The straw man fallacy

Free-market capitalism is founded on one value: the maximization of profit. Other values, like human dignity and solidarity, or environmental sustainability, are disregarded as soon as they limit potential profit.
Naomi Klein, FAQ

Nasty, greedy folk, these free market capitalists. If, as I suspect, you hold values other than the maximization of profit, you can’t possibly be on their side. Better to join the anti-capitalists, for whom human dignity, solidarity and environmental sustainability count for something.

If Klein’s moral victory over capitalism seems too easy, that’s because it is. The problem becomes evident when you ask yourself what this demonic free-market capitalism actually is.

It certainly isn’t capitalism as instantiated in European liberal democracies. There, all sorts of mechanisms exist to limit potential profits in the name of other values, most obviously: competition laws, minimum wages, health and safety regulations, taxes and environmental legislation. If actually existing capitalism is the target, Klein has missed by a mile.

Even if the attack is on the ideal of free-market capitalism, it is far from clear Klein has landed a hit. The point is that a free market is in itself value-neutral. Everything depends on how the economic actors behave within that market. People could base their purchasing decisions entirely on price. But equally, they could base them on environmental or human impact. Nothing about free-market capitalism would compel people to cast off all values other than profit (even if, as a matter of fact, that’s just what people would do). The growth in sales of fairtrade coffee, for example, is driven by demand in the market from values-conscious consumers.

This second response to Klein is, however, by the by, for in the context of her remarks it is evident that her target is actually existing capitalism. Her comments are a response to the ‘frequently asked question’ of how consumers can make ethical purchasing decisions. It is thus clearly about the world as it is, not how it might be. And as we have seen, the idea that profit trumps all else in this world doesn’t stand up to the slightest scrutiny.

Klein’s argument is an example of the straw man fallacy. Although her target is the actual, essentially capitalist, economic system of western liberal democracies, she has not in fact confronted its reality. Instead, she has set up as a target a caricature of the free-market capitalism we have and attacked that instead. But her subsequent easy victory over it is seen as a victory over the real McCoy.

Put in general terms, the fallacy is of dealing with a weaker or distorted version of an argument or position as though it was in fact the full and accurate one. The position itself is then taken to be shown to be flawed even though it has not actually been subject to proper critique at all.

Although the misrepresentations characteristic of straw men can be willful, often they simply reflect how little effort people make to understand their opponents’ points of view. We like the world to be clear cut and simple, made up only of black and white. If we attribute hopelessly inadequate or repugnant views to others, the virtues of our own commitments seem obvious. But if we grant that our enemies have an arguable case, then our own views suddenly do not seem so unassailable, and our opponents not so clearly on the side of the devil.

Another explanation for the popularity of straw men is that if we win an argument, we feel that our opinions have been vindicated, even if our victory was won over an emaciated opponent. We forget that the aim of rational debate is not for us to win, but for the truth to win. That is rarely what happens when the fight is with a straw man.

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