Sunday, August 31, 2008

A Picture is not an Argument*

Kevin Carter, 1994 Pulitzer Prize for feature photo

Poverty and hunger. Real people. Real suffering. Real problems.

In searching for a picture to include in this post, I found a plethora of heart-rending, ghastly and appalling photos of skeletal babies, children and mothers. Most were too awful to look at for very long let alone post on a blog dedicated to progress and hope. But pictures like these are so frequently used as a call to action, I wanted to use one as a call to stop and think.

This picture clearly illustrates a problem, and yet, it tells us nothing about the solution.

Listening to the speeches last week at the Democratic convention, reminded me again and again that we don’t need more pictures. We need solutions. Story after story was offered of hard times, suffering, jobs lost, difficulty affording gas, medical care, food, you-name-it. I assume the stories are real. My heart goes out to the people who are having such hard times in their lives. Yet, those emotional appeals are merely the verbal equivalent to the picture above.

A picture is not an argument, and neither is an image painted with words.

Those stories tell us nothing about why gas is expensive, why medical costs are high, why the economy is growing more slowly than in the past, why so many people are still going hungry. The speakers at the Democratic convention uniformly assume that the problem is “market failure” and a lack of government intervention. The solution, then, must be greater government management of the market. (I expect nothing significantly different from the Republicans.)

But is it? How do you know? Which polices promote growth and prosperity, and which hinder it? What are the forces which lead to higher wages and lower prices? Which conditions lead to an increasing standard of living for everyone, and which lead to stagnation and impoverishment?

Without a clear understanding of the laws of economics, it is impossible to answer those questions. You can no more build up an economy without understanding the laws of economics than you can build a bridge without understanding the laws of physics.

The solutions must take into account fundamental economic principles: the effects of supply and demand on prices, and of prices on purchase decisions; the role of profits in directing businesses to what consumers want and to the most efficient use of resources; the importance of resource efficiency to wealth creation and sustainable prosperity; the unavoidable effects of incentives in economic and political decisions; the role of the entrepreneur in making innovations affordable and available, risking personal loss in the hope of a chance at personal gain; the detrimental effects of allowing special interest pressure groups use the coercive power of government to meddle in the market, distorting prices and preventing free exchange between consenting adults.

Emotional appeals and colorful descriptions of a problem tell us nothing about the cause or its best solution. Unfortunately, these images are too frequently used to horrify us into acting immediately. These people truly are on the brink of death after all. Something must be done right away or they will die!! The amount of human suffering is incomprehensible, and to even try to comprehend is to feel overwhelmed.

We must not let our compassion lead us to hasty, uninformed action. No point in jumping in the river to save a drowning man unless you first know how to swim. To develop lasting, workable solutions to the problems of poverty, first learn the means of creating wealth. That means: understand and apply the laws of economics.

*The title of this post is taken from a lecture by Leonard Peikoff which analyzes in detail the dangers of substituting an appeal to emotion for an appeal to fact and reason.

There are an increasing number of books available which introduce basic economic concepts and principles. Two I recommend are Economics in One Lesson by Henry Hazlitt and Common Sense Economics by Gwartney, Stroup and Lee. Both are short, direct and pleasant to read.

Take the plunge. Let the solutions begin!!


Unknown said...

Hey, I was looking for an image of poverty, but this is something else.

HaynesBE said...

Pretty gruesome, isn't it?