Progressives in congress are proposing a wide range of benefits for Americans, such as a universal pre-K program, childcare benefits for working families, expansions of the child tax credit and the earned income credit, free college and so on. While it is certainly reasonable to debate the merits of such proposals, many on the right (such as Fox News) have engaged in D&D. Not the roleplaying game Dungeons & Dragons, but the Deficit argument and the Dependency argument.
The deficit argument, which can also be categorized as the “it costs too much” argument, is that such programs will cost too much money, thus increasing the deficit. Since increasing the deficit is claimed to be harmful, then these programs should not be implemented. Cost-benefit arguments are certainly sensible if they are made in good faith. While some on the right are making this argument in good faith, many are not.
While the philosophical problem of other minds shows that I cannot know the content of another’s mind (or even if they have one), a good general test for bad faith is the consistency test. If a person is making a good faith argument based on their professed concern about something, then they will have a similar concern about that thing in other situations as well. Naturally, there can be relevant differences that warrant not applying the same principle in other circumstances. In the case of the deficit argument, the test for bad faith is to see if those making the argument are consistently concerned about cost and the deficit. If so, then this can be reasonably taken as a good faith argument: they believe what they are arguing. If their concern is not consistent, then it is reasonable to suspect bad faith—although people can be inconsistent for other reasons, such as being unaware of the inconsistency. Looking back on the Trump presidency (and other Republican administrations), we can see that the right generally did not care about costs or deficits when it came to spending money on or increasing the deficit for things they liked, such as military expenditures, corporate subsidies, and tax cuts. As such, it is reasonable to conclude that these people do not believe in their deficit argument—they do not care about costs or deficits as such. This is not to say that their argument must thus be flawed or their claims untrue.
Bad faith argumentation is like (and can include) lying: it is a matter of intent and belief. To infer that someone’s argument must be fallacious or their claim’s false because they are arguing in bad faith would be to fall victim to the ad hominem fallacy. Just as person could be telling a “true lie” by making a true claim they believe is false in an attempt to deceive, a person could make a good bad faith argument: the argument could have good logic and plausible premises, but the person making it does not believe in their own argument. So why not just assess the logic of the argument and truth of the claims?
While that assessment should be done, determining whether an argument is made in bad faith is still important as a normative rather than logical matter. When someone makes a bad faith argument (or claim), they do not believe in their own argument (or claim). As such, other people are not under any moral obligation to take their bad faith argument or claim seriously. To use the example of lying, if I know someone is lying to me, my moral concern is not with whether their claim is true or not (that is a matter for critical thinking) but with their intention to deceive or manipulate me. As such, while I should not reject their claim out of hand (it could be a true lie) I should certainly not be influenced by their lie—they have forfeited the expectation that I will give them serious consideration.
As noted above, the right generally does not care about deficits as such. To be fair, there are some who are consistent on this point—they have thus earned the normative right to be given due consideration. But those who have proven that they do not care about the deficit as such are just advancing a bad faith argument—they are engaging in deceit rather than good argumentation.
In closing, I want to stress that it does not follow that a bad faith argument must be a fallacy or that a bad faith claim must be false. Just as people can tell true lies, they can also advance good arguments in bad faith. As such, the argument that the programs will cost too much should be given due consideration on its own merits and, of course, this should also apply the next time the right is gleefully running up the deficit with tax cuts, corporate subsidies and military spending.
In addition to the deficit argument, many on the right also advance the Dependency argument. This will be considered in the next essay.