In a recent column, the author begged advertisement writers to avoid superlatives and hyperbole. I chuckled, because the same admonition applies to public policy work. The Mackinac Center is all about ideas, but our ideas move through the political process, so we often see (and of course must resist) rhetorical flourishes and logical fallacies.
Here are a few I’ve seen.
The “I Hope This Bill Does Awesome Things” Act. Legislation is often described in terms of its hoped-for benefits, not what it does. When we began writing plain-language summaries of legislation in 2001, we discovered most bills can be described as “prohibiting,” “restricting” or “requiring” some activity. By contrast, the formal titles of bills are often glowing and aspirational. (The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act comes to mind.) It wasn’t always so: The ancient world had the 10 Commandments and the Code of Hammurabi.
“When my team does it, it’s brilliant; when yours does it, it’s evil.” Otherwise known as the process objection, this occurs when the majority party uses a legitimate tactic and the minority objects, even when it would do the same if the roles were reversed. For example: lame-duck legislators passing bills and presidents giving last-minute pardons. But incumbents retain all their powers until the day they leave office. Michael Barone dismissed this objection: “All process arguments are insincere, including this one.”
“This is the most important election of our lifetimes.” It won’t surprise you that notable people repeat this line election cycle after cycle, not unlike the furniture store with its perennial “going out of business” sale. My favorite use of this came during the Bush v. Kerry election in 2004. Larry King asked George W. Bush, “Is this the most important election ever?” You can imagine the twinkle in his eye when W. said, “For me it is.”
Lies, damned lies, and statistics. Mark Twain popularized the point that numbers are malleable. It takes discipline to ask: “What is the relevant number, and does it actually support my point?” Statistics can give the illusion of credibility and also create doubt. Consider COVID-19 metrics: We measure daily cases, daily deaths, deaths per million, 7-day averages, daily tests, infection rates, infections by industry, hospitalizations and hospital capacity. Which metric is most useful when imposing or lifting lockdown restrictions?
“There ought to be a law.” When the Mackinac Center looked at the Michigan lawbooks in 2014, we found 3,102 criminal laws. Many of them criminalize innocuous behavior, such as dancing during the national anthem or using an orange dog collar. A criminal sanction is not always the best solution, but you know the saying: “When you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail.”
As I alluded to above, no one is immune to engaging in such tactics. That’s why the Mackinac Center has a Guarantee of Quality Scholarship, backed up by our editors, to hold us to a high standard of excellence.