The ‘Begging the Question’ Fallacy of Typical Trumpcare Illogic.

In logic, there is something called the “Begging the Question” fallacy. According to the Philosophy Department at Texas State University, the fallacy occurs when “an argument’s premises assume the truth of the conclusion.” For example, someone who asserts that “happiness is the highest value for human beings, since all other values are inferior to it” is begging the question; the premise that all other values that are not happiness are inferior has already asserted that happiness is the highest value. The argument doesn’t prove anything except its own premise.

Conservatives typically employ this fallacy to support either their repeal of Obamacare or the repeal of Medicaid (the true intention of Trumpcare). Two interviews on NPR today (6/28) illustrate the conservative use of this fallacy in its obfuscating way.

Some version of the fallacy running amok within conservative discourse is something like the following:  Obamacare has caused skyrocketing health insurance premiums since premiums after Obamacare’s passage have skyrocketed. The premise that the rise in premiums after Obamacare was passed assumes the truth that its passage caused the “skyrocketing” premiums people are ostensibly experiencing today. It is a useful fallacy to employ when you believe listeners won’t identify the tautology within the logic, or when you cannot establish causality and only correlation.

Conservative pundit Matt Schlapp employed this logical fallacy this morning on NPR’s Morning Edition. On the program, Schlapp asserted that under Obamacare, Americans “have seen just astronomical increases, double-digit increases, doubling of premiums,” and that Democrats, therefore, have no argument against Obamacare causing a rise in premiums. In other words, the premise that Democrat’s “don’t have a leg to stand on” regarding premium increases assumes that the Democratic party’s Obamacare law caused those premium increases. Schlapp and others who employ this fallacy typically do not cite any evidence backing their conclusion up, since such evidence is not likely to definitively prove their claim.

In order to prove their claim, and insulate their arguments from the criticism I pursue herein, they would need to prove that elements of the Obamacare policy have caused the premium increases. One way to do so would be to demonstrate that the rate of growth in health premiums historically was slower prior to Obamacare’s passage. In other words, if premium increases grew faster after Obamacare was signed into law than they did before it, then Conservatives would have a more truthful claim to assert.

Unfortunately, such evidence does not exist. According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, premiums for employer-subsidized health insurance grew at a rate of 3%. Historically, the story is similar:


So too did Medicare spending slow:


Now some conservatives may argue that a 20% adjustment to premiums in 2016 vindicates their position. But as the first table above shows, that 20% adjustment is still lower than premium increases historically.

A second interview on NPR today similarly employed the Begging the Question fallacy. Robert Moffet of the Conservative Heritage Foundation asserted that expanding Medicaid the way Obamacare did (or tried to) was not the original purpose of the program. Claiming that Medicaid was originally intended for the poor and indigent, Moffet concludes that it is becoming instead a “backdoor mechanism to establish a middle-class entitlement for long-term care.” In other words, Medicaid is not being used as intended because it is being offered to people it was not intended for.

For one, Medicaid was not necessarily created exclusively for the “poor” and/or “indigent.” For one, the threshold for “poor” has always and consistently changed as economic growth and political churn have proceeded. Two, the Medicaid program itself only references its intention for “low-income” Americans – a dubious term as malleable as the “poverty” threshold has been. Yet nothing in it technically suggests that middle-income Americans cannot or should not qualify.

Secondly, there is a problem with the context the assertion denies or is unaware of. Specifically, the acceleration of income inequality and the disproportionate accumulation of wealth at the highest tiers of the income distribution. Reams have been reported on this topic, and I will not reference them all (for a general primer, see here).  What is important to understand is that wealth (and the money, capital, investments, etc. that create it) is finite: there is only so much money to go around. When it disproportionately accumulates to the few at the expense of the many, therefore, more Americans will be left with less wealth. And with less wealth, spending on other needs and wants must also lessen, as has certainly happened. Thankfully, premium increases have been slower than tey have historically been. None the less, any increase for such a basic need hurts even middle-income households; most especially since such households are typically denied other social welfare benefits.

The question then is whether Medicaid was intended to help these “low-income” people, and, if not, can such spending still be justified. The answer to that question is more subjective than objective – one again dealing with issues of fairness. Ostensibly, Mr. Moffet feels that expanding Medicaid to cover “middle-income” Americans is unfair. That is fine, but one must also similarly concede that if Medicaid was intended to help relieve the burden of health expenses for those who cannot afford it themselves, or have a hard time affording it, then certainly is it also fair that Medicaid be expanded to “middle-income” Americans, especially at the lower end of that quintile. Whatever the case, it is a bit disingenuous to declare that Obamacare is a back-door to another entitlement in order to reaffirm your Conservative bona fides by invoking that stalwart Conservative shibboleth of the modern Conservative philosophy – entitlements! (for an interesting take on the other shibboleth’s typically employed to obfuscate a lack of evidence and logic, see here).

I hope logic, honesty, and justice-oriented discourse will see better days in the near future.


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