The Fallacy of the ‘Top-Down’ Argument

One thing I have noticed that tends to stymie political debate, particularly in the USA, (this a hot topic now thanks to Trump, Clinton, Sanders, and Cruz, as great a name for a firm of dodgy solicitors as I’ve seen of late), is the use of ‘top-down’ arguments. In the course of discussion on LinkedIn today, one gentleman came up with (at least) three perfect illustrations in just a few posts. What lurks below is an adaptation of my rebuttal

Small government
Your small government on principle argument is top-down. When you find people disagreeing with it, you assume a false opposition – big government on principle. However, I have never, ever heard even one person advocate big government on principle. Why would they? To what purpose? The people who argue against you in this are arguing bottom-up. The opposite to your small government on principle argument is actually not small government on principle. Arguing from bottom-up, we would say “Government where government is appropriate,” and no more.

Your people opposed to capitalism idea is, once again, top-down. You have a conception of capitalism that believes it to function optimally under certain conditions. Consequently, if people talk about other conditions they are anti-capitalism. In reality we’re all of us capitalists in our conception, but have different views of the machinery of capitalism. We would like to see the volume turned up somewhat here, the colour purple tuned down somewhat there, with maybe the odd extra button stuck on the side and the odd lever dismantled. It’s still capitalism. If Sanders got in and made changes tomorrow, it wouldn’t stop being a capitalist system. It wouldn’t even be a strange capitalist system. People would wake up of a morning most mornings and it would be business as usual. It certainly wouldn’t move into an entirely different paradigm to become an altogether ‘non-capitalist’ system.

What is America?
With the nation as a whole, again you’re working top-down. America is this, Europe is that, and never the twain shall meet. Because America is somehow ‘different’, economic policies that work in Europe won’t function in America. But why not? History? Geography? What’s the supposed impediment that means the USA can’t be somewhat different? The top-down approach here rules out options to no purpose. You see something absolute, a premise rooted in reality to which all proposals must conform in order to be even rational. But why should it be some underlying premise of reality? In the end, what America boils down to is a society of some 300m+ people trying to get on with their lives as best and harmoniously as they can. If a majority decides that the best way to do that is move towards a European model, why not? There is no quintessential ‘America’ to which they must be subservient and to which they must adhere in order for it to still be ‘America’. ‘America’ is what its citizenry wants it to be, here, now, today, for themselves and for their children, not some historical inevitability.

Politic vs. Faith
With this top-down approach you are pursuing political argument in a way more suited to religion. If you are a Christian, then you know God exists. You may not be able to prove it, but knowing He exists with an absolute certainty borne out of personal experience it makes perfect sense to dismiss arguments which go against that as somehow fallacious. Top-down applies. In much the same way, as a non-Christian, I know the chair I am sitting on exists. If someone came at me with some clever-clever argument to prove that the chair does not exist I’d know there was something wrong with the argument and I could safely approach it top-down in an effort to identify the fallacy with the chair’s existence my basic premise. But you can’t take that approach with politics. Top-down doesn’t work. You can’t work with a set conclusion and then agree or disagree with arguments on the basis of whether they conform with it. All it does is lead to misapprehension of others beliefs and attitudes, and an inability to consider potentially viable options. American healthcare is a good example. It should be about balancing optimal health for the maximum number with optimal expenditure. You can’t formulate an argument out of ‘We can’t do that because it’s not capitalism’ or ‘We can’t do that because it’s not small government’ or ‘We can’t do that because it’s not America’. It just doesn’t work. That is not to say your belief that socialised healthcare is wrong is in any way falsified. It is to say that the evidence against it cannot be formulated top-down if the argument is to be successful.

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