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The Ethics of Spinions (Spinning Minions)

English: The CNN Center in Atlanta.

Being rather interested in politics, I spend a fair amount of time following the news of the day. Not surprisingly, I get to see numerous spinning minions (spinions) working their talking points. In the context of politics, a spinion is a person who takes on the role of presenting the talking points of the ideology being represented. In general, the spinion has two main tasks. The first is to make his/her side look good and the second is to make the other side look bad. Truth is, of course, not really a point of concern. Naturally, there can be spinions in other areas as well, such as business, religion and academics.

One somewhat interesting thing about spinions is that it is often rather easy to tell when a person is in spinion mode. In many cases, there seems to be a certain change in the facial expression, eyes and voice of the person as s/he begins to spin.  This reminds me of the fact that in the Pathfinder role playing game characters can use their perception skill to notice whether another creature’s will is not its own. That is, whether it is charmed, dominated or otherwise being controlled. Being a gaming nerd, I imagine the spinion look is what a person would look like in such cases. More scientifically, research has shown that the brain actually undergoes internal changes when a person is thinking about ideological matters: “Essentially, it appears as if partisans twirl the cognitive kaleidoscope until they get the conclusions they want, and then they get massively reinforced for it, with the elimination of negative emotional states and activation of positive ones.” Given this, it is not surprising that a person’s external behavior would be altered in discernible ways when engaged in spinning behavior. After all, emotional changes are often manifested visibly in changes in behavior and voice. However, my main concern is not with spotting spinions (although there is probably some interesting research to be done here) but with the ethics of spinions.

When I observe spinions in action, what I mainly notice is that they relentlessly present their side in a favorable manner while being equally relentless in casting the other side(s) in a negative manner. In the context of United States’ politics, this spinning has reached the point that any concession to or positive view of the other side is regarded as traitorous. For example, when Bill Clinton spoke of Mitt Romney having a sterling business record, this created a bit of a political storm. I would present other examples, but they are rather rare-in these times it is almost unheard of for one side to say anything positive about the other.

Another disturbing aspect of the ways of spin is that truth and principle seem to be of little importance. Each spinion attempts to construct a narrative favoring his side and damning the other, warping and ignoring facts as needed. For example, the Republicans bashed Obama because the worth of the middle class fell on his watch but they conveniently ignored the fact that this worth had been falling since before Obama was in office. Similarly, the Democrats bashed Romney regarding Massachusetts’ economic woes while Romney was governor, conveniently ignoring facts that went against this narrative.

Needless to say, spinions seem to also have no qualms about making use of fallacies and rhetorical devices in the place of reason. To see this is the case, simply turn to the 24 hour news station of your choice and watch. You might want to have a book on fallacies on hand to catalog all the examples you will see. This is, of course, prudent of them: while it makes me sad, fallacies and rhetoric are far more effective than good reasoning when it comes to getting people to believe.

Grounding this behavior seems to be the idea that what matters is beating the other side. The view seems to be, as Hobbes would put it, that “profit is the measure of right.” This is perhaps most clearly put by Mitch McConnel, namely that the Republicans top priority should be making Obama a one term president. Rather than, for example, working hard to get us out of the depression. While Democrats are not as overt about this as their Republican associates, it is obviously still a factor.

As might be suspected, I regard the behavior of the spinions as morally dubious at best. After all, they engage in willful manipulation of the facts, they employ rhetoric and fallacies to sway people, they cannot acknowledge anything right or good about the other side, and seem to be solely concerned with achieving victory for their side (or the side that pays them).  This spinning has contributed to the high levels of polarity in politics and had made it rather difficult for issues to be discussed rationally and fairly. I would even go so far as to say that this has harmed the general good through its impact on politics. As such, the spinions are a source of considerable moral concern.

