Simplification is a standard teaching technique that is beginning to have unintended consequences for our political and economic discourse. In a first-year physics course, students do basic trajectory and conservation-of-momentum calculations without considering a hundred factors (friction/drag, lunar gravity, relativistic effects…) at first, to avoid obscuring the basic lessons behind a swarm of details regarding real bodies in motion. Similarly, first-year economics students are taught about simple supply/demand curves and capital flows before diving into the complexity of real-life economic interactions. Unfortunately, the pedagogical purpose of these simplifications is rarely driven home. The students, many of whom are only taking that one economics class to satisfy a distribution requirement and will never take another, mistake the simplified model for something applicable to real people in real markets. They fall in love with its abstract elegance, uncluttered by all of the “grunge” that adheres to everything in real life, and set about preaching the gospel to friends and strangers online. The effect is pollution of online discourse with half-baked theories and half-informed opinions coming from people who have never actually held a job, bought a house, or generally experienced economic life except as someone else’s dependent. The flaws in their thinking are of course answerable on an instance-by-instance basis, but by sheer weight of numbers and obstinacy they can often place an intolerable strain on adult discussions of economic (or political) issues.

One of the tipoffs that the Libertarian Youth Brigade members are all taking their ideas from the same few books or websites instead of learning to think for themselves is the adoption of identical terminology and lines of attack (not reasoning). For example, they use “freedom” or “liberty” in a very restrictive way, mostly economic and predicated on the idea of government as the only possible agent of coercion. Another favorite is “common sense” meaning “sense” that is only common on Faux News. The all-time winner in the terminological abuse category, though, has to be the use of “objective” to mean “from my perspective”. There’s a whole “philosophy” (if a word that means “love of thought” can be applied) called objectivism that is in fact extremely subjective. Just because I believe government can occasionally do some good, I’ve been accused of being against freedom, defying common sense, and lacking objectivity more times than I can count.

The same sort of uniformity applies not only to terminology but also to logic. Besides the obvious strawmen, bifurcation, and personal attacks that everyone uses, here are some tricks that seem particularly popular among the fibberati:

  • Post Hoc: government did X and bad thing Y happened, therefore Y is government’s fault
  • Disproof by Fallacy: government did one thing wrong, therefore everything government does will be wrong.
  • Appeal to Authority: Friedman said, Hayek said….
  • Argument of the Beard, Slippery Slope, Camel’s Nose, and relatives: usually expressed as a failed reductio ad absurdum. One particularly noxious liberal-hater on America’s Debate recently attempted, in all seriousness, to claim that if you couldn’t justify a $50/hour minimum wage you couldn’t justify any minimum wage…which leads us to…
  • Shifting the Burden, Moving the Goalposts. We should all start with the assumptions that Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” is a panacea and the authors of the Holy Constitution were omniscient perfect beings. Every deviation from that dogma must be explained and justified down to the finest detail, complete with unassailable citations from accredited libertarian sources. Even if you accept the unfair burden and meet the impossible standard, the best response you can expect is for your opponent to exit the thread silently.

It’s because of these tendencies that I’ve come to loathe libertarians, even though there are many areas where I have always agreed with their conclusions. If liberals are the left wing and conservatives the right, then I propose that libertarians be considered the drumsticks – the part of the bird furthest from the part capable of thinking.