Saturday, February 12, 2011

The Scourge of Pointless, Knee-Jerk Contrarianism

OK, so a while ago I promised an update on where the fight for marriage equality might suffer setbacks this year. Then I kept waiting to get a handle on what's going on in Wyoming, where they looked to be working towards any combination of: a law banning recognition of out-of-state marriages, a version that would also ban recognition of civil unions, a constitutional amendment doing either, or a law providing for civil unions. It was confusing. I'll try to sort it out at some point.

The other places to watch out for are New Hampshire, where the Republicans have a veto-proof majority now, the District of Columbia, where Republicans in Congress might be able to undo what the DC City Council has done, and Iowa, where same-sex marriage is legal, but still rather unpopular. New Hampshire and DC don't seem to be getting much enthusiasm from opponents, but in Iowa, there is a real push to put a constitutional amendment on the ballot to ban same-sex marriage. Luckily, this isn't easy to do, and the Democrats hold the state Senate, where the majority leader, Michael Gronstal, has vowed not to bring the issue to a vote. The Iowa House of Representatives is still trying to do something, though.

So, they held hearings on the matter, the only real effect of which was to give a 19 year old Iowan named Zach Wahls a platform for his eloquent speech about being raised by a lesbian couple, the video of which has become a Youtube hit (1.5 million views right now):
This seems to have gotten a very positive response from the various news sites and blogs that I pay attention too. Yeah, I'm sure there's all sorts of stuff out on the “family values” crowd's websites, but that's not anything I give a shit about. Those who disagree with marriage equality, but have much more important concerns aren't going to chime up to talk shit about Zach Wahls. That'd be stupid.

But then again, there always seems to be that one guy who just has to disagree to prove how above-it-all he is. In this case, University of Rochester economist Steven Landsburg decided to fill the role:
“In a video that’s begun to go viral, University of Iowa engineering student Zach Wahls attempts to refute this notion without offering a shred of evidence beyond a single cherry-picked case (his own) to prove that children of gay parents sometimes turn out just fine… What’s particularly disturbing to me is all the chatter about how eloquent this kid is, as if eloquence in the service of intellectual misdirection were somehow something to be admired.”
Not being a reader of Prof. Landsburg's, I only found out about this from Will Wilkinson at the Economist's “Democracy in America” blog, where he neatly eviscerated Prof. Landsburg's argument. I highly recommend Will Wilkinson (the Economist only identifies its bloggers by initials, but it's not too hard to figure out from other places who W.W. is); he's enough of a libertarian to frustrate me at times, and enough of a liberal to get tossed out of the Cato Institute, which seems to be politically where my blog is focusing its commentary. Expect to see me quote him from time to time.

At the end, he sums up a frustration of mine:
“So what gives? My guess is that, like a number of right-leaning economists, Mr Landsburg has a regrettable tendency toward tone-deaf, context-dropping, contrarian provocation based on an unexamined assumption that this is what it means to be bravely rational. It is not. In any case, I think we can all agree that, other things equal, intellectual misdirection is not ‘something to be admired’.”
This does seem to be something of an annoying strain that I've noticed especially in otherwise top-notch right-of-center economics writing. The guys behind Freakonomics, Levitt and Dubner, seem to have made their whole career off of examples of “counterintuitive” economic phenomena, even when it requires being sloppy to get there. I think there's definitely something to conservative or libertarian criticisms of the side-effects of government policy, but one can go too far in that line of thinking as well. Kudos to Will Wilkinson for calling that sort of thing out.

As for the rest of us, I suppose we can just enjoy seeing Zach Wahls speak passionately about his experiences without trying to judge him on whether his speech was a complete logical refutation of all arguments that same-sex parents are inferior. Certainly, the data exist to refute those arguments as well, and I'm sure various legislatures weighing the issue have considered expert testimony on the matter. But those videos aren't going to have the same appeal as this one.

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