By Philip Decker ’14
Bertrand Russell wrote in 1928, “Every man, wherever he goes, is encompassed by a cloud of comforting convictions, which move with him like flies on a summer day.” Such a cloud encompasses many contemporary liberals. While not all liberals are wrapped in it, most in government and media are; it pervades daily political discourse with alarming frequency. Thomas Sowell calls this cloud one of self-congratulation—and more importantly, one of moral superiority. The cloud is characterized by a great logical flaw, one which is difficult to convey to liberals who exhibit it—and in my experience, very challenging.
The logical fallacy can be demonstrated as follows:
P I: A liberal desires Result A, say, fairness in the market and/or economic growth.
P II: The liberal proposes Policy B, raising taxes on the wealthy, to achieve Result A.
P III: A conservative opposes Policy B.
∴ Therefore, the conservative opposes Result A.
This is a fallacious syllogism. Let us break down what this represents.
The posture implies that the liberal believes that he is so intrinsically correct—he is categorically right—that opposing views cannot be based on disagreements stemming from differing opinions of how to address a problem. Rather, the conservative must not want fairness, or justice, or growth, because—since the liberal is undeniably correct—he disagrees with raising taxes (taxes, of course, being only one example of dozens). There is a moral high-ground to be maintained.
Naturally, it is a serious accusation to state that liberal policymakers think in this manner, and it requires evidence. There is plenty.
During his first term, President Obama stated in the Rose Garden on 19th September 2011, “We must ask the wealthiest Americans to pay their fair share in taxes.” This is only one of many examples where Mr. Obama used this precise statement. Other such declarations include “we must level the playing field,” “we must strengthen our middle class,” and “we must retract tax breaks for the wealthy.” This last policy proposal is opposed by congressional Republicans consistently; their counterargument maintains that raising taxes, particularly on the people with money to spend, will stifle economic growth (which is derived at its core from the transaction of money in the free market), will limit job creation, and will not produce sufficient revenues to pay off even a small part of our debts. Paul Ryan argued on MSNBC on 26th July 2010, “we’ve got unemployment at almost 10%—the last thing we should be doing is raising taxes on the economy…this will hurt small businesses who file taxes as individuals; 75% of these proposed tax increases affect small business owners.” Not once is mentioned the desire to protect the wealthy, or to favor the wealthy any more than other classes, either for economic or ignoble reasons. Disregarding these arguments, Mr. Obama went forth and asserted, at a news conference in December 2010, that “tax cuts for the wealthy are the Holy Grail of the opposition party,” and in a different speech that “protecting the rich is their top priority.” He would continue to do this in almost every campaign speech; many of his political advertisements slandered Governor Romney for wanting to “help people like him at expense of the middle class.”
Let us put this through the rigor of logic.
P I: Mr. Obama aspires to “level the playing field” and “strengthen the middle class.”
P II: Thus, the president avers that we need to “retract tax breaks for the wealthy.”
P III: Conservatives like Ryan state that this will “hurt small businesses” and cite other concerns; they argue that the way to best “level the playing field” is to have lower taxes and less regulation, because this increases job growth and, resultantly, opportunity.
∴ Mr. Obama asserts that “tax cuts for the wealthy are the Holy Grail of the opposition party.”
Here, the president believes that because opposition disagrees with his method, it disagrees with his goal.
It is largely irrelevant who is actually correct. Regardless of whose policy is more effective, there are two parties and two approaches. To firmly avow that the other side’s policy is not based on sincere interpretation of fact but rather out of the desire to help the wealthy, without any support other than intuition and the presumption of moral supremacy, is to disregard the fundamentals of debate.
Similar discourse arises in other areas. Mr. Obama proclaimed at a campaign event on 17th October 2011, “My plan says we’re going to put teachers back in the classroom, construction workers back to work rebuilding America, rebuilding our schools. That’s my plan.” The president had recently proposed a series of environmental regulations, passed Obamacare in 2010, and advocated the American Jobs Act in his 2011 State of the Union Address. Republicans opposed all of these on the basis that increased government spending and large-scale federal programs would jeopardize the strength of our economy; the nationalized healthcare system embodied in Obamacare raised concerns about the affordability of the not-so-aptly-named Affordable Care Act. Charles Krauthammer—who cites his statistics from credible, non-partisan sources—articulated his concerns in March 2010: “The actual cost of [Obamacare] is 2.5 trillion dollars.” He had earlier said “[Obamacare] takes proxy control of healthcare—it will turn insurance into a utility.” Mr. Obama at the same campaign event: “Then you’ve got their plan, which is, let’s have dirtier air, dirtier water, less people with health insurance. So far at least, I feel better about my plan.”