One rather obvious counter is that the job of the spinion is to do exactly what they do and this is a legitimate activity. While philosophers and scientists are supposed to seek facts and engage in good reasoning so as to determine what is most likely to be true, this is not the role of the spinion. Their role is rather like that of any spokesperson or advertiser, namely to sell their product and see to it that the competition does not succeed. This is not a matter of right or wrong and truth or falsehood. Rather it is a matter of selling product, be that product soap or a political party. This sort of selling is how the consumer market works and thus the spinions are acting in an acceptable way.

I do agree that parties do have a legitimate right to have people who speak in their favor and against their opposition. However, the spinions appear to present a danger to society similar to that of the sophists. That is, they seem to be focused solely on the success of their side rather than on what is true and good. Since the top spinions are routinely given time on national and worldwide television, they have a rather substantial platform from which to spread their influence. Spinions are often presented as commentators or panelists (and sometimes they are actually presenting the news) which, as I see, creates a problem comparable to allowing corporate spokespeople to advertise their products under the guise of being panelists or commentators. That is, the spinions often seem to simply be presenting political commercials for their side while not having these ads labeled as such. This can mislead people who might think that they are getting an objective report when they are, in fact, essentially just getting a political advertisement in disguise.

A counter to this is that the spinions are presenting the views and talking points of their respective sides and this is not advertising. After all, there will sometimes be opposing spinions spinning in opposite directions on the same panel or in the same segment. Further, the spinions are often presented as being spokespeople for specific parties or candidates.

One reply is that this is still like advertising. After all, networks are happy to sell time to competitors so that a viewer might see an advertisement for Coke followed by one for Pepsi. Also, while some spinions are identified as such, this is not always the case. As such, people do often get misled into thinking that what they are hearing is a matter of fact when it is, in fact, merely spin.

The obvious counter to this is that the spinions are protected by the right to free speech and hence are free to spin away even when doing so is detrimental to the public good and what they say is contrary to fact.

This, I will agree, is true-spinions do not lose their right to express their views (or the views they are paid to express) just because they are spinning. However, the news networks who enable them to spin (or even hire them to spin) are not obligated to provide the spinners with a platform or to let them operate largely free from critical assessment. Obviously enough, having opposite spinners spinning away is not the same thing as having critical assessment of the spin.  In fact, spinning is the opposite of what the news is supposed to do, namely present the facts objectively.  As such, there should be greater effort to contain spin and to ensure that spinners are clearly identified as such. Finally, what the spinions do is wrong-they should stop doing what they do.

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Conservatives?

Karl Marx 1882 (edited)

Back in my undergraduate days, one of my political science professors semi-jokingly explained the difference between our  (the United States) political system and the Soviet system: “they have one political part, we have one more than that.” While this was obviously a oversimplification, he did make a very good point. After all, while we do get a choice, it is a rather limited choice between the Republican or the Democrat.

Because the United States has but two truly viable parties, this tends to create an ideological compression in which people are often forced to pick a party that does not reflect the range of their beliefs. While this is true of the Democrats, this was especially evident as the Republicans went through the process of selecting their 2012 candidate. To be specific, this process has made it rather clear that there are at least two distinct types of conservatives that have been compressed under the tent of one party.

The first type is the fiscal conservative. Being a fiscal conservative is generally taken to involve being conservative about taxation and  government spending. To be more specific, fiscal conservatives favor keeping both of these at a minimum.

While I typically get branded as a liberal, I am actually a fiscal conservative: I favor lowering taxes and government expenditures to a minimal level consistent with the government fulfilling its legal and moral duties (such as defense). I am also against wasteful spending, corruption, and pork. As might be imagined, the disputes tend to get started when it comes to the matter of defining the legal and moral duties of the state.

The second type is the social conservative. Being a social conservative is generally taken to involve the idea that one should conserve (or preserve) “the way things were” and thus avoid change in social areas.  The social areas include things such as religion, morals, race-relations, gender roles and so on. As might be imagined, there are degrees of conservatism in this area. Some folks tend to regard almost any change in the social areas as suspicious and would prefer to keep everything as it was. Others are considerably more flexible and focus on conserving what they regard as good, but are willing to accept certain changes. Of course, a “conservative” who is too willing to accept change (even good change) runs the obvious risk of becoming a liberal or even a progressive.

