53% and Envy

Wall Street Sign. Author: Ramy Majouji

Image via Wikipedia

Erick Erickson recently started a movement in response to the Occupy Wall Street movement. The occupiers have as a slogan that they are the 99%. To counter this, Erickson hit on the idea of the 53%. This is the percentage of Americans who pay the federal income tax. His message is that complaints should cease, people should not blaming Wall Street, and people should pay their taxes.

For those who might think that 47% of Americans are just skipping out on taxes, the people who do not pay do so for two main reasons. The first is that the tax laws (such as the cuts under Bush) are such that about half of these people end up with no owed tax. The second is that the other half are so poor that after exemptions and the standard deduction they owe no taxes.

I happened to see Erickson being interviewed on CNN and found his remarks very interesting. He did make a valid point in claiming that although the Occupiers talk about the 99%, they do not actually represent 99% of  Americans. This is, of course, true of any political group since there is virtually no issue on which Americans have 100% agreement. Of course, this also means that his 53% folks also do not speak for all Americans (or even most).

Erickson seemed to be trying to make the point that his collected anecdotes from the 53% somehow refute the Occupiers. However, this seems to be questionable reasoning. In general, the folks in this movement note how they have jobs and pay taxes. However, the fact that they claim to be doing okay does not seem to show that the Occupiers do not have legitimate points. After all, if people organized to raise concerns about crime having some people say “I have not been a victim of crime” does not show there is not a problem.

Erickson did make a fairly stock accusation, namely that the Occupiers are motivated by envy. He seemed to regard this as showing that they are in error. However, this sort of reasoning is fallacious and can be regarded as an ad homimen. This method is so common that I think it deserves its own distinct name as a fallacy. Naturally, I suggest that it be called Accusation of Envy or perhaps Refutation by Envy. It has the following form:

  • Premise 1: Person P makes critical claim C about X.
  • Premise 2: P is accused of envy (typically in regards to X).
  • Conclusion: Therefore claim C is false.

Obviously enough, whether a person is envious or not has no bearing on the truth of the claims s/he makes. Even if, for example, the Occupiers are envious of the employed and the wealthy and even if this is their sole motivation, it does not follow that the criticisms they make are thus in error. The following example should nicely illustrate that this “reasoning” is flawed:

  • Sam: “When tyrants oppress their people and commit genocide, they are acting wrongly.”
  • Sally: “Why you are just envious of tyrants. So you are wrong. They are acting rightly.”

Naturally, the question of whether someone is jealous or not can be a point of interest. However, this is a matter of fact rather than a point of logic and is, as noted above, irrelevant to the truth or falsity of claims made by the allegedly jealous person.

Thus, Erickson’s charge of envy has no logical weight in this matter. I do, however, thank him for giving me the idea to write up this “new” fallacy.

In another post I will address his remark about life not being fair.

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