Once again, we must test the president’s assertions logically:
P I: Mr. Obama wants to “put teachers back in the classroom, construction workers back to work rebuilding America, rebuilding our schools,” etc.
P II: He proposes big-spending programs like Obamacare, the Jobs Act, and increased regulation.
P III: Conservatives like Krauthammer raise concerns about federal spending levels, the effectiveness of increased regulation, and the affordability of sweeping programs like Obamacare.
∴ Mr. Obama concludes that the Republican plan wants, quite clearly, “dirtier air, dirtier water.”
Instead of challenging conservative counterarguments with credible, well-established facts—something a major party platform of the United States should be expected to do—the Democratic standard-bearer does nothing of the kind.
The problem is that he doesn’t feel the need to. The notion that he is morally superior to the opposition suffices; whether or not the facts parallel his policy visions becomes largely inconsequential. Evidence is either skewed to favor the liberal perspective, or not used at all. One can only say that great danger lies in this kind of thinking.
The primary result of the moral posturing is what Thomas Sowell terms the “irrelevance of evidence.” Because of this notion of greater virtue, many liberals, particularly liberals who advocate large-scale spending programs, ignore or downplay evidence that reflects poorly on the programs. Because their intentions are noble, and their ideals great, these liberals cut themselves off from discordant evidence, and demonize those who present it (e.g. Romney—or for that matter Bill O’Reilly, who has an acute distaste for B.S.). If contrary evidence is at all addressed, and there is no specific person or group to blame, the common conclusion is that “things would have been five times worse, were it not for this program.” Countless times does one hear Paul Krugman, Chris Matthews, Rachel Maddow, other prominent media voices—as well as many liberal politicians, and the president himself—say, for example, that “we saved America from the brink of depression with the 2009 stimulus package.”  There is no way to prove or disprove this, because the “depression” that America was “saved from” is a pure hypothetical. Concrete evidence is, once again, gapingly absent.
Crucial here is the role of self-image: appearing to be doing good is more important than producing good results (although good results would be a welcome side-effect). A classic example of this is that of the Great Society. The “War on Poverty,” as it was called, began in the 1964 as a means of reducing unemployment and decreasing the amount of people below the poverty line: the stated goal, to simply “end poverty.” Despite fifteen trillion dollars ($15,000,000,000,000) in federal spending on welfare and other expensive entitlement programs, poverty in 2004 was at approximately the same rate as that of 1964. In some years, poverty proved significantly more pervasive than it had been in the 1960s; in1992 especially poverty eclipsed the rate it had been in 1964, despite decades of Johnsonian social policy. Moreover, the rate of poverty had been steadily declining from 1950-1964, sometimes at an average of almost 1% per year. Despite these damning statistics, liberals continue to praise the Great Society as one of the most effective and most crucial endeavors in American history. Conservative (factual) criticism of the Great Society is marginalized and, quite often, viciously retaliated against. “We care about the poor” is much more important than “our policies actually alleviate poverty”; “these policies are designed to help the poor” holds more weight than “these policies do in fact help the poor.”
Perhaps the most striking example is found in the social program Head Start. There is abundant evidence which indicates the ineffectiveness, and occasional detriment, of this program (and often more general government spending on early childhood education). Designed under President Johnson as part of the Great Society, Head Start aims to improve the grades and learning skills of socially disadvantaged toddlers. Its current federal budget exceeds eight billion dollars. Of the numerous studies which report the failures of Head Start, none is more telling than the non-partisan Head Start Impact Study, mandated by Congress in 1998 and administered from 2002-2006 by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The study clearly reports that Head Start marginally enhanced the performance of three-year-olds for a short period of time; by the third grade, all improvements had dissipated—students who had gone through the program averaged either identically or slightly lower than students who had not; 106 of 112 three-year-old groups analyzed showed no visible improvement, and one of the remaining six showed detrimental results. Four-year-olds did no better: 110 of 112 groups showed no improvement. Both the Head Start groups and the control groups came from similarly disadvantaged socioeconomic backgrounds.
