Character and argument

Strictly speaking, an argument’s force ought to be independent of the person making it. If the evidence and reasoning is strong, what does it matter if the person making it is an expert or an amateur, a crook or a saint? Yet it seems natural and normal to use an assessement of the person making an argument as a proxy for an assessment of their actual arguments.

Over at Catallaxy, Jason Soon discusses an interesting example of this, what he calls ‘statist quoism’, the claim that because a person arguing against some form of government funding received it themselves in the past (family benefits, free education, etc) they should not argue against future generations receiving it.

As Jason points out, this could lead to bad policies never being corrected. But it’s hard to purge this way of thinking because it requires us to put aside norms that are usually worth enforcing, such as against hypocrisy and for reciprocity. Should I retrospectively pay more than I did for my university education, because I am saying that others should pay more than I did? Since my argument is primarily about the microeconomics of higher education and not distributional issues, the answer is no. We cannot undo the decisions or change the incentives of the past. But I suspect some people would find my position more convincing if had paid my own way through university, and not received years of the free education I dismiss as an intellectually disreputable policy.