Bad Arguments vs Bad Faith Arguments

There is a bit of an argument between Scott Sumner and Jason Smith, its a couple months old because I saw it and filed it away somewhere to be used later because I think it illustrates a point. The post is an argument about the sequestration and macroeconomics; read it if you want to.

I’m not really going to comment on the post itself, but on a single sentence of it, which reads “Now that Sumner is on his way to Mercatus, I can only assume it will get worse.”

Mercatus, for those of you who don’t know, is “world’s premier university source for market-oriented ideas—bridging the gap between academic ideas and real-world problems.” Its a libertarian/market oriented think tank located at George Mason University, and is funded in part by none other than the Koch brothers.

So, if I parse the argument from Jason Smith correctly, its that Scott Sumner is dishonest in his opinions, but going to the Koch funded Mercatus center will only make it worse; which on a quick read kind of makes sense, but if you examine it closely, it really doesn’t.

A bad argument is one that is wrong. If I believe that the moon is a hologram and argued so because stuff like this happens, then I would be making a bad argument. If I didn’t believe that the moon is a hologram, but argued that it was anyway, I’d be making a bad faith argument. Bad arguments can be harmful, but the problem is that its impossible to tell a bad argument from a good argument until after you’ve examined it. They’re a necessary evil, after all, many “bad” arguments can turn into good ones after years of examination.

A bad faith argument is different, and they can be more harmful. The Koch brothers, for instance, own large interests in logging companies, one can make a case that they would therefore profit from denying global warming, and that the profit motive, not their actual belief, is partially driving the debate.

Now, why might this be a bigger problem than other arguments? Countering a bad faith argument with evidence will never work, as he was is arguing in bad faith will only ever change when the underlying incentives for arguing in bad faith change (in the global warming case above, the profit motive, but there can be other causes). Whereas if people were simply arguing because of what they believe, then as soon as the weight of evidence changes, people will change their mind. (ding ding ding ding! most naive thing I’ve ever written on this blog award goes to… the previous sentence!). The one arguing badly in good faith can still present ideas which may be missed otherwise or prove a testing ground for good theories, while the arguer in bad faith will twist arguments and attempt to confuse rather than illuminate ideas.

Looking at the original statement in this lens, its pretty clear that Jason Smith is arguing that Scott Sumner will be arguing in bad faith (if he isn’t already). That because not only his opinions but also his economic well being depend on agreeing with market based though, he will compromise himself and his scholarship.

But this can’t be right; if it were it’d essentially be saying that studying with people you argee with or taking a job to advocate a position is inherently bad faith. A logical extension would mean that any environmental activist would be arguing in bad faith so long as they worked for a environmental organization, which in effect would by saying that we can’t trust the sierra club when the speak about preserving the environment, because they only care about preserving the environment. The same principle holds true for the Mercatus center, should we not trust them with regards to market based solutions, because they only care about market based solutions?

One could argue that its the Koch influence which is the problem, and that Mercatus is only a mouth-piece for Koch industries. (I doubt that it is, but at least that’s a plausible story). This may hold true for Mercatus issues in general, but not in macroeconomics. The Kochs may lose if people decide to stop cutting down trees, but nobody wins because of a recession. If the Kochs are backing Scott Sumner for their own selfish reasons, well that just means they think NGDP targeting will prevent recessions/cause growth, and if that’s true that everybody should be for it. If its false, everybody, including Koch brothers, should be against it.

Of course there are differences in opinion on controversial issues, (that’s pretty much a tautology if I’ve ever seen one), and maybe the Kochs are right about NGDP targeting (or maybe they just fell that the Mercatus center is doing good work in general and are happy to help fund it), maybe they’re wrong. But regardless, so long as neither they nor Dr. Sumner are arguing because of a hidden incentive then they’re simply part of the debate. We can’t commit to evaluating only good arguments, because we can’t tell if an argument is good or not until after we evaluate it.

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