Saturday, October 17, 2009

The Is / Ought Fallacy

"Without Taxes, how will we pay for roads and schools and medical care?"

It is a common enough question whenever someone objects, not just to all taxes as is proper to do, not just to the current level which is excessive to all minarchists and many other thinking people, but even to proposed increases in taxes which will be used to fund new programs.

At first glance it appears to be an application of the Statist Fallacy, there is also another fallacy at play here, the Is / Ought fallacy. It is a Statist Fallacy because the assumption is that if the government doesn't provide these services than nobody will, and that by opposing the government being the provider of these services one also opposes the services being provided at all.

But it is also an is / ought fallacy. The speaker is assuming that the way things are, that the government provides these services, is the way things ought to be, and by expressing the point in that particular way the speaker is hoping to lay a verbal trap for any opponent of expanded government. One can either deny that taxes should pay for those and because of the statist fallacy agree that those should not exist, or one can agree that those services are valuable and because of the is / ought fallacy agree that the government should fund them.

A good answer is "since currently those are paid for by taxes, we currently need taxes to pay for those" and then immediately accuse the speaker of engaging in the is / ought fallacy. The inclusion of the word "currently", twice in one answer, allows the libertarian in the argument to sidestep the trap of either embracing the statist fallacy or the is / ought fallacy, and it becomes very difficult for even a determined statist to pull a quote out of context. Leaving out either instance of that word eases decontextualization and the ability to try to argue that the libertarian is actually agreeing on some level with the statist.

"Since currently those are paid for by taxes, we currently need taxes to pay for those. What a fine example of the is / ought fallacy, where since that is the way it is therefore that is the way it ought to be. Why ought it be that way? Is there no other way to fund those besides taxes?"

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