Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Newton's Third Law of Politics

I am currently reading Sprawl: A Compact History by Robert Bruegmann, and with each page I grow more annoyed. The very premise of the book is a logical fallacy for which there may not yet be a name. I would like to suggest one, but I can't decide between "The Fox News Fallacy" and "The Air America Fallacy."

In effect, if not by intention, the fallacy grows out of a metaphorical application of Newton's third law of motion to political discourse. In physics, the law is:
For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.
In political discourse, the law becomes:
For every distortion there is an equal and opposite distortion.
The Fox News/Air America Fallacy takes this form:
I can restore fairness and balance to political discourse by pushing distortions that are equal and opposite to those that happen to have the upper hand right now.
Bruegmann explicitly embraces this fallacy. Consider the following passage from the Introduction to Sprawl:
Nor do I claim that this book represents an attempt be [sic] even-handed in treatment. Because the vast majority of what has been written about sprawl dwells at great length on the problems of sprawl and the benefits of stopping it, I am stressing instead the other side of the coin, that is to say the benefits of sprawl and the problems caused by reform efforts. (pp. 12-13)
This may not be such a bad thing in itself, and in fact I am generally sympathetic with Bruegmann's project of digging out the many unexamined assumptions built in to many anti-sprawl arguments. My sympathy ends there, though, because in his zeal to show "the other side", Bruegmann plays fast and loose with the term "sprawl", carefully selects his facts and his sources, deliberately misunderstands or misconstrues the point of many anti-sprawl arguments, and generally practices the kind of partisan myopia and selective memory that signals the death of intelligent inquiry.

In his discussion of contemporary arguments about the automobile, for example, Bruegmann notes that:
Another common complaint about sprawl is that it depends on massive government subsidies that favor suburbanites and car owners. Of course, it is true that there has been more public funding for roads than for public transit in the United States. This is neither surprising nor inequitable, given the fact that private automobiles are used for the overwhelming majority of all travel in the United States. (p.146)
This response entirely misses a central point of the anti-sprawl argument, as well as the point of more even-handed studies of the history of suburbanization: it is at least conceivable that Americans have come to use the automobile for most travel because it has been so heavily subsidized. It was, at the very least, not an entirely unconstrained choice.

In staking out his contrary position, Bruegmann seems to be buying into the kind of bland endorsement of the status quo pushed by the free-market ideologues he cites so uncritically.

And this, in the end, is the most serious problem with the approach Bruegmann has taken. So eager is he to root out the faulty assumptions behind anti-sprawl rhetoric that he never bothers to examine his own faulty assumptions.

(In a sense, what he's doing here is a variant on strategic skepticism of the sort practiced by Bjorn Lomborg and others.)

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