Why Ad Hominem is Bad Strategy…

It never is pleasant to wear your political stance on your sleeve. I started this morning with a diatribe from someone (not named for the sake of civility) who I am sure has not even an iota worth of political clarity.  What could possibly prompt this? Most likely the fact that I am spending the summer working for an organization that ostensibly ‘Mr. Diatribe’ disagrees with.

This is what I was told in response to my ‘libertarian leanings’:

just checked on xxxxx foundation. am amazed. people like you work for free market shit in and for america and still wanna call urself indians and pretend to be theatre lovers and major book readers and god knows what other. really sad. human rights activism? u must be joking. you shud be in irag then – or palestine. but then u need the american breast to suck. sorry for this.

Spellings retained as in original!

Its taken me a while to stop laughing at this, but I have succeeded. Tearing these arguments apart is not really the focus of this post- though I shall say this:

Working at an ‘American’ think-tank is not the same as working for America. In fact, I’m not even sure what someone ever means by the phrase  “working for America”. Is a country just one giant monolith? What was the allusion to? – All capitalists in general, the entire population of Americans (who I assure you, hold a wide variety of conflicting views on most subjects- just as entire populations do in any country), the government of America? Now this is what a political philosopher would describe as a classical example of the ‘methodological individualism’ fallacy. I, of course, do not  work for any of these groups- I work to advance the cause of liberty.

The next argument is the ‘free market’ problem. This is definitely the result of misguided thinking, a corporate monopoly is NOT an example of the free market! The free market is about choice, liberty and competition- it is not about one large corporation taking over! More importantly free markets are not the same thing as ‘privatization’ (which also gets unfairly abused by quasi-uninformed- fashionable-activist cum socialists) or even liberalization or globalization – its more like a blend of all three that works in the best interests of everyone. Its a commitment to freedom.

The next argument is my favorite argument; its called the ‘Let’s kill all the Non-Resident Indians’ argument. Of all Mr Diatribe’s arguments this is probably what disturbed me the most, and that is so not just because it is completely out of context or because as a tiny aside I am not an NRI. The problem is two-fold I think. Actually manifold – but i think I will stick to two.

My first response to this is that nation-state boundaries are human constructs and human society has spent  millennia in war trying to defend them. War is probably the most counter-productive phenomenon that has plagued human productivity. I’m not sure I appreciate a sense of ‘nationalism’ that arises out of being ‘Indian’ because I was born within the boundaries of a geographical territory I had no choice about. Also globalization and free trade is probably the surest path to peace, nothing is more obvious to people: “I am better off making money as opposed to killing you”.

At a lower level of argumentation; what does being ‘Indian’ mean, and what on Earth does my place of residence have to do with being ‘Indian’?! There is a more serious objection I have to this however- prosperity spreads through voluntary exchange and therefore trade. Anyone who has even in the passing read about comparative advantage knows that. One of the reasons why India, for example, prospered through the golden ages was because we have had a history of immigrations. Immigrants brought opportunities to trade, therefore immigration is a good thing for everybody.

Why can’t we understand the NRI phenomenon the same way? NRIs (though I do have a problem with this kind of classification of people) add value to the economic system, both the Indian system and the American system and doing so ensure that their existence is a positive sum game! NRIs are not an example of capital flight. Farmers in India will not be better off if NRIs did not do business abroad and farmed instead. Bastiat is far better at explaining the phenomenon of What is Seen and What is Unseen, than I am, and this is a classical example of how that effect works.

Productivity stems from being employed in or engaged at doing what an individual is best at doing- and if that is entrepreneurship so be it! This is probably why I am not in Iraq or Palestine (though I would love to be) yet! To illustrate Mr Diatribe’s line of argumentation a little better: If you love ice cream you better only be employed at Baskin & Robbins. Hell no! Just because I love ice cream it does not mean I should narrow down my options in terms of career choices to working with ice cream firms all my life.

Here is another argument that a uninformed quasi-socialist can throw at you.  They will yell at you saying thus “someone who believes in markets is necessarily anti-human rights”. Not true. This to me represents the pinnacle of ignorance. Markets are super-efficient mechanisms that work for everyone’s benefit, if and when, they exist for everyone! The problem, as most development economists know, is not that we have too much market- but far too little.