In a limited sense, I am a conservative: I am quite willing to conserve what is good and I am against changing things without justification. This is, of course, a reasonable position: to infer that past idea, morals and values are incorrect simply because they are old is just as fallacious as assuming that they are correct just because they are old. After all, the age of such things (unlike milk), at least by itself, has no bearing on their goodness or badness. As might be imagined, being a conservative in this sense is not what people usually think of when they think of what it is to be a conservative. After all, someone who thinks that something should be conserved on the basis of rational arguments for its goodness just seems to be, well, rational. As such, a mere willingness to conserve what is both old and good does not seem to be enough to count as a social conservative. The question is, of course, what more is needed.

While some might take the easy path and try to define conservatives against a straw man version of the liberal, that would be rather unfair and not exactly reasonable. It would, of course, be equally unfair to present a straw man version of the conservative. That said, given that the political vocabulary is so limited in this regard, it might be rather hard to avoid creating straw men. In fact, the ideological compression caused by the United States’ two party system might make straw men inevitable.

The easy and obvious approach is to regard social conservatives as  people who regard the way things have been in the social areas as being correct. Naturally, if they claim that such things are good because they are old or traditional, they are committing the classic fallacy of appeal to tradition. If they prefer such things because of their psychology, then this says why they believe what they do, but does nothing to support the correctness of said beliefs. After all, if they just like the old and dislike the new, this does nothing to show that the old is good and the new is bad. It just says something about their mental states. To use the obvious analogy, the fact that I have some preference for music from my college days does not entail that the music of today is inferior or bad. Likewise, the fact that some folks prefer the music of today to the music of that time does not prove that the music of the 1980s is inferior.

To avoid falling into fallacies, a conservative of this sort would need to argue that the traditional values are better than the liberal alternatives based on grounds other than mere tradition. That is, they need to show that the traditional values (as they see them) are good, rather than saying that they are good because they are traditional. Of course, this would make such people contingent conservatives. After all, their commitment would be to what is good rather than what is merely traditional and this would leave open the possibility that they could accept “liberal” values as good. Unless, of course, it is a matter of necessity that traditional values are always better than the liberal values. The challenge then, obviously enough, is to account for the initial goodness of today’s conservative values-after all, there are various much older values that they replaced.

It is, of course, somewhat tempting to take “liberal” and “conservative” as being marketing and rhetorical terms rather than having much value in categorizing political views. After all, people who identify as liberals take being a liberal to involve the virtues of tolerance, acceptance and so on while regarding conservatives as clinging to an unjust past out of fear of change. In response, those who identify as conservatives often see themselves as defending what is good and holy from the depravity of the godless liberals and their agenda.

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Soon-to-Haves

 

White House Portrait of

Image via Wikipedia

 

I am working on a book on rhetoric and, as might be imagined, this year’s American political season has been a goldmine. Recently Mitch Daniels said “We do not accept that ours will ever be a nation of haves and have nots; we must always be a nation of haves and soon to haves.”

The phrase “soon to haves” is an excellent example of a euphemism (a more pleasant or appealing phrase or word substituted for one that is negative or likely to be offensive to the audience).  While euphemisms are a stock tool in politics, it is always fair to critically examine their usage to see what sort of reality they might be employed to hide or soften. As such, I will take a short look at this phrase.

Daniels, obviously enough, makes it quite clear that his euphemism is a substitute for “have-nots” (which can itself be seen as something of a euphemism for the term “poor”). “Soon to haves” is clearly a more pleasant phrase than “have nots.” After all, the have-nots are lacking and there is no implication of hope. In fact, the usual way of things is that “whoever has will be given more; whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken from him.” In the case of “soon to haves” this not only makes it clear that these folks will be haves but that this having shall come soon. One rather obvious point of concern is whether or not this euphemism matches the reality it is alleged to describe.

