutor in the direction of The Fallacy of the Excluded Middle and move on, and besides which this site is far to classy to get people harping on that old cliché.
The main reason I bring it up is because it highlights a way of thinking that is regrettably common among people of all ideological persuasions – the tendency to try and lump everyone into two groups: Us and Them, and then treat everyone in Them as a single, homogeneous opponent. But the Somalia argument goes beyond merely defining two tribes, it also defines them in total opposition to each other. If you are against this government activity, you must be against all of them. This is precisely the sort of faulty logic that leads Republicans to call Democrats communists (the American left is no more socialistic than the American right is free-market capitalist), and some libertarians to claim that the Republicans and Democrats are interchangeable because they’re both in favour of an interventionist government (or Ralph Nader’s supporters to claim that they’re interchangeable because they’re both in the pockets of Big Business).
It is understandable that we sort the world into factions, it’s hardly surprising that our kludgey brains and their Chimp 2.0 Operating System mishandle the complexities of modern politics, where the issue of who gets to eat a the choice parts of a lion’s carcass hardly ever comes up. But it still makes it very hard to have a productive debate, your opponent will often utterly miscategorise your position, and the same bias will lead you to misunderstand your opponent’s position. And how can any common ground be reached if you’re effectively having two parallel debates?
The best way I can think of to get past this problem is to be specific. Don’t debate the merits of libertarianism or liberalism or socialism. Debate the merits of specific policies or approaches – central planning and its effects on growth, or the War on Drugs or whether the government should provide a welfare safety net, and if so under what circumstances? If you’re still getting confused try to be more specific, which of the component policies of the War on Drugs are we arguing about? The wider your argument’s scope, the more likely it is that confusion will reign.