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It’s Complicated: Grasping the Syllogism

Summary:
A few weeks ago, I presented the following syllogism: Issue X is complicated. Perspective Y’s position on X is not complicated. Therefore, Perspective Y is wrong about X. Almost all of the comments were critical.  Some notable examples: Dan: As someone who used to live in San Francisco and was involved in YIMBY activism, this argument was used frustratingly often by NIMBYs: “The housing crisis is complicated and you can’t simplify it to econ 101, therefore just building more won’t help”. The NIMBYs, after criticizing YIMBYism for being econ 101, then never made an econ 102 argument. The problem with this argument is that you can make yourself sound wise about anything by claiming that it’s complicated and simple solutions won’t work. Salem: How about: Trade is

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A few weeks ago, I presented the following syllogism:

Issue X is complicated.

Perspective Y’s position on X is not complicated.

Therefore, Perspective Y is wrong about X.

Almost all of the comments were critical.  Some notable examples:

Dan:

As someone who used to live in San Francisco and was involved in YIMBY activism, this argument was used frustratingly often by NIMBYs: “The housing crisis is complicated and you can’t simplify it to econ 101, therefore just building more won’t help”. The NIMBYs, after criticizing YIMBYism for being econ 101, then never made an econ 102 argument.

The problem with this argument is that you can make yourself sound wise about anything by claiming that it’s complicated and simple solutions won’t work.

Salem:

How about:

Trade is complicated.

Free traders’ positions on trade aren’t complicated.

Therefore free traders are wrong about trade.

There’s a big difference between an issue being complicated, and a position being complicated. It’s certainly possible to wisely address a complex issue in a simple way, particularly if your solution only has to satisfy one party. For example, “don’t get involved in that messy fight” is normally good advice.

Rob Weir:

The universe is complicated, full of cycles and epicycles, according to Ptolemaic astronomy.

Copernicus has a viewpoint that is not so complicated.

Ergo, Copernicus is wrong.

Notice, though, that my original argument targeted not simple conclusions, but simple perspectives. A conclusion is summary; a perspective is a full story.  The point of my syllogism is not to dismiss simple answers, but simple thinking.  Let’s consider the three preceding examples in turn.

1. “Radically deregulate housing in San Francisco” is a simple conclusion with which I agree.  However, if someone added, “In a free market, everyone would live in a mansion” or “Radical deregulation will end homelessness,” I’d still say their perspective is wrong because they neglect the subtleties of the issue.  Deregulation will lead to large price declines, but not large enough to give everyone a mansion.  And highly irresponsible behavior reliably leads to noticeable levels of homelessness even in the cheapest of neighborhoods.

2. “Free international trade is, all things considered, the best trade policy,” again, is a simple conclusion with which I agree.  However, if someone went on to claim, “When countries impose trade barriers, they always lower the average living standards of their own people,” or “Free trade would make Africa as rich as the United States,” I’d say their perspective is wrong because they neglect the subtleties of the issue.  The terms-of-trade argument is valid, and Africa has a long list of economic woes unrelated to trade policy.

3. “The Copernican model is true” is another simple conclusion with which I agree.  However, if someone also claimed, “The Ptolemaic model was predictively useless” or “Ptolemy was a fool,” I’d say their perspective is wrong because they neglect the subtleties of the issue.  The Ptolemaic model worked well, and Ptolemy was a genius.

If my syllogism isn’t intended to discredit simple conclusions, what’s the point?  To discredit simple thinkers, of course.  Life is too short to listen to everyone.  Indeed, life is too short to listen to 1% of all the people eager to speak.  So when someone has a simple perspective on a complicated issue, I ignore them.  And so should you.

Bryan Caplan
Bryan Caplan is Professor of Economics at George Mason University and Senior Scholar at the Mercatus Center. He has published in the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, the American Economic Review, the Economic Journal, the Journal of Law and Economics, and Intelligence, and has appeared on 20/20, FoxNews, and C-SPAN. Bryan Caplan blogs on EconLog.

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