Nation of Beancounters

The false alternative fallacy

Posted in On Discourse by Navin Kumar on January 12, 2013

X and Y are false alternatives if they aren’t either mutually exclusive or (more generally) if we can do one without it coming at the expense of the other.

For example, if we’re trying to boost school attendance, “more toilets” and “more textbooks” are true alternatives since they both cost money, monetary resources are limited and thus one comes at the cost of the other. In contrast, “less corporal punishment” and “more textbooks” are false alternatives – you can do both and one doesn’t come at the cost of the other.

If you claim that we ought be doing X instead of Y, you must support this statement by pointing to some mechanism that structures the two as alternatives. This usually, but not always, entails pointing out some budget constraint. It needn’t be a physical resource – political capital is as much a candidate as limited labour.

This fallacy (and I’m not claiming to discover it) is rather widespread. Rule of thumb: if you can respond to a statement with “why not do both?”, it’s suffering from the false alternative fallacy. Examples:

1. “Instead of telling your daughters not to get raped, tell your sons not to rape”. Why not telltell men to keep their hands to themselves and tell women to be wary of of the one’s who don’t?

2. “Instead of dismantling the poor, we should be lifting them out of poverty” Usually said in the context of organ markets. Why not continue to improve and implement anti-poverty programs and allow the poor to sell their organs if these programs aren’t working?

3. “Instead of bailing out banks, you should help out homeowners” Why not inject liquidity into banks and help homeowners struggling to repay loans?

Things that appear to be linked on the surface might not be. It might seem like banks vs homeowners is a true alternative (governments have a limited amount of money) but it isn’t – banks are far more likely to repay loans than homeowners.

Similarily, things that appear un-linked might be. In example #1 it might well be that by making statements such as “women shouldn’t be out at night”, you’re contributing to a culture where the woman is held responsible and not the man. This would also be an example of non-scarcity driven link.

All mechanisms must be proven empirically or logically – in economic parlance, microfoundations are important.

This fallacy is an example of fallacy of relevance, I think. If I’m wrong, please leave a note in the comments. If this fallacy is already well known under some other name, please let me know.

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  1. Pranay Bhatia said, on January 12, 2013 at 11:49 am

    Your point is well made but can be pushed further.

    Illustrating with an example you use: ““more toilets” and “more textbooks” are true alternatives since they both cost money