Penn Jillette, Seth McFarlane, And The “Stupid or Evil” Political Fallacy

Recently Chris has pointed out (here & here) the stupid/evil fallacy the left often uses* to paint the right. In short, the fallacy goes like this:

1) Republican policies are bad and designed purely to reward the current power structure.
2) If you are a Republican, you then must fall into one of two categories:
a) You’re stupid, and you’re being duped by the rulers of the party.
b) You’re one of the rulers of the party, and therefore evil.

Usually leftists assume the person they’re talking to — if their name isn’t Rove or Koch — falls into the “stupid” category. Interestingly, many of them actually think George W. Bush fell into the “stupid” category, being led around by Cheney, who was in the “evil” category.

Below, I’ve excerpted a passage from Penn Jillette’s book, God, No!**, where he touches on a similar fallacy. It’s more along the lines of the “What’s the Matter With Kansas?” fallacy, but the two are very closely related.

In the below, Penn was on Larry King with Seth McFarlane, discussing tax rates & the Tea Party:

Seth’s problem seemed to be that the Tea Party people were politically in favor of policies that Seth felt were against their own interests. This is a position I’ve heard others take before. Seth wasn’t hating the Tea Party people, he really wanted what he thought was best for them. His heart was in the right place. What bothered him so about the Tea Party was that they didn’t know what was best for their own damn selves. Seth is very talent and works hard, but he also seems to think he was lucky too. That seems reasonable. He had done well, and he didn’t need his taxes any lower. He wanted to pay his share, and he thought his share could be even higher. The Tea Party was pushing for things that would help Seth his own damn self and that were bad for the average Tea Party member. Seth explained that if the Tea Party got their way, Seth would, his own damn self, keep even more damn money. That really bugged him. He couldn’t dig that at all. How could tehse nuts possibly be pushing for things that weren’t in their own immediate self-interest? The Tea Party people were trying to stop the government from doing things that were financially good for the Tea Party individuals themselves. Seth didn’t want people who were much less well-off than he was pushing for things that were good for rich fucks like Seth. I understood taht Seth thought that anyone pushing for something politically not in their own financial self-interest was stupid and/or manipulated by big corproate rich-fuck money. This was my understanding of his position; those aren’t the words that he used. I might be unfairly lumping Seth in with other people I’ve heard talk about this. This is an argument I’ve heard a lot. It’s an argument some liberals I know seem comfortable with.


As I see it, any person making this argument is kind of bragging taht his political position is so purely altruistic that it is against his own self-interest. He cares so much about other people, justice, and pure political ideology that he has the moral strength to argue for something that isn’t in his self-interest. I’ve heard a lot of rich Hollywood people make that argument. They seem very proud of it.

On the other hand, if a … I guess the word would be “peasant,” cares enough about other people, justice, and pure political ideology to argue for something that isn’t in his or her puny ignorant best interest, he or she is a manipulated idiot.

The only way this makes sense is if you think that rich people can argue against their own self-interest, but less rich people can’t. Seth, I love you, but this is the United States of America — one doesn’t have to be rich to be guided by what one thinks is right. Morality can trump self-interest in good people of all classes. If it’s good enough for you, it’s good enough for them. Me, well, I’d like my position to be moral and in my self-interest — and I think those aren’t that often mutually exclusive.

Seth and the Tea Party don’t disagree on doing the right thing, they disagree on what the right thing is. I just wish we could all remember that.

Assuming that your ideological opponents sincerely believe — and often have good reasons for believing — the views they espouse seems to be lost in modern political discourse. Perhaps I’m naive, but I find the best policy is always to assume my opponents are arguing in good faith. Only then can you show them why their policies are wrong, even if their goals are admirable. If you start out by impugning their goals, it’s nothing but a waste of words.

* In fact, a specific time it was used against me — how much that pissed me off — was explained here.

** Highly recommend the book, BTW. I don’t know to what extent I’ll be able to devote time to writing a review here, but it’s definitely worth reading — even if you’re not an atheist.

  • Jeff Molby

    Recently Chris has pointed out (here & here) the stupid/evil fallacy the left often uses* to paint the right.

    In fairness, the right uses the same arguments. Leftists are assumed to be either economically illiterate or self-serving.

  • Stephen Littau

    I read “God No!” as well and thoroughly enjoyed it. I liked many of his “One Atheist’s Ten Suggestions” (I don’t recall any I disagreed with).

    It’s certainly not a book for anyone who is easily offended (blasphemy, sex, coarse language, more blasphemy, etc). It’s part philosophy, part biography (lots of great laugh out loud stories), part humor, a small bit of politics, and all fun. It’s a very fun read.

  • Stephen Littau

    Jeff: I think most people in general are economically illiterate and self-serving whether they realize it or not. I’m not the most economically literate person in the world but I understand the basics. How many people at OWS could give a coherent explanation of the Laffer Curve, price elasticity, the differences among the major economic theories (i.e. capitalism, socialism, communism, fascism) and the actual definition of economics?

    We tend to think those on the Left don’t understand these concepts but on issues like the war on (some) drugs, many on the Right forget about everything they understand about supply/demand and incentives.

    As to being self-serving, while most may say they are not, I proudly say I am. I think Ayn Rand got it mostly right. I think those on OWS are every bit as self-interested as those of us who want to keep more of what we earn. They want the money taken away from the 1% and redistributed to whom? Themselves, of course!

    While there do doubt are those on the Left who are economically literate, I think it’s fair to say that most are not.