On the one hand, the United States (and other countries of the world) does have upward mobility. I am better off than my grandparents on my father’s side (they both had to quit school before the ninth grade in order to take jobs).  People can, obviously enough, become haves even with a start as a have not. As such, the United States (and all countries) is a land of haves and soon-to-haves.

To use an analogy, in running there are people who win races or place and those that do not. As in general life, the winners are haves and those who do not are have nots. Of course, some people who do not place in this race or that race go on to place in another race. Thus, runners could also be seen as haves and soon-to-haves rather than haves and have nots. Except, of course, the people who might never place. Fortunately, in the case of running, most runners can actually find some race in which to place in. After all, there are lots of races and with some effort and luck one can find such a race. Of course, the running analogy breaks down pretty quickly. After all, while there are plenty of races and running competition is basically fair, the same is not true of the economy. Overall, there is just one race that is going on all the time. Also, the economic race is rather clearly an unfair one. Which brings me to the other hand.

On this other hand, it is rather obvious that even though there are soon-to-haves there are also many people who are and will continue to be have-nots. True, some of these people have not because of their own decisions, choices and actions. However, many of them are in that situation due to factors beyond their power to reasonably control. For example, a leading cause of bankruptcy in America is medical debt incurred by people who find themselves unable to pay those bills (such as when their insurance coverage is exhausted). Other people find themselves in that boat when their employer goes overseas, goes out of business, or gets taken over and gutted for a profit. Some folks find themselves to be have nots when their retirement vanishes due to corporate mismanagement or clever financial manipulation.

It might be replied that even these folks can be considered soon-to-haves. After all, they do have more than nothing and will no doubt get more of something soon. Hence, they are soon-to-haves if not haves.

The obvious reply is that having more than nothing hardly is what is meant by being a have. It is also obvious that being a have is not just a matter of doing okay. After all, being a have is generally taken to mean doing very well-that is, being wealthy or even rich (which are also vague terms). The obvious reality is that the United States and most other countries have very extreme class disparities between the real haves (the top wealthy) and everyone else (the middle class on down). While there is some mobility between the classes, the transition into the dominion of the true haves is very rare indeed. After all, the true haves make up that vaunted 1%, which means that 99% of the people are not haves in that sense.

It might be objected that I have set the bar for being a have too high. What is meant is not that the soon-to-haves will be haves in the sense of being the top haves, but rather that the soon-to-haves will move from less to more (that is, upward mobility). Of course, as noted above, this would require more than going from nothing to something and even more than going from (for example) abject poverty to merely being poor.

Upward mobility does seem to be a real possibility. However, there is an obvious point of concern: if the United States is a nation of haves and soon-to-haves, how is it that there are still soon-to-haves? After all, those soon-to-haves should have become haves…well, soon. Perhaps the soon-to-haves are all new immigrants-having just arrived, they are not haves but are just a short time from being haves. Of course, this does not match the reality: there are plenty of people and families who have been here a long time and are still poor.

Perhaps some of the soon-to-haves are people who were haves. That is, there is a cycle of having and then being a soon to have. Of course, there are plenty of folks and families that were never haves.

Perhaps the soon-to-haves are kids. After all, kids are not haves but they will grow up soon and perhaps they will be the haves. However, many kids grow up in poverty, live in poverty and die in poverty.

As such, it does seem that while there are soon-to-haves, there are still plenty of have-nots.

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Are the Poor to Blame for Being Poor?

NEW YORK, NY - OCTOBER 03:  Republican preside...

Image by Getty Images via @daylife

When asked about the protestors occupying Wall Street, Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain said, “Don’t blame Wall Street, don’t blame the big banks,” he continued. “If you don’t have a job and you are not rich, blame yourself!” This does, of course, raise an interesting question: are the poor to blame for being poor?

Children make up a rather significant number of the poor, even in the United States. Using the federal definition of the poverty level $22,050 per year for a family of four), about 15 million children are poor. That is about 21% of all children. If poverty is defined as not having enough income to cover basic expenses, then the percentage increases to 42%. Given Fox News’ standard of $250,000 per year for a family of four, then the percentage of poor children would be vast indeed.

