False Dichotomy

This is one of the oddest false dichotomies I have seen in a long time:

Since 1992, the National Election Study
has asked respondents four questions that collectively make up an
"authoritarian index." The four questions ask you to specify which of
two attributes you value more in children:

  1. Independence vs respect for elders

  2. Self-reliance vs. obedience

  3. Curiosity vs. good manners

  4. Being considerate vs. being well behaved

The first item in each pair marks you as less
authoritarian and the second item marks you as more authoritarian.
After you've answered all four, the scores are added up and normalized
on a scale from 0 to 1, with 1 being the most authoritarian.

It will come as no surprise that authoritarians tend to vote
Republican. What may surprise you, though, is that this has only become
true in recent years.

I am sure this does not "surprise" Kevin Drum's leftish readers, since they so want to think of themselves as freedom- and individual-rights-loving vs. the mean old Republicans, whom I certainly have no desire to defend on this score.

But are these weird false dichotomies or what? 

Why is independence the opposite of respect for elders?  Isn't this like saying Kleenex is the opposite of pudding?  Isn't the opposite of "independence" actually "the desire to mooch off other people"?  Why isn't the opposite of "self reliance" in fact the "desire to have the government run your life for you?"  I mean, I personally have strived (striven??) to have my kids simultaneouly be both curious and have good-manners. 

And is Drum really trying to argue that Democrats are all about the stuff on the left side while Republicans are for all the stuff on the right?  Who in the world is going to believe that the folks who, for example, support Social Security because they think individuals can't be trusted to manage their own retirement savings, are the spokesmen for "independence" and "self-reliance."  As I said in my comments to the post:

As a libertarian, I am thrilled to see you championing the cause of anti-authoritarianism and self-reliance.  I am sure that this means
that we will soon see your opposition to telling people what wages are
acceptable, what features their car must have, where they can and can't
smoke, who they can or can't hire and fire, where they can get their
health care, what schools they are forced to fund, how much fat can be
in their diet, what drug risk trade-offs are acceptable, how steep
their wheelchair ramps have to be, how energy efficient their
appliances have to be, what minimum percentages of minorites must be at
their school in their workforce, why they shouldn't be allowed to shop
at Walmart or buy from Chinese manufacturers, what lisence they need to
braid hair or to sell caskets, etc.


  1. JoshK:

    You make the mistake of trying to apply logic to understanding the ideals of the left. It's not a system based on reason. It is much more akin to a religion.

  2. Doug:

    While I agree with your conclusion and think your response to Drum is great, I’m not so sure about how you got there. The questions don’t imply that the choices are opposites but ask which is more important, a classic preference test offering options that often seem unrelated. You can think that both are important and still have to choose only one. It’s a test of priorities where a person with numerous allergies may indeed choose Kleenex while a twelve-year-old with an insatiable sweet tooth might prefer the pudding.

    The real problem is that we don’t know how these questions were validated. What was the standard they used calibrate this “authoritarian index”? Should all four questions carry the same weight? Why should someone who values both choices highly get the same “credit” as one who does not but prefers the same one?

    I suspect we do agree that the questions reveal more about the survey’s author than the respondents.

  3. Ed:

    Kudos for putting your finger on one of the most pervasive logical fallacies in modern culture. I have long worried over what I have come to call 'classificatory errors', and most people's refusal or inability to recognize them. It is the familiar apples/oranges (I much prefer your Kleenex/pudding characterization) problem, if a bit more arcane. Sadly, many folks lack the critical thinking skills required to see this sort of flimflam for what it is, and those that perpetrate (and perpetuate) it do so with a good deal of malice aforethought.

    To tease out only one example, consider the long-raging debate over abortion. It will never satisfactorily be settled because one side sees aborting a human foetus as nothing more than a behavioral choice, while the other side sees it as premeditated murder. There is very little chance the two sides are going to get together until they both realize one side is talking about Kleenex while the other is discussing pudding.

    My own particular favorite example of this kind of trickster comparison is: "Do you walk to school or take your lunch"?

    Anyway, nicely done ... I will be back


  4. ArtD0dger:

    Speaking of false dichotomies, this endless obsession with “authoritarianism” by left of center commentators never ceases to amaze me. That largess delivered by government always comes with strings attached whatever the intentions of the benefactor; that centralization and collectivization inherently institute layers of agency and authority over individuals; and that wealth confiscation and redistribution to support centrally planned goals clearly represents coercive authoritarian policy never seems to register with them.

    All libertarians and most modern conservatives take these points as axiomatic, and have come to regard the left as the obviously more authoritarian political wing. Yet this insinuation springs up over and over, even from smart liberals like Drum. You’d think that in their own minds, they are devising political strategy to run against monarchists or something.