Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Strawmen everywhere

Strawmen litter the landscape of public discourse in this country.

What is a strawman? It is an argument made in support of a position that seems hefty, but really isn't. In fact, it's really as light as straw, hence the term "strawman". And nearly everyone has a strawman argument somewhere in their repertoire, they just don't realize it.

Here are a couple of examples of strawman arguments, one from the Right and one from the Left.

1. There are some conservatives who say they would agree to end the War on Drugs if no tax money would be spent on rehab for drug addicts. Sounds principled to most conservatives. But if they are really concerned about the public treasury, isn't it obvious that it cost billions of dollars more annually to try to enforce a total prohibition against all drug users versus providing rehab treatment to the fraction of drug users that truly qualify as addicts and might actually benefit from a few weeks in rehab?

Nationally, it is estimated that the War on Drugs costs taxpayers between $35 to $50 billion every year. In contrast, it would costs around $15 billion to treat 1 million hardcore addicts with a 3 month stay in rehab. So the "I'll agree to ending the War on Drugs only if no money is spent on rehab" objection is really a strawman argument.

While there are around 30 million drug users annually, most are infrequent users. And of the 12-15 million that are regular users, the vast majority are not addicts. My own rough estimate is that we have around 0.8 to 1.5 million hardcore addicts in this country. We could probably treat them all for around half or less of what we spend to chase down all users and lock them up.

If a person really wants to save the taxpayer's money, he should support ending the War on Drugs. Period.

2. Many anti-war people cite the mounting death toll of military personnel in Iraq as their reason for not supporting the war effort and wanting to bring the troops home now. But prior to the war starting in 2003, many of these same people said they couldn't support the war because they feared that as many as 35,000 to 50,000 military personnel would be killed in the first six months of fighting. The total deaths from fighting in Iraq just surpassed 2,000 in the last few weeks, and the fighting started well over 2 years ago. One might expect that these people would be relieved that their worst fears weren't realized. Yet they still fret over the casualties even though the numbers are way below what they expected.

The truth of the matter is that these folks were against the war in Iraq no matter what the death toll. Whether the casualties ended up being one or one million, they would have been against the war. This fact makes their "don't go to war because the casualties will be too high" argument a strawman argument.

These are just two of the strawman arguments that are out there. I'll post more as time goes by.


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