Hard to believe, I know, but: George Monbiot is wrong
Yesterday we here at the IEA enjoyed his three-monthly, “the influence of money is destroying democracy” column. We particularly enjoy this one because the IEA always gets a mention. Today he complained about the fact that, according to the website TobaccoTactics.org, we receive money from tobacco companies and we write about the regulation of tobacco:
“Last week the IEA published a report inveighing against the UK’s smoking ban and tobacco packaging law. This was picked up across the media, but with never a word about the institute’s funding.”
It is strange that Monbiot believes that this kind of thing undermines democracy. In fact, his complaint reveals an underlying idea that is entirely hostile to democracy.
Start by noting that think tanks are not like law firms. We will not take any old position, provided we are paid to. The IEA is a free market think tank and we attract donors on that understanding. Monbiot might find this hard to believe but never mind, because it is of less relevance than he thinks.
Monbiot’s obsession with “who pays” is an example of what, in my book Bad Thoughts (shameless plug!), I call the motive fallacy. He believes that knowing someone’s motivation for saying something helps you to know whether what he says is true. Monbiot doesn’t engage with the arguments and evidence provided in the IEA’s publications. He simply complains that we have donors he doesn’t like, as if that were enough to show that the author is wrong.
If the absurdity of this is not immediately obvious, consider a criminal trial. The prosecution lawyer says the accused did it; the defense lawyer says he didn’t. Both have been paid to take these positions. But they can’t both be wrong, as Monbiot’s “logic” suggests. That is why the jury must attend, not to the motives of the lawyers, but to the cases they make.
The matter is no different in debate about tobacco regulation or any other matter of public policy. The cases made by IEA authors – or any other authors – are no better or worse than the quality of the arguments and evidence they contain. The source of the author’s salary is completely irrelevant; it can neither strengthen nor weaken the case made.
It might be relevant if the author was simply asking readers to take his word for things: “Trust me, smoking bans are a bad idea, alright?”. But, of course, neither the IEA nor anyone else involved in serious debate proceeds in that manner. Why should anyone be influenced by mere assertion, whatever the virtues or vices of its sponsor?
Monbiot seems to see political debate as a non-rational process. If people are influenced by an IEA publication, that is not because they have been persuaded by its argument. It is more like a gas attack. We publish a 150 page book full of dense argument about welfare economics, sampling error and the like, and people swoon into a mindless acceptance of the sin-sponsored ideas we are peddling.
Imagine for a moment that he is right in his gas attack theory of political persuasion. What follows? In Monbiot’s view, what follows is that contributions to political debate should be tightly regulated. Here is how he begins his column today:
“How is this acceptable? A multimillionaire City asset manager has pledged to spend up to £700,000 on ousting Labour MPs who campaigned against Brexit. Jeremy Hosking will use his money to ensure that there is as little parliamentary opposition to a hard Brexit as possible. Why should multimillionaires be allowed to try to buy political results?”
But if political persuasion is a kind of mind altering gas attack – if campaigning can simply “ensure” or “buy” results – why should anyone be allowed to use it, multi-millionaire or not? Why is a Labour Party political broadcast any less pernicious than an IEA report on the folly of tobacco regulation?
I do not know if Monbiot has thought this through. But I suspect he believes that only the virtuous should be allowed to wield the powerful gas of political persuasion – good chaps like him and not pro-Brexit multimillionaires. When the voters can so easily be persuaded, only people with the correct opinions should be allowed to do the persuading.
Talk about a threat to democracy!