On seeing the results of an extensive, federally mandated study, one would assume that a sensible legislative body would either repeal or seriously reform so blatantly ineffective a program. This has, however, not been done; since its inception Head Start has enjoyed over two hundred billion dollars in federal funding, and continues to add nearly ten billion dollars to the annual deficit. While some few Republicans are brave enough to point these facts out, many do not: the liberal backlash is so vehement that many conservatives have accepted Head Start as a lost cause. Responding to new cuts in early-childhood funding, Florida congresswoman Debbie Wasserman-Schultz spoke on the House floor on 3rd March 2011: “the society that balances its budget on the backs of its children should not be surprised when the spine of its future is broken…these children are two, three, and four years old. They didn’t run up the debt and deficit of our country, but the response from Republicans in the House of Representatives was that they would pay for it. That just doesn’t make sense. It is morally wrong.” Once again, the sweeping assumption that the congresswoman makes is that because the program is well-intended, it should continue, and to discontinue it on any basis is morally corrupt. Little regard is paid to counterarguments addressing inefficiency and wastefulness.
This kind of behavior is commonplace among many liberals: you don’t support the minimum wage or the welfare state, therefore you don’t care about poor people; you don’t support increased federal education funding, you don’t care about teachers and students; you don’t support the individual mandate, you don’t want people to have health insurance (case in point: “dirtier air, dirtier water, less people with health insurance”). It is very difficult to engage in a serious debate with such statements for responses: at the end of the day, when a person refuses to acknowledge concrete evidence, and so completely enshrouds himself in moral reassurances, there is little to be said. It is, moreover, almost impossible to convince one enamored with liberal dogma to change his views, because the essential prerequisite to this is shedding the perception of moral superiority—one would have to accept that a conservative cares just as much for the poor, cares just as much about other races, believes just as deeply in equal rights and justice, but merely concluded differently how to approach the task of crafting a better nation. The vast majority of liberal ideology is predicated on the kindness and compassion of those who subscribe to its beliefs: to forego the sanctity of this comparative benevolence would be to relinquish all that the ideology stands for. In the final analysis, it is a philosophy dedicated to what feels good, as opposed to what is good. While there are without doubt millions of honest, hardworking Democrats, it is this unfortunate brand of the Democratic Party that is pre-eminent in media, politics, and social organizations—and those are the engines of Democratic policy.
Finally, where this is all going. Quite simply, it is going to disaster. As liberals continue to disregard opposition as immoral, their programs continue to degrade the strength and prosperity of this nation. At some point, it will be too late to fix. And then we will see if the entrepreneurial spirit of America can withstand these detriments indefinitely, eroding quietly—or if it will collapse in shambles, like empires before it. Russell’s cloud of comforting convictions may yet become a destructive cyclone, one that would obliterate the good intentions that first gave it fuel.
 A brief example: liberals often criticize low-tax, supply-side economics as producing insufficient revenue to fund the government, pointing frequently to the deficits of the Reagan years, when supply-side was implemented. Just five minutes of research into the IRS’s revenue statistics for the 1980s will indicate that revenues increased dramatically as a result of lower taxes: 1980-1981 alone saw an increase of almost 20%, from 520 billion dollars to over 600 billion dollars. It is merely the heightened anti-Soviet military spending (and on a more partisan basis, congressional Democrats’ broken promise to cut spending in 1982) which caused the Reagan deficits. By the end of the 80s, revenues approached one trillion dollars—a literal doubling from the high-rate proceeds of the previous decade (top-bracket rates were reduced from 70% to a 28% in the span of a few years). Revenues went up and so did spending—the tax policy certainly did not produce the new debt. A prime example of skewed evidence.
 According to federal charts, however, our economy hit “rock bottom” in November-December 2008 and was indicating an upward trend in January of 2009, before the February Recovery Act was enacted (with its trillion dollars to boot); there was a 4% GDP spike in the next quarter due to the massive spending, and then immediately GDP fell to slow, unmoving, pre-stimulus levels, eventually dropping down to a bare minimum .1% in portions of 2011. Worth the trillion dollars?