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Hi, I’m Seth. I heard a funny argument the other day. I ride the bus to campus, and all of the bus drivers employed by this company are libertarians, so I always get to hear libertarian talk radio on the bus. That’s where the funny argument came from.
The argument was about voter registration laws. Specifically, it was trying to defend the requirement that voters have a state-issued ID. Here’s how it went:
I know what you’re thinking. Wow! This, from a conservative? Let’s go through it slowly, and see why this is so funny.
The host put forth a lot of effort in establishing premise 1. He even had a liberal listener call in and argue with him so he could yell about this one. He said that the debate thus far has centered on the amount of voter fraud, which is irrelevant. Democrats have said that voter fraud does not happen as often as Republicans claim, so we don’t need an ID law. The host said this doesn’t matter, because voter fraud does happen, even if only in very, very, very, very small amounts. He kept asking his liberal caller if voter fraud happens, and the liberal caller said, “I don’t know,” or “Probably a little.” This made the host mad, and he said the caller didn’t have the testicular fortitude to admit that it does happen, at least a little bit. Therefore, premise 1 is true.
Another way he could have established the truth of premise 1 is by referring to an actual legal case documenting voter fraud. But he didn’t do this, so I’m not going to bother. I don’t want him to say I lack testicular fortitude, so I’ll agree with premise 1.
Premise 2 is really funny because it’s obviously false. One way to see how false it is is by thinking of a crime that could be prevented by a really outrageous law. For example, we could prevent speeding by outlawing automobiles. We could even prevent drunk-driving by outlawing automobiles. This is starting to sound pretty reasonable! According to premise 2, libertarians should be clambering to outlaw automobiles. But they aren’t.
They aren’t applying premise generally because they know it’s false, and they only want to pretend it’s true in this one particular case, because they need it for supporting the conclusion they want. Imagine if they used this premise when thinking about extreme gun control laws. Outlawing all guns could prevent gun-related homicides. Therefore, we should outlaw all guns. Libertarians don’t reason this way because they know premise 2 is false. More things need to be considered before enacting legislation. You have to do a cost-benefit analysis.
For the automobile case, it is clear that preventing speeding is not a big enough benefit, given the extreme disruption to society such a law would cause. It just wouldn’t be worth it. Most people think the prevention of drunk-driving is also outweighed by the cost of the law. That’s why we don’t outlaw automobiles.
For the gun case, it would be pretty good if we could prevent all gun-related crime, but libertarians object on the grounds that it would be infringing on our rights, so no benefit could be big enough to outweigh that.
That is interesting, because it mirrors the voting case. Lots of poor people without IDs have the right to vote. Many of them have never had an ID, because they’ve never owned cars. Preventing them from voting unless they go get an ID is infringing on their rights. This should make libertarians really mad. They should be against this law, based on their own political philosophy. Premise 2 is contrary to the facts, and to what they believe. That’s really funny.
Premise 3 is also really funny, because it is false for the same reasons that libertarians say gun control laws wouldn’t work. I can almost hear Glenn Beck responding to premise 3, “Oh, require IDs to prevent voter fraud? Please, tell me more about how criminals don’t know how to get fake IDs.” We are already talking about a very small number of people who intend to commit voter fraud, and if they really wanted to, they could easily get a fake ID. Lots of college kids do it all the time.
If you imagine that this law had been proposed by the Democrats, then you can probably predict exactly how conservatives would object to it. They would object to premise 2 because voter ID laws infringe the right to vote of those who don’t already have IDs. They would object to premise 3 because criminals don’t follow laws, so the only people being prevented from voting are law-abiding citizens who don’t have IDs. These are actually pretty good reasons to disagree with the law, and they are fully consistent with conservative political philosophy. It makes you wonder why they even like this law. Oh, because it will prevent lots of poor people from voting, and poor people are likely to vote for Obama. Now I remember.
I think this argument is so funny because it shows us how willing we are to ignore what we believe in order to defend a position that we want to be true. Political conservatives aren’t the only one’s who do this, but they are the funniest example of it. I hear the radio host say things on Wednesday that directly contradict what he said on Tuesday, and he pretends he doesn’t realize it. That’s really funny.
Seth Kurtenbach is a philosophy Master’s student and computer science PhD student at the University of Missouri. His research focuses on applications of formal logic and game theory to questions about knowledge and rationality. He is growing a mighty beard, in order to increase his philosophical powers [EDIT: The beard is currently shorn]. Feel free to contact Seth at firstname.lastname@example.org with inquiries about philosophy, logic, guest blogging, or visiting to give a presentation!