Tracing consequences both seen and unseen.
Justin M. StoddardSpot all the Fallacies, Part II
Posted at 4:47 pm on October 19, 2013, by Justin M. Stoddard

Yesterday, I critiqued a video that used Pascal’s Wager to implore us to take drastic action in order to fight the threat of global warming.

It occurred to me that my critique might be a bit more forceful if I showed how trying to predict future outcomes using incorrect assumptions leads to unintended, bad consequences. There’s no better way to do this than to explore a few historical events and the way society reacted to them.

Here are a few examples I came up with:

-Nutrition advice in the 1960s
-The fear of race mixing at the beginning of the 20th Century
-The War on Drugs

Each of these events can easily be put into the rubric of Pascal’s Wager using the incorrect assumptions used at the time.

Heart Disease:

In the late 1950s, heart disease was a major concern for health professionals and politicians alike. It was such a major concern, that Congress and various bureaucracies of the Federal Government insisted that drastic action must be taken soon to stave off a major disaster.

Let’s fit it into Pascal’s Wager:

Either saturated fat is a major contributor to heart disease and is responsible for killing thousands of people a year, or it’s not.

If it is a major contributor, and drastic action is not taken: The consequences will be dire. Tens of thousands could die in the coming decades.
If it is a major contributor, and drastic action is taken: The crisis is averted, and tens of thousands of lives will be saved.
If it is not a major contributor, and drastic action is not taken: No harm, no foul.
If it is not a major contributor, and drastic action is taken: People will still have the benefits of living a healthy lifestyle.

Drastic action was taken and the Federal Government came up with nutritional guidelines outlined in the now infamous Food Pyramid. These weren’t just recommendations. School children have been indoctrinated with these guidelines for 40 years. Doctors and nutritionists have followed them religiously. Countless millions (if not billions) of dollars have flowed into programs to ensure these guidelines were followed.

It’s only been within the last ten years or so that we’ve discovered that not only are these guidelines are most likely wrong, they’re probably murderous. We are dealing with health epidemics which could not even begin to be be imagined 40 years ago. Cases of obesity, diabetes, heart disease, auto-immune disorders, etc, have exploded all over the country.

Why? Because it turns out that the original assumptions were wrong. Saturated fats are far more beneficial and far less harmful than originally thought. Complex carbohydrates are just the opposite.

Race Mixing:

Eugenics was all the rage at the beginning of the 20th Century. Progressives were all a flutter about taking drastic action to ensure that not only the white race not be mixed with what they deemed “inferior stock,” but that other deficiencies be culled from the gene pool as well. It was feared that the white race would all but disappear from the face of the earth, or more likely, become so bogged down with genetic imperfections as to destroy it.

The proposition:

Either race mixing and undesirable genetics will destroy the white race, or it won’t.

If it will destroy the white race, and drastic action is taken: The white race will be saved, and civilization will not be destroyed.
If it will destroy the white race, and drastic action is not taken: The white race will be destroyed, and civilization will soon follow.
If it will not destroy the white race, and drastic action is taken: The white race still benefits.
If it will not destroy the white race, and drastic action is not taken: Status Quo.

Drastic action was taken and Federal/State governments, as well as numerous private organizations funded by the leading Progressives of the day, put into motion a system of forced eugenics, forced sterilization, and immigration policies which still live with us today.

The torrid tale spans from Cold Harbor, to tiny Appalachian mountain towns. From the birth control movement to the front door of the White House. From local policy, all the way to Hitler’s gas chambers.

The War on Drugs:

The war on drugs goes back over a century, but for the purposes of this example, we’ll start in 1971 with President Nixon. At that time, drugs were considered to be a problem so monumental and pressing that drastic action was immediately needed.

The proposition:

Illegal drug use is a scourge that has the power to destroy civilization, or it isn’t.

If it is a scourge that has the power to destroy civilization, and drastic action is taken: Civilization is saved.
If it is a scourge that has the power to destroy civilization, and drastic action is not taken: Civilization may be destroyed.
If it is not a scourge that has the power to destroy civilization, and drastic action is taken: Civilization still benefits.
If it is not a scourge that has the power to destroy civilization, and drastic action is not taken: Status Quo.

Drastic action was taken. Billions of dollars have been poured into the War on Drugs over the past 40 years by Federal and State governments.

The result?

Well, the results are too legion to list out individually. Suffice it to say, it has proven to be one of the most colossal failures any modern government has ever been responsible for. In terms of money wasted, lives ruined, rights lost, and people murdered, the War on Drugs has brought this nation to its knees. I challenge anyone who says it’s hyperbole to speculate that short of complete decriminalization and dismantling of the system built up to keep the War on Drugs going, America will never recover from it.

Conclusion:

This is my main concern about the video I critiqued yesterday. It’s not so much that the gentleman is attempting to fit and extremely complex problem based on uncertainty into an overly simplistic model. It’s that he’s starting with an unquestioned assumption which you are just supposed to accept, no questions asked.

Why is taxation, regulation, and government control the solution? I have no idea. He doesn’t bother to explain. It’s just an axiom that you’re supposed to accept.

Why will taxation, regulation, and government control work this time, when it has proved to be a disaster in the past? Again, I have no idea. Not only doesn’t he bother to explain, one gets the impression that he’s never even considered it. It goes beyond being axiomatic to being a religious belief. There’s nothing of any substance to his belief other than faith.

But, even with all the historical examples available to us (I’ve only touched on three), we are made to believe that this time, if drastic action is taken, it will avert disaster. And, what’s the worst that can happen if he’s wrong? According to him, the very worst that will happen is a global depression that “makes the depression of the 1930’s look like a cake walk.”

Except, that’s not the worst that could happen. Not even close.


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Henry Hazlitt"[T]he whole of economics can be reduced to a single lesson, and that lesson can be reduced to a single sentence. The art of economics consists in looking not merely at the immediate but at the longer effects of any act or policy; it consists in tracing the consequences of that policy not merely for one group but for all groups."
Henry Hazlitt, Economics in One Lesson
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