On the face of it, it would seem rather difficult to blame children for their poverty-even those that are old enough to legally work. After all, the wages for the sort of jobs that children are qualified to do tend to be rather low indeed. To be fair to Cain, his remarks were aimed at adults rather than children. Presumably he would blame these adults for the poverty of their children as well.

Some people are poor in the United States because they went bankrupt. While it is tempting to attribute these bankruptcies to overspending, over 60% of them are due to medical bills. There are no doubt cases in which people can be blamed for their illnesses (such as those relating to smoking or other lifestyle choices) and cases in which people could have paid their bills had they planned better. However, the majority of cases of medical bankruptcy seem to be cases in which the people are simply victims and not to blame.  “Unless you’re a Warren Buffett or Bill Gates, you’re one illness away from financial ruin in this country,” says Steffie Woolhandler, M.D., of the Harvard Medical School. “If an illness is long enough and expensive enough, private insurance offers very little protection against medical bankruptcy…” True, they cannot blame Wall Street and the banks (except to the degree that insurance companies and medical costs are at fault), but it would seem that people who end up poor under these conditions cannot be blamed.

It might, of course, be objected that if the people who went bankrupt had been as rich as Bill Gates, then they would not have gone bankrupt. If it is their fault that they are not that rich, then their poverty would thus seem to be their fault. This, of course, assumes that the medical costs that caused the bankruptcies were fair and that it is just and right of private insurance companies to not protect the less affluent from medical bankruptcies. These are, of course, rather dubious assumptions.

Other people are poor because they were fired. In some cases, people do deserve to be fired and hence are to blame. However, if a person is fired because their company is sending jobs offshore to make more profits or because the financial meltdown resulted in the loss of their job, then it would seem that they would not be to blame. Also, the Republicans delight in talking about how Obama is destroying jobs. If this rhetoric were correct, then Cain’s claim that the poor are to blame for their poverty would not be true-at least in the cases in which Obama allegedly destroyed their jobs.

It could, of course, be replied that the people who were fired should have taken action to ensure that they had jobs that they would not lose or that they were rich. Since they did not make themselves indispensable or independently wealthy (or could not stop Obama from destroying their jobs), then they are to blame. This, one might note, seems a bit like how a victim of theft can be blamed for the theft. If he had, for example, only had armed guards protecting his house, then his possessions would not have been stolen.

To close the discussion, I will consider an analogy between being poor and failing  one of my classes.

On the face of it, if someone fails my classes, then they are to blame. Likewise, if someone is poor, then they are to blame. However, the analogy breaks apart fairly quickly.

One significant difference is that my classes are designed to compensate for the fact that students do not all come from equal backgrounds. While I have some students who have received top-notch high school educations, I also have students who went through schools that were woefully underfunded and in rather bad condition. While there are some attempts in life to compensate for such disparities, it hardly seems fair to blame a person for being poor if they start out in horrible conditions and little is done to provide chances to overcome this.

I will, of course, note that there are exceptional people who manage to overcome the most dire odds-but these people are very rare and their success does not prove that the system is a fair and just one. It just proves that there are people who are so exceptional that they can do amazing things.  To use the class analogy, if I make a class so hard that only the very best student has a chance of even passing, it would be odd to say that my class is fair because one or two people manage to pass it.

Another significant difference is that my classes provide an equal opportunity to each student. Everyone faces the same requirements. Everyone gets the same lectures, notes, and support material. Everyone has the same access to my office hours, phone, email and web site. In all but one of my classes the books are even free downloads. A person’s family, political connections, wealth and so on have no bearing on their grade-only performance matters. When students face dire problems (such as being deployed overseas by the National Guard) I work with them to ensure that legitimate problems do not prevent them from achieving the level of success they deserve. As such, if someone fails my class, they truly do have no one to blame but themselves.

