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When 'Let's Be Rational About This' Is a Synonym for 'I Hate You'

February 15, 2012, 3:55 PM

Everyone in politics pays lip service to data. "Our opponents say X but the facts are plainly Y, which they would admit if they were not (pick one) deceived or paid off or deluded by weird beliefs." Is there an older political argument in the book than this? Strip away the silliness, we like to imagine, and the facts and metrics will lead to good policy. But this month's rhetorical war over birth-control insurance coverage reveals that this notion is a myth. The only time politicians invoke pure, unfettered reason is when they want to stick it to their opponents.

Consider one of the arguments against mandating that health insurers cover contraception, as articulated by Rick Santorum the other day at the Conservative Political Action Conference: The government, he said, wants to force insurers "to pay for something that costs just a few dollars. Is that what insurance is for?" The feds shouldn't be involved in "minor expenses," he said.

Let's ignore, for the moment, the fact that this is wrong, which you can see here. (As Nicholas Kristof explained the other day, stinting on contraception is common, and is one reason poor women are much more likely to face unwanted pregnancy than are wealthier women.) What caught my eye in Santorum's argument wasn't its erroneous content but the unstated assumption on which it depends: A purely rational person could buy this stuff if they wanted to (all they'd have to do is save money to pay its "minor costs"). So the government should not help them. In other words, there should be no gap between the Rational Economic Human of theory and the Actual Human of Real Life.

That's the same grounding assumption made by Florida's Senator Marco Rubio in justifying his bill to allow anyone to refuse to pay for any medical coverage s/he deems objectionable: "To be clear, the bill does not forbid women from pursuing birth control and other affected products. If an employee wants birth control, that worker could simply pay for it themself [sic] or just choose to work elsewhere."

In the real world, of course, getting another job or even saving the money for contraception are not so easy. The argument depends on a denial of this gap between a perfectly rational model human and the messy actual person.

Contrast these claims with another dubious Santorum assertion: That women in combat would distract male soldiers because of the natural male emotions sparked by seeing a damsel in distress. Again, the content appears to be erroneous, if you believe the Pentagon. But I was struck by the contrast in assumptions. In his contraception argument, Santorum implies that a Rational Economic Human ought to be the standard in deciding on a policy. Here, he goes the opposite way. People in combat may be interchangeable units in theory, he implies, but real red-blooded men aren't guided by cool rationality.

In other words, when attacking his political opponents, Santorum denies any gap between Rational Economic Man and real people. But when he wants to seem sympathetic to a group (those male soldiers), then he demands society acknowledge the gap.

That, I think, is how pure numbers-and-facts rationality is usually used in political debates: As a weapon. Invoking Reason is a way of belittling and ignoring the humanity of the opposite side. Conversely, denying the primacy of rationality is a way of asserting the full rounded humanity of "our" side.

And what does that say about the concept of Rational Economic Man, that in politics we only apply, good and hard, to our enemies?


When 'Let's Be Rational Abo...

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