For example, in India the formal credit market is terribly under-developed. Witness the fact that women are not a part of the formal banking system, neither are several millions of the poor. These people are also incidentally thwarted by the government in every effort towards entrepreneurship through yards and yards of regulation. Also notice that these people are called ‘pre-bankable’ in micro finance parlance (which all the uninformed quasi-socialists love), they are ‘pre-bankable’ because they hope to build up a credit history through micro finance that allows them to get into the formal credit market. But why?, yells the uniformed quasi-socialist, because micro finance loans are costly, they have higher interest rates than regular credit markets that rely on markets! What is micro finance really achieving? Its creating a market where none existed earlier, and people want to move onto more developed markets.

Markets are good, being excluded from them is bad. Markets are not mean for fairness, justice and equity- that is for the uniformed quasi-socialists. Why? Because people who understand markets know that every policy helps one group at the expense of another- we know fairness is a subjective value. We also know that efficiency works, we know prices are great signaling devices unless distorted by taxes or subsidies, we know that there is no such thing as a free lunch because opportunity costs exist and we know incentives matter. We therefore believe that the only ideological position one can legitimately take is to not justify waste (read inefficiency, not consumption waste!), so why should an ‘Indian’ with so many starving hungry people work in America for free markets? Because such Indians care about poverty, they care about allowing people to empower themselves through new markets, better trading opportunities, lesser regulation to do trade!

This is a far cry from the uninformed quasi-socialist who believes that government failures for 60 years of independence is forgivable, but not market inefficiencies (which by the way are the result of too little market, not too much!), who sits and yells about the environment degradation and rising food prices in the same breath without understanding that underpricing natural capital might actually be the cause. It is also a far cry from the uninformed quasi-socialist who for the lack of brains resorts to rhetoric and more often to abuse. Free markets are for free people who believe in liberty, for everyone. Not forced equality or a subjective standard of equity- but the opportunity for everyone to be prosperous through free trade.

Finally, the jab about culture, theater and books. I suppose it might hurt Mr. Diatribe to look at history and tell me the why the most ‘bourgeois’ nations of Europe are home to some of the world’s greatest art? Hungry people do not really make good artists, do they?  Sub-altern art in communities even in Africa and India was the result of well-fed people.  There are similar trends in history for theater and literature.

Strangely enough, I am hard-pressed to find any member of the ‘uninformed quasi-socialists’ tribe who have actually read the Das Kapital in original! Activists like Mr Diatribe above, are the torch bearers of the new pretentious half-baked hand-me-down socialist tradition who base their perceptions on doctored summaries and the most horrifically prolific Vandana Shiva. Small wonder though, considering how disastrous state-monopolized education systems are.

All this brings me to the point of this post which is rather simple. Deciding to be nasty in conversation with someone especially about political issues is probably the most unhelpful thing to do. To begin with it prompts nastiness in response, or complete silence or in some cases– a patient detailed response, like this one, which is highly unlikely. Two it is extraordinarily presumptuous to assume that one knows everything, and far worse to assume that the other person is poorly-read, stupid or just plain wrong. In my experience, I find most people have very good reasons to believe what they do- its usually ‘us’ on the other side who decide to be aggressive and nasty that need to learn common courtesy and therefore need to attempt to figure out the rationale behind the other individual’s thought process.

The writer of the diatribe of course, would attribute ‘motive’ to such a suggestion and he would be absolutely right- after all I too get to do well in a nation, country and world where most people are prosperous!

One thought on “Why Ad Hominem is Bad Strategy…

  1. For you, Una Voice, a poem to learn from –

    Thought provoking

    I feel so sad.
    I feel so sad, seeing the beggars

    as I walk into the temple,

    with my diamond earrings.

    I feel so sad, seeing young men,

    hang out of buses ,

    as I overtake them,

    in my air-conditioned car.

    I feel so sad, seeing the child

    sweep the floor,

    as I talk to my son,

    studying in Cambridge.

    I feel so sad, seeing the dirty slums

    as I stand by my balcony.

    Sorry, I shall be late for cocktails
    O can’t miss the meeting of

    the Committee for Social Justice,

    Our American donors are coming.

    You can chose to die in malutrition, hunger

    or toxic waste….



    – K.Ashok Rao, a working class leader


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