Obviously enough, the economic world is not like this. People do not get the same starting point, they do not get comparable resources, and so on. As such, it would seem rather unfair to place the full blame on the person who is poor. If the system was fair so that people had the same opportunity of success based on effort, then the poor would be to blame for their poverty. However, the system is rather obviously not a fair system and this surely mitigates the blame.

To use the class analogy once more, imagine that I ran my class a bit differently. The requirements and availability of resources  varied from student to student based on such factors as their wealth and political connections. For example, the very poor students would be denied access to the notes, the lectures, my office hours and so on but would be expected to do as well on the tests as the wealthy students who had access to everything. My assessment would, of course, be based on performance-at least in part. The wealthy and connected would get a bit of a bonus proportional to their wealth and connections. I would, of course, point to the one or two poor students who were able to do well as proof that my class is fair. But, of course, only the most deluded would really regard it as fair. In this scenario, a reasonable person would be hard pressed to blame the poor students for doing badly in the class-after all, they were at a terrible disadvantage relative to those who succeeded and the success of a few exceptional students would not chance the inherent unfairness.

To use a final analogy, the economic system can be seen as comparable to a marathon race that some people must run and others can use various vehicles. True, a good runner could even beat some people who used, for example bikes, but the fact that this can occur hardly shows that the competition is fair or that the runners who finish behind the cars and bikes are to blame for this.

Thus, while some poor people are to blame, it is an unfair and sweeping generalization to blame all (or even most) of the poor and jobless.

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Gotcha Questions

The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere

The Gotchas are Coming!

Sarah Palin certainly deserves credit for introducing the world to the notion of the “gotcha” question. Given the name, a “gotcha” question should be a question that is intended to trap a person in some devious or tricky manner. This, naturally enough, makes me think that perhaps Palin had in mind something like the fallacy of complex question or a loaded question.

The fallacy of complex question is committed by attempting to support a claim by presenting a question that rests on one or more unwarranted assumptions. The fallacy has the following form:

1)      Question Q is asked which rests on assumption (or assumptions) A.

2)      Therefore A is true.

This version of the fallacy is similar to begging the question in that what is in need of proof is assumed rather than properly
established.Complex question is also often defined as presenting two or more questions as if they were a single question and then using the answer to the single question to answer both questions. The answer is then used as a premise to support a conclusion. This version has the following form:

1)      Question Q is presented that is actually formed of two (or more) questions Q1 and Q2 (etc.).

2)      Question Q is based on one or more unwarranted assumptions, U.

3)      An answer, A, is received to Q and treated as if it answers Q1 and Q2.

4)      On the basis of A, U is concluded to be true.

This is a fallacy because the answer, A, is acquired on the basis of one or more unwarranted assumptions. As such, the conclusion is not adequately supported.

This fallacy needs to be distinguished from the rhetorical technique of the loaded question. In this technique a question is raised that rests on one or more unwarranted assumptions, but there is no attempt to make an argument.  In the context of law, a loaded question is sometimes referred to as a leading question.  The classic example of a loaded question is “have you stopped beating your wife?”

I think it would be quite reasonable (and colorful) to refer to complex and loaded questions as “gotcha” questions. However, this view of “gotcha” questions is based on there being some sort of trap or unwarranted assumption in the question. That is, the “gotchaness” is a property of the question. This does not, in practice, seem to match how Palin uses the term. After all, in defending her mistakes regarding the ride of Paul Revere she claimed that the question “”What have you seen so far today and what are you going to take away from your visit?”” was a “gotcha” question. The question itself does not seem to have any tricks, traps, or unwarranted assumptions built into it. In fact, it seems like an easy and innocuous sort of question. As such, either she is wrong about it being a “gotcha” question or she means something else by the term.

If she is not in error, then the most plausible account of the “gotcha” question is that it is defined not by what is asked but by what Palin answers. To be specific, if she gives a rather bad answer to a question, then it is a “gotcha” question, regardless of the content of the actual question. Presumably anyone can help themselves to this defense. So, if you give an incorrect or embarrassing answer to any question, be sure to insist that it is a “gotcha” question. That will surely show that either you are not accountable for your answer or that your answer is, in fact, right.

