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Not quite as smart as we think we are or should lawyers govern?

By Michael Paton - posted Tuesday, 30 August 2011


Homo sapiens is an interesting species. With the advancement of science, we've managed to develop technologies that enable us to fly to the moon and communicate almost instantaneously with someone on the other side of the globe. However, many of the societal systems that we have adopted are decidedly unscientific, and are instead, based on what have been considered fallacies of argument since the time of Socrates and Plato. For example, the legal fraternity (and sorority) rail against fallacies of argument, however even legal precedent can be considered to be based on a logical fallacy.

The major problem with this is it affects our ability to survive as a species over the long-term. I argue this in the context of China, which according to Mark Elvin 'hit the wall' environmentally in the eighteenth century due to the logic of short-term advantage, epitomised by war. This occurred to a civilisation with the longest continuous written culture, whose administrative systems and science were at the forefront of human endeavour for millennia, situated in one of the most fertile areas in the world. Admittedly, the traditional Chinese government system differed from our present democratic system, but the logic of short-term advantage seems inherent in our species, if not all species. The historical precedent of China begs the question of whether we should consider governing society on logical rather than legal values.

One fallacy of argument that underpins our current system is the agreement of people. An example of this is that up until some 300 years ago, the majority of people, that is those living in the northern hemisphere, believed that all swans were white – which of course we know is not true. Yet we base our democracy on the agreement of people. Not that I'm advocating a totalitarian system. My experiences of being stopped by police on the streets on numerous occasions, seemingly because of my Pacific islander heritage, has made me very skeptical of providing more power to the State.

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Another fallacy, which is integral to our democratic system, is that of bifurcation, or over-simplified dichotomy. We identify ourselves as Labour or Liberal, Whig or Tory, Democrat or Republican, Conservative or Progressive. The problem with this is that competition becomes the basis of our political position, and winning the fight becomes more important than useful government and as a result the logic of short-term advantage holds sway. Last month's shemozzle in the US over the borrowing limit, resulting in the ratings downgrade of the world's most powerful economy, and Tony Abbott's negativity for the sake of negativity are nought but recent examples of the scale of the winning at all costs mentality that the two part system creates. This mentality can only have long-term negative effects on our survival as a species.

The 'winners' can't remove themselves to gated communities in hope of survival as we are all inextricably linked to our ecology.

The lack of logical validity behind the agreement of people and bifurcation also leads to the use of other fallacies, such as ad hominem, post hoc ergo propter hoc and appeal to emotion, particularly in the arguments of politicians and journalists in trying to convince people that what they think is true. Ad hominem arguments are those that address the person rather than their ideas. The recent attacks on Julia Gillard because of her marital situation or even her dress sense by sections of the media and some politicians fall into this category. Post hoc ergo propter hoc (literally after the fact, therefore because of it) arguments are those that confuse chronology with causation. For example, it would be ludicrous to argue that the zero tolerance policing strategy in the late 1990s in New York caused the catastrophic 911 terrorist attacks, but politicians use such arguments almost daily in their denigration of the opposition party. Similarly, politicians continuously use emotive words and phrases to convince the community of their views. This may win votes, but it is fundamentally meaningless.

A further fallacy of argument that is apparent in our societal systems is reification. This is the treatment of abstract concepts as realities. One specific type of reification is the pathetic fallacy otherwise known as anthropomorphisation, where abstract concepts are given human characteristics. Thus businesses are incorporated, that is given the status of a person. The problem with this is that if such a business treats humanity or the environment badly, such as with Bhopal and Union Carbide or more locally Homebush Bay and Union Carbide, the only recourse is for the business to go bankrupt. The lack of human responsibility becomes tangible, and the environment is forgotten.

Another form of reification is what Whitehead called the fallacy of misplaced concreteness, where a belief or opinion is mistaken for a concrete reality. An example of this is the misleading mantra of the market as the only arbiter of social power. Hayek argued that the market has to be left to its own devices as it is the best and perhaps the only real conveyor of information and knowledge in a society where individuals lack knowledge beyond their own sphere. This was enthusiastically embraced by both Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher in the seventies and resulted in a push for the withdrawal of government oversight of many societal processes. Since that time the great majority of governments around the world, including the previously communist governments of Russia and China, have followed suit and have given over much of what had previously been bureaucratically mandated processes to market mechanisms.

In the context of the relationship between war and its negative impact on the environment, the one great advantage of this move towards the greater power of business through market rather than political processes, is that since its inception business since has helped humanity mitigate against war. Through the market, business allows a peaceful solution to the re-allocation of resources, which otherwise over history has been left to the force of arms. Moreover, as Hayek argues, if the market is left unchecked, it self-corrects to any informational input and thus becomes the basis of information transfer.

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The problem with this, however, is that the process as described by Hayek relies on short-term correction strategies. That is, the market corrects itself with short-term information inputs, which become knee jerk reactions to present circumstances. Thus, even though the market mitigates against war, it is still captive to the same logic of short-term advantage that epitomises war. Any environmental considerations are lost in the pursuit of competitive advantage for short-term profit. Admittedly, Malthus' suggestions have proved incorrect over the past 200 years, but if one considers, in this context the environmental history, Easter Island and the previously noted example of China's undoing, humanity could end up just trading itself into oblivion as a species, albeit with some impressive monuments to mark its passing.

Through the implementation of the market approach advocated by Hayek, much of societal power has been given over to the market, even though local scholars such as Bob Walker point out that there is no empirical evidence for such a transfer of power. Moreover, Hayek's pure market, where individual investment decisions become an amorphous global democratic whole, does not exist in reality. Even if it did, individuals would be economically disempowered in comparison to institutions and powerful conglomerates, much as they are under non-capitalist systems, even if they did possess a wealth of knowledge. This is not a modern dilemma. As the Confucian Chinese philosopher, Mencius (Mengzi), wrote around 300 BC,

'Even though one has wisdom, it is not as good as taking advantage of power-base'.

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About the Author

Michael Paton teaches in the Faculty of Economics and Business at the University of Sydney. His early academic training was in geology to be followed by doctoral research in the history and philosophy of science in China.

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