The “Stupid and Evil” Fallacy in American Politics

The GOP catches much flack for its “obstructionist politics” and for being the “party of no.” They vote against proposals from President Obama and congressional Democrats, proposals that the President and his party peers know are the only way to dig America out of its recession. Who wouldn’t want to end the recession and put people back to work? ask the Democrats. The GOP, of course. They think only of themselves, the next election cycle, and their corporate overlords.

Progressives parrot this line of thinking all over the Internet. Democrats in Congress articulate it explicitly when, like Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich, they say, “It is very clear that the Republicans in the Senate want this economy to fail.” But Democrats and their progressive allies are falling prey to the “stupid and evil” fallacy, one that has unfortunately become dominant in American politics. While it is certainly true that sometimes politicians are stupid and/or evil and sometimes they vote against something they know is a good solution just because doing so will net them political gain, the sad fact is that the “stupid and evil” fallacy is often the first explanation partisans jump to, not the last. We would be better off granting our opponents the benefit of the doubt and assume they are not stupid or evil.

The “stupid and evil” fallacy looks like this:

X is a problem. Y is the solution to X. Therefore, anyone who rejects Y must either be stupid (because they don’t realize that Y is the solution to X) or evil (because they want X to continue and so don’t want to solve it by employing Y).

Of course, another reason for rejecting Y is not stupidity or evil (most people aren’t stupid and most people aren’t evil). Rather, it is possible — and, in fact, likely — that rejection of Y results from the belief that Y is not a solution — or, not a good solution — to X.

Taking the specific case of the U.S. economy, congressional Democrats have identified high unemployment as a problem. And they’ve said that government spending, both on jobs creation and extended unemployment benefits, is the solution. Therefore, anyone who would vote against more government spending is either stupid (they don’t know that government spending will increase employment) or evil (they want to see unemployment remain high, either out of spite or because of other, vile interests).

Again, though, it is more likely that those who vote against government spending do so because they don’t believe government spending is the best solution to unemployment. In other words, they reject this principle of Keynesianism. Instead, they adopt one of the many alternative schools of thought that say there are better, more effective, and less costly (both in the near- and long-term) ways to solve the problem of unemployment. You are free to disagree with them and assert that Keynes was right, but that’s an empirical and methodological debate, one that necessarily draws on complex micro and macro economic principles, data, and historical experience.

In other words, showing that Keynes was right and Hayek, say, was wrong (or the other way around) isn’t easy. It’s intellectually demanding work. What is easy is demonizing those who disagree with you and fixing their disagreement not in genuine differences of opinion on complex matters of economics but in personal failings of moral character. That is easy, but it accomplishes nothing and only makes the person doing it look like a fool.