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Small Town Values

McCain, Palin and the Republicans have been pushing the theme of small town values. Since McCain and Palin are politicians and not philosophers, they have been rather vague about these small town values. Being from a very small town (Old Town, Maine) and also being a professional philosopher, I thought I’d step in and help them out. After all, that is what we small town folks do.

The view that small towns are havens of moral goodness and cities are cesspools of moral decay has along tradition behind it. When America was a rural nations, people praised the virtues of the rural folks. Philosophers even got in on the game, perhaps the best known being Rousseau. On his view, the youth should be raised in the country and kept from the corrupting influence of the cities. Of course, the belief in small town virtue seems to be mainly the result of a romantic view rather than the result of a proper investigation. In this regard, it is similar in other ways to the wonderful myth of the noble savage.

As noted above, I grew up in a very small town. I also did my undergraduate degree in a small town (Marietta, Ohio). I’ve visited many small town in America and know people from them. I’ve also visited big cities ( such as New York, Boston and Pittsburgh). I did my graduate work in a big city (Columbus, Ohio) and have met many big city folk over the years. While this does not count as a thorough empirical investigation, it does give me a basis from which to assess small town and big town values.

Based on my experience, a person’s place of residence is not a good indicator of their ethical values. I know of plenty of small town folks who are not good folks and I know plenty of big city folks who are morally upright. Naturally, I know plenty of good small town folks and bad city folks. Of course, my experience could be biased in some way and my sample is fairly small: just the thousands of people I have interacted with over the years. As such, it would be wise to not just rely on my experience and judgment.

Of course, there are some reasons to suspect that small town people might be better behaved that city folks.

One factor to consider is that people in small towns have additional incentives over city folk to behave better. As a small town person, I can attest to the fact that what a small town person does in his small town (or beyond) becomes generally known fairly quickly. The anonymity of the big city is absent. Further, a small town person has to interact with the same people regularly in his small town. Big city folk can find other people to interact with if their reputation goes bad with one group. While it might be believed that these factors merely make small town folk better at concealing their misdeeds, it is also reasonable to think that these factors help habituate small town folks to behave better. It is not that small town people are better-they are just better observed and have a harder time avoiding the consequences of bad behavior.

Another factor to consider is that the small populations of small towns means that they have a smaller number of corrupting people and influences. Hence, there is less chance that a small town person will end up under a corrupting influence. Also, bigger cities have more money and the sort of things that tend to attract those with lower moral standards. Hence, it is not that small town folks are morally better. It is just that small towns provide fewer opportunities for the corrupters and the potentially corrupted.

The above is, of course, speculative. Considering the two factors does not tell us whether small town folk consistently behave better than big city folk. To determine this, some empirical investigation would be in order.

One empirical way to examine the question of whether small towns have better values (and follow them) is to look at the crime rates. While this is not a perfect measurement, it does serve to provide a reasonable indicator of the moral conditions in an area. This is especially true in regards to crimes that are not economically based. After all, the frequency of rape in an area says more about the moral values of the inhabitants than does the frequency of speeding tickets.

Interestingly, Palin’s state Alaska does dismally here. Alaska leads the United States in incidents of forcible rape, is 5th in aggravated assault, and is 17th in murder. In contrast, my own home state of Maine has an extremely low crime rate. As with towns in Alaska, Maine towns tend to be small and even our biggest city, Portland, is a rather small city. As such, I certainly hope that Palin is talking about the small town values of my home state and not the state she governs. Of course, perhaps the conditions in Alaska are such that it is harder for those small town values to influence behavior. After all, everything is supposed to be tougher in Alaska. Presumably this applies to not engaging in criminal activity, too.

Based on my own experience and arguments, there does not seem to be a special set of small town values that make small town folks better. As such, the appeal to small town values is what sensible people know: just an empty piece of political rhetoric.