Straw Men & Ham Sandwiches
by B.K. Marcus
by B.K. Marcus
becoming an economic libertarian and an advocate of laissez-faire
capitalism, I've noticed that most attacks on capitalism are forms
of the Straw Man fallacy: instead of defining the opposing view
in terms that its advocates would accept, you create a "straw
man" a stand-in or dummy position to attack in
its place. The straw man is easy to defeat, but irrelevant to the
actual content of the original disagreement.
Straw Man fallacy is well known and fairly easy to spot, so it is
often supplemented with a slightly more subtle move I call the Ham
Sandwich Argument named for a logical "proof" my
Uncle Raymond presented to me when I was a child.
Raymond is a famous logician. (Also a magician, a musician, and
a mathematician. I'm not making this up. His stage name was Five-Ace
Monty.) He claimed he could prove to me that a ham sandwich was
better than eternal happiness.
you would agree," he said, "that nothing is better
than eternal happiness."
you have to admit that a ham sandwich is better than nothing!"
by the transitive property, therefore, we see beyond a doubt that
a ham sandwich is better than eternal happiness. Q.E.D."
I thought it was funny and clever so I tried the argument out on
my best friend. He did not find it funny. He was annoyed that I'd
tried to change definitions mid-argument. That is, the 'nothing'
in the first statement means, "there is no thing" whereas
the 'nothing' in the second statement means, "not having anything".
point was correct, of course, even if humorless.
is with the same humorlessness that I confront Karl Marx and his
ideological descendents, especially the anti-capitalist "liberals"
who often don't even know the origins of their beliefs and assumptions.
Marx, who invented the word capitalism, defined it as a free market
and free trade based in "bourgeois property" private
ownership of the means of production. Marx's strict definition is
one that proponents of laissez faire and private property would
recognize and accept as their own. But the problem is that Karl
Marx didn't stick to his own definition. As Thomas DiLorenzo says
in his new book, How
Capitalism Saved America, "Marxists [are] constitutionally
unable to distinguish between free enterprise and special privilege."
of Nations, published in 1776, is generally considered the
first capitalist manifesto, though the term "capitalism"
didn't exist yet. But the system Smith was arguing against
which he called "mercantilism" is treated
by Marx as a form of proto-capitalism.
we take Smith's definition of mercantilism politically privileged
trade and profit to the detriment of consumers and Marx's
definition of capitalism, we have to conclude that the two are opposite
and incompatible. But Marx did not share this conclusion. Because
his theory of history required a feudalistic stage to lead inexorably
to a capitalist stage (to be replaced in turn by a socialist stage
and finally a communist one), Marx saw Smith's mercantilism as a
transition point between feudalism and pure capitalism. And since
mercantilism is based in private property and commerce, it is closer
to capitalism and might as well, he decided, be included in the
you see the sleight of hand there? Instead of defining capitalism
in obvious straw-man terms, he starts off with a good-faith definition
one that pro-capitalists would agree with. But then he manages
to shift the argument over to the straw man of mercantilism
a system that pro-capitalists are against! And thus did Uncle Karl
demonstrate that a ham sandwich is better than eternal happiness
can dismiss any argument that uses terms like "free market"
when talking about coercively regulated exchange or "free trade"
when talking about government treaties and politically managed commerce
any argument, in short, that conflates free enterprise and
special privilege as a ham sandwich argument.
how do we talk to the anti-capitalists when we're not even speaking
the same language?
might start with Franz Oppenheimer's distinction and terminology:
two fundamentally opposed means whereby man, requiring sustenance,
is impelled to obtain the necessary means for satisfying his desires.
These are work and robbery ... I propose ... to call one's own
labor and the equivalent exchange ... the "economic means"
for the satisfaction of needs, while the unrequited appropriation
of the labor of others will be called the "political means."
Franz Oppenheimer, The
political means to wealth involves the organized use or threat of
violence, whether it's an overt military action, or the complex
network of intimidation behind taxation, regulation, licensing laws,
and other interventions against voluntary exchange. By political
means, wealth is never created only redistributed.
It is, at best, a zero-sum game: for some to win, others must lose.
economic means to wealth involves convincing people to voluntarily
part with what you want more by offering them what they want more.
This is the basis of laissez-faire capitalism: the peaceful creation
of wealth through exchange. (Most anti-capitalists have probably
never confronted even the possibility of creating great wealth peacefully.)
economic capitalist competes with other economic capitalists to
satisfy the wants and needs of consumers, who are free to take their
contrast, a political capitalist appeals to the State to privilege
his position above his competition. The victim of political wealth
is both the would-be competition and the consumers themselves.
capitalism, political capitalism (which we pro-capitalists
sometimes call mercantilism, corporatism, state capitalism, crony
capitalism, or even fascism), is something we and the anti-capitalists
can agree on: it is the exploitation of the productive class by
a parasitic class. We might even surprise them with our sample list
of parasites: defense contractors, the banking cartel, the steel
industry, big agribusiness, Halliburton ... But our agreement requires
common recognition of the distinction between political and economic
terminology I adopt from Oppenheimer has another subtle benefit.
For people who grew up indoctrinated against the evils of capitalism
myself included the C-word carries too much bad connotation
for us to suddenly accept it as the basis of prosperity and progress
for all participants. There is a persuasive power in joining the
leftists' rants against privilege once you've insisted that the
term they mean is political capitalism. Similarly, it is
easier to convince them to open their minds to the potential virtues
of economic capitalism than it is to promote only 'capitalism'
without the distinguishing modifiers.
the insistence on the distinction can serve as a useful filter for
knowing which discussions to pursue and which to avoid. Next time
you confront someone's anti-capitalism, whether it's the sometimes-subtle
knee-jerk variety, or the ardent socialist sort, insist on the distinction
between political capitalism and economic capitalism. If the other
person can't follow the distinction, or refuses to use it, you can
be sure the argument will be a waste of your time.
Marcus [send him mail]
is a freelance writer in Charlottesville, Virginia. See his
© 2004 LewRockwell.com