Bonfire of the Absurdities

Word of the day is: reductio creep.

The term was originally coined a little over a year ago by Julian Sanchez as "the process by which an insane extension of some principle, offered as a reductio ad absurdum of that principle, is soon afterwards realized."

Julian noted,

My fear is that the process of reductio creep will accelerate to the point that nothing seems absurd anymore. "What's that? Cover all sharp or hard natural objects in bright foam padding to ensure that nobody ever gets hurt? Gosh, that is a good idea... hey, Bob, let's add a rider to that motorcycle helmet law." Ha-ha, right? Wait for the creep.

We've waited and it has come. In spades.

Radley Balko takes a look at just how far the creep has crept since then. From tobacco lawsuits to people suing fast food companies for their own obesity to victims of violent crime suing gun manufacturers to smoking bans in various cities to increased restrictions on alcohol consumption - the list goes on and on. The neo-prohibitionist movement has achieved success after success, to the point where parody pieces like this one no longer seem the least bit amusing.

It is truly impossible to think of any measure that would satisfy these nanny-staters to the point of saying, "Ok, we've achieved our goal of social control. From this point on, what you do with your own life is up to you." There is no proposal too absurd that someone hasn't already thought of it and embraced it and achieved widespread support for it.

And if you thought the problem was just the neo-prohibitionist movement, think again. Reductio creep has been adopted by the antidiscrimination movement as well. David Bernstein points to a law review article advocating a ban on racial preferences in personal ads. At the time, all right-thinking people thought this was absurd. But they did not know of the dreaded creep.

Bernstein reports that in England, "a pub landlady was recently ordered by the local antidiscrimination authorities to rub out a chalkboard advertisement for a 'single white male' because the ad was 'racist.'" Bernstein also quotes a section from his new book,

Modern antidiscrimination ideology suggests that those who refuse to date (and, therefore, to ultimately marry) members of certain groups should be punished. After all, discriminatory dating not only offends those excluded, but, given the difference in median wealth among groups, it is also a leading cause of societal inequality. Taken to their logical ends, antidiscrimination principles suggest that singles in the dating market should be prohibited from preferentially choosing African Americans or whites, the able-bodied or the disabled, Catholics or Protestants, or even same-sex or opposite-sex partners, lest offense and inequality result.

John Rosenberg at Discriminations goes even further:

Actually, acting on the current logic of ?diversity? would require not non-discrimination in (formerly?) private arenas such as romantic relationships but the affirmative promotion of interracial relationships. Perhaps the income and property tax rates for interracial couples should be lower than for same-race couples. Similarly, according to that logic, since non-discrimination laws have done no more to move minorities into gated, exclusive communities than they did into Harvard and Yale, old-fashioned anti-discrimination laws dealing with home mortgages and housing in general should be replaced with racial preference policies, such as strict affirmative action requirements on realtors and reduced rates/purchase prices for minorities moving into formerly white neighborhoods.

Is this absurd?

Not even close, John. Not even close.

Beware the creep.

Share this

The last Bernstein quote

The last Bernstein quote reminded me of that great Vonnegut story, "Harrison Bergeron."

That is a great story,

That is a great story, available here, for those interested. And of course, egalitarianism taken to its logical conclusions is not at all shocking anymore. I fear our children and grandchildren will read this story and remark, "so what?"

Great post! I had not seen

Great post! I had not seen the discussion of "reductio creep." What a great term (and creeepy concept)!

very interesting, though I

very interesting, though I don't think it's very fair to just pretend that this is a bad thing. As society progresses and our values become more enlightened and sometimes more impoverished certain things change. The swaysive nature of a reductio counterargument (used outside of logic) relies on shared cultural values, and it's not too hard to imagine cases in which "reductio" proofs would rely on irratioanl beliefs. For instance, liberalizing the caste system in 19th century India might have been met with the counter reductio "but that logic would also mean that 'untouchables' would be equal to us, so clearly the argument can be rejected." That probably would've been an effective "reductio," and in that case (as I'm sure we all agree) the reductio creep effect is a good thing.

It concerns me especially with civil liberties: without appealing to a complicated system of values, It's very difficult to refute the "invasions of privacy only hurt wrongdoers." The only good way I know (and feel free to suggest some) is a 1984 reductio style argument. The presence of "telescreens", though, is no longer providing the "absurdam" shock value it once was.

It concerns me especially

It concerns me especially with civil liberties: without appealing to a complicated system of values, It's very difficult to refute the "invasions of privacy only hurt wrongdoers." The only good way I know (and feel free to suggest some) is a 1984 reductio style argument.

I've encountered a similar dillemna. And you're right, reductio creep isn't necessarily a bad thing when the creep is moving towards justice. But I think it's pretty clear that is not the case in the above mentioned creep.

The prohibitionist impulse

The prohibitionist impulse seems to be part of human nature. So is greed. Right now we have a legal system that rewards greedy lawyers for concocting prohibitions. We can't change human nature, but we can and should embark on tort reform. Look for an initiative during the second Bush term. As governor, Bush pushed through a partial reform in Texas--and there he had a Democratic legislature to buck.