Logic Lessons

13 May 2004

The Futility of Debating Utopians, Do-gooders and Progressives
by Craig J. Cantoni
May 13, 2004

There is nothing more frustrating and futile than trying to have an intelligent debate with utopians, do-gooders and progressives. Debating them about such articles of faith as suburban sprawl, education funding and mass transit is as frustrating and futile as debating someone from the religious right about a religious belief.

A case in point:

I recently spoke at a public meeting in Scottsdale, Arizona, where I recited statistics showing how government spending has grown much faster than inflation and population over the last decade at the local, state and federal levels. I went on to use the planned light-rail system for Phoenix as an example of unnecessary spending, saying that for an astronomical cost of $2.3 billion, which is equivalent to the annual income of about 50,000 families, the system will actually increase pollution and have a negligible effect on traffic.

As expected, the reaction of the audience was immediate and hostile, since most attendees were utopians, do-gooders or progressives. Upon hearing my remarks, they squirmed in their chairs and got the same pained look in their faces, as if all of them were suddenly in need of Preparation H.

One man grimaced and responded, ”Well, I moved here from Chicago and therefore support mass transit.”

Huh? Apparently, his ”logic” went like this:

I’m from Chicago.
Chicago has mass transit.
Chicago and Phoenix are identical in age, layout and climate.
Therefore, mass transit is a good thing for Phoenix.

Or maybe his logic went like this:

I moved from Chicago to Phoenix.
Phoenix is a better place or I wouldn’t have moved here.
Phoenix has lower taxes or I wouldn’t have moved here.
Therefore, let’s turn Phoenix into another Chicago.

Whatever his logic, it was futile to argue with him, because he was clearly someone who ”thinks” with his emotions instead of with reason and facts. Accordingly, he didn’t dispute my facts, offer countervailing facts or ask me to identify the sources of my facts. He simply believed that mass transit was a good thing and wasn’t about to let facts overrule his feelings. End of discussion.

Another attendee said he supported higher taxes, especially for public education. I asked him if he knew how much he pays in public education taxes. He admitted that he did not. I then posed the same question to the rest of the audience. No one knew the amount.

Judging from their blank expressions, the attendees didn’t get my point, which I thought was obvious—namely, how can someone support paying more for something without knowing what it costs in the first place?

Since they didn’t get the point, I went on to tell them how much the average household pays in public education taxes in Arizona. It is $3,200 a year, or close to $190,000 over the adult lives of the heads of the household. Since there are on average two children per family in Arizona, that comes to $95,000 per child. Ninety-five thousand!

Those facts transformed the blank stares of the audience back to their original pained expressions—not because the attendees now knew the astronomical cost of public education and were angry over the education establishment and the media keeping the number a secret. No, the pained expressions were directed at me, because I had the temerity to question one of their most sacred beliefs—that public schools don’t have enough money. End of discussion.

Another speaker on the panel with me had the audacity to question why the audience was in support of raising the sales tax to purchase more preserve land in Scottsdale at a starting cost of $500 million, especially in view of the fact that the current sales tax is above the national average, that there are thousands of acres of preserve land in the city already, that a 21,000-acre regional park is next door, and that a 2.8 million-acre national forest is 10 minutes away—all in a state in which 85% of the land is closed to development.

The audience responded with platitudes, bromides, cliches and canards about sprawl and development. One attendee expressed anger over the ”greed” of a developer who had bought land from the state at an auction years ago and now will only sell it to the city for a preserve at the current market price, which is almost twice as much as the original purchase price. I thought about asking her if she would be willing to sell her house to the city for half its market value, since she isn’t greedy like those greedy developers. I also thought about asking her if she lives in her car, since she is opposed to development. But I knew that the points would only produce more pained expressions.

Another speaker on the panel, a courageous city councilman who is running for mayor, made the point that the city can’t afford to do everything that everybody wants—that tradeoffs have to made and priorities set. More pained looks. He should buy a case of Preparation H. He’ll need it after he gets screwed at the polls by the utopians, do-gooders and progressives for telling the truth about city spending.

I didn’t stay after the meeting to speak one-on-one with the attendees, but I have after many other meetings, where I’ve asked utopians, do-gooders and progressives such questions as:

”Where do you get your news?” Typical answer: ”In the local paper and from local and network TV.”

”So to get another perspective, you don’t read publications like The Wall Street Journal, The Economist, Reason Magazine or studies from the Cato Institute?” Typical answer: ”No.”

”How do you know that Arizona ranks low in school spending?” Typical answer: ”It’s been mentioned many times in the local paper.”

”So if it’s printed in the paper, it’s true?” Typical answer: ”I didn’t say that.”

”In view of the fact that my wife and I pay half our income in taxes, how much more do you want us to pay to support the higher taxes you want for your program?” Typical answer: ”Well, I don’t think anyone should pay that much in taxes.”

”Okay, so how much should we pay and where will the money come from for your program if we’re currently paying too much?” Typical answer: ”Uh … well … umm … I’d have to give that some thought.”

”Have you ever taken a course in economics?” Typical answer: ”I had a boring course my freshman year of college.”

”Who is your favorite economist?” Typical answer: ”I’d have to think about that.”

”How about Milton Friedman, F. A. Hayek and Ludwig von Mises?” Typical answer: ”I don’t know them.”

”Since you apparently hate corporate greed and fraud, what about the millions of Americans who petition the government to take their neighbor’s money for themselves? Or how about well-off seniors who have persuaded the government to send their prescription bills to their kids and grandkids? Aren’t they greedy? Or what about the government saying that there is a Social Security trust fund when there is no such thing? Isn’t that the biggest fraud ever?” Typical answer: ”You’re comparing apples to oranges.”

In closing, the worst thing about utopians, do-gooders and progressives is not their irrationality, false logic, intellectual contradictions and ignorance of economics and facts. It is their belief that anyone who dares to question the merits of their pet causes is a mean-spirited, close-minded right-wing extremist. That’s why trying to have an intelligent debate with them is an exercise in futility.

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Mr. Cantoni is an author, columnist and founder of Honest Americans Against Legal Theft (HAALT). He can be reached at ccan2@aol.com

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