The blog of Dr Glenn Andrew Peoples on Theology, Philosophy, and Social Issues

Politicians can’t argue, and water is wet


I know this may come as a total shock to many readers, but some politicians are not amazingly bright. Or at least even if they are, the arguments that they use to make a political point are – to put it somewhat gently – not always water tight. While this isn’t exactly front page news, I was browsing through some things that are front page news, and my eyes were assaulted with a couple such examples, and was prompted to mention them. For the record, I’m not a member of any political party and I didn’t vote for either National or Labour. I’d like to think that I would right now be reacting the same way no matter which major party was leading the government, and no matter which party had opposition MPs making ridiculous arguments. It’s about good philosophy, no more and no less.

Now, to the headlines: Apparently, the number of New Zealanders receiving the unemployment benefit increased from November to December in 2010. The increase was well over 10,000, which sounds bad. But as Social Development Minister Paula Bennett noted, there is an increase at that time of year every year. Why? Well, that’s the time of year when a lot of people finish university or other training and start to look for work. It has always been that way, and therefore the phenomenon in 2010 is not unique and does not mark a different outcome between the implementation of this government’s policies and the previous implementation of the last government’s policies. It just happens every year and that is that. I’m no expert and I haven’t checked historical records, but nobody is denying this explanation, so I accepted it when I read it. But like a good opposition party, Labour (apparently) has a duty to take the information provided by the government and make it look bad for the government. So let’s see how they did it today:

Labour’s social development spokeswoman, Annette King, said the figures proved the Government had no plan to create jobs. “The promises (Prime Minister) John Key keeps making about job creation and getting New Zealanders off benefits are now ringing very hollow,” she said.

Now it’s true that there are no formal argument indicators here like “if,” “then,” “therefore” etc, but in order for this to be any sort of criticism at all, there has to be at least some sort of argument implied here. Often, not presenting one’s criticisms as a clear argument is a way of hiding the fact that there’s really no sensible criticism being made at all, but only some sort of vague innuendo. So let’s test this comment. Exactly what would the argument look like if it were concisely and clearly laid out? How about this:

1) Between November and December, the number of people receiving the unemployment benefit increased by more than ten thousand.

2) Therefore the government doesn’t have any actual plans aimed at creating more jobs.

But surely that can’t be the argument. It’s such a monstrous non sequitur that no intelligent adult would accept it, even if they have political reasons for wanting to criticise the current government. So that musn’t be what Annette King meant. Maybe it was something like this:

3) Between November and December, the number of people receiving the unemployment benefit increased by more than ten thousand.

4) Therefore the current government is not doing anything that actually creates more jobs.

This is perhaps a little better, but it’s still a non sequitur. You just can’t get that conclusion out of the fact being described. If this increase is one that happens every year at this time, then an argument like this effectively accuses every government in recent history – including the Labour government of which Ms King was a part – of not doing anything to encourage job creation, and surely she’s not trying to do that. The most promising version of Ms King’s inference would go a little like this:

5) There is a large number of people receiving the unemployment benefit.

6) It’s possible to reduce that number from what it is now and to have more people in jobs than there are currently.

7) Therefore the current government could possibly have done something that it hasn’t done to reduce the number of people receiving unemployment benefits and increase the number of people in jobs.

However, now that the argument has had the rubbish stripped away, it is simply uninteresting. I suspect that many people in the current government would agree with this. The trouble is that a very large number of the measures that would do this are directly opposed by Ms King’s party: measures like drastically reducing the minimum wage or severely restricting access to unemployment benefits (I make no comment here on whether these measures are good or bad). And so even if we had a Labour led government, there would still be some things that the government could do but would not do in order to increase the number of people in jobs and reduce the number of people on benefits. Now of course, I am sure that ms King is sincere in believing that employment rates would be better if National were not in power, but her comments here are merely political hot air. She certainly gives no actual reasons for thinking this. Next comes this logical gem from Ms King:

In Australia, 1000 new jobs were created each day last year – compare that to New Zealand where there are now 67,084 people on an unemployment benefit.

This is what can be called the fallacy of an irrelevant comparison. Now I realise that this isn’t the case, but what if, during that same year, 2000 new jobs had been created in New Zealand each day? This same comparison could still be made and it would sound exactly the same, because the number of new jobs in New Zealand is not even mentioned. True, I don’t know what that figure is and it may well be a very poor figure (although due to New Zealand’s size of course it would be smaller than the figure for Australia). My concern is not over whether National has done a good job or not, my concern is just to note the incredibly shoddy criticisms that our politicians raise. This type of reasoning is usually called a case of “apples and oranges.” You can legitimately compare the difference in unemployment rates between the two countries, or you can legitimately compare the difference in the number of new jobs created between the two countries, but it is meaningless to refer to the unemployment numbers in one country and the number of jobs created in the other, The comparison tells us nothing at all. And lastly,

The [Labour] party’s youth affairs spokeswoman, Jacinda Ardern, said it was a worry that many of those signing up for the unemployment benefit were young people who had recently finished training. “Those signing up for unemployment benefit student hardship grants rose a whopping 130 percent from November to December,” she said. “These young people are keen to get out there in the workforce but because National is failing to create jobs for them they are being forced to claim a benefit.”

Remember, this observation was made directly in response to the explanation that every year from November to December there is an increase in the number of unemployed because there is a period of time between finishing university and getting a job. I remember that when Labour was in power this was the case for me, for example. Was Ms Arden’s party to blame for failing to create jobs? When you’re in a mental space that says: “No matter what the news, make sure that you tell everyone that it’s bad news for the other party,” it’s incredible how quickly powers of reasoning fly out the window. I call it political and intellectual desperation. I know I know, pointing out that the criticisms that New Zealand’s politicians use to attack each other lack substance is like taking candy from a baby. But it’s worth being aware of nonetheless. I’m not actually sure if the criticisms are used in the genuine hope of persuading anyone, or simply because it is perceived to be one’s job to raise them.


The Unexpected Hanging Paradox


So you think you’re logical?


  1. And for those who think I got pleasure out of saying this – I really didn’t. I lament the quality of political debate in this country, I really do.

  2. Richard P

    Yeah, the quailty of NZ’s political discussions is appallingly low and I have never been able to figure out why considering that most of the population is fairly well educated. The media does not help, try comparing NZ newspaper sites like the NZ Herald and to that of their Australian counterparts such as The Australia and the Sydney Morning Herald. The opinion pieces in the latter are so much more interesting, indepth, come from a wider variety of sources and debate topics that actually are important.

    What do you think is happening, Glenno?

  3. Not sure, Ricko. We supposedly compare very well to the world in terms of educational standards (4th in the OECD, I’m told).

    I think the problem is actually a moral one. People are using arguments that they think are bad for the sake of a partisan cause, which amounts to dishonesty. Why we do so badly compared to other countries is a mystery to me Ricko. What do you think?

  4. Richard P

    I really have no idea but surely you must find it very frustrating as you are someone who has undertaken rather high level study of political philosophy?

  5. Anon

    Maybe it is the lack of critical thinking and philosophical study undertaken by our politicians. Do you think Ms King studied Ethics or Critical thinking at Uni?

    Just a thought.

  6. Members of parliament should, as part of their induction, have to take a block course on “how to construct an argument.”

  7. Dan

    I believe I would like to emigrate to NZ, given as how the quality of political discourse by your pols so vastly exceeds that of US representatives.

    Seriously, though, I doubt that politics has ever been about rational discourse since Socrates was condemned. Politics is fundamentally appetitive — let’s see how we can motivate our minority of folks better so that we can dominate politics and sponge off others who aren’t so successful. Reason defeats that goal.

  8. Ciaron

    Was Billy Connelly on to something when he said (AFAIK it was his line): The desire to be a politician should bar you for life from ever being one.

  9. Richard P

    Ever thought about going into politics, Glenno? You obvious want to change the world and what better a way to do it than standing up and in parliment and attempting to pass new laws (I imagine your first would be to ban abortion and contraception?).

  10. Richard P

    Then introduce the death penalty for breaking your new laws?

  11. Richard P

    And a ban on Richard Dawkins books in the country?

  12. Richard P

    And force everyone to attend church three times a week?

  13. Richard P

    What about masturbation? I’m not sure what your response to that would be? Ban it would be my best guess but sometimes you do surprise me.

  14. CPE Gaebler

    Personally, I’m hoping he implements the death penalty for rapid-fire posting.

  15. Richard P

    Banning Ken for commenting on this blog and MandM?

  16. Richard, whatever substance you’re abusing, please stop.

  17. Richard P

    Oh, is that how it is? As soon as someone starts asking some difficult questions you answer by telling them that they have some sort of drug problem. Nice Glenno, really, really nice. Please keep up the good work.

  18. Paul Baird

    It’s not unique to New Zealand, (Dr Ben Goldacre writes a blog that contains several entries similar to your own about UK legislators) but it’s the paradigm that anyone wanting to work with legislators has to accept.

    Calling a legislator stupid may well be factually true, but it isn’t going to make them (a) change their ways (b) like you (c) appreciate the point that you’re trying to make.

    They have reasons why they behave in the way that they do, and they’re not actually that stupid.

    It’s not about ‘morality’, it’s about getting things done.

    Actually, is collective responsibility morally justifiable ? Yet, it’s how modern politics works.

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