1. George Osborne says that inequality has increased under Labour, without pointing out that had it not been for Labour’s efforts to redistribute income, inequality might have increased even more than it did.
2. Richard Murphy says yesterday’s GDP figures show that increased public spending and the car scrappage scheme lifted us out of recession - missing the point that a large chunk of the scrappage scheme leaked into imports, and that there might therefore have been more efficient ways of supporting the economy.
3. A caller to Radio5live says the NHS saved the life of his wife, without wondering whether alternative institutions for delivering healthcare might also have done so.
4. In rejecting Philip Blond’s claim that the welfare state undermined working class habits of autonomous organization, a commenter at Bad Conscience points out that workers are vastly better off now. But he does not consider whether they might be even more so, had the welfare state taken a different form.
There’s a common theme here. All four are examples of the post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy - the “after this, therefore because of this” error. So, for example, George Osborne sees inequality rise after the election of a Labour government, and espies causality. Ditto, Richard Murphy sees recovery after the introduction of the car scrappage scheme. And so on.
What’s missing in all four of these cases is an analysis of mechanisms. What precisely are the routes through which Labour has increased inequality, or the scrappage scheme boosted GDP, or the NHS saved lives, or the welfare state enriched workers? What’s also missing are counterfactuals. What would have happened to inequality without Labour policies? What GDP figures would we have had we had alternative fiscal policies? What sort of healthcare would we have under alternatives to the NHS? How well off would the poor be under different forms of welfare provision?
Filling in these blanks is of course very tricky. But that is the nuts and bolts of social science. Without mechanisms and counterfactuals, all we have is what Hopi rightly caricatures as “1. Underpants, 2.?, 3. Profit!!”
I mention all this because the election campaign will, I fear, be dominated by post hoc ergo propter hoc arguments on both sides: “Things are better than in 1997 so Labour‘s succeeded“; “No they‘re not, so Labour's failed.” Which is just unscientific gibber.
But here’s a wrinkle. Although post hoc ergo propter hoc is always fallacious, it isn’t always empirically wrong - because effects often follow causes*; it's quite possible that some of the claims made above are actually true. So, could it be that the costs of such faulty reasoning turn out to be small - perhaps because post hoc ergo propter hoc draws attention to a legitimate causal mechanism, or perhaps because some wisdom of crowds effect cause the logical fallacies to cancel out?**
* Not always. Sometimes effects precede cause, as when Christmas causes people to send Christmas cards.
** Eg “Inequality has increased under Labour, so Labour increases inequality.” “Yeah, but the Tories increased inequality too.” “Well, maybe neither party will do much to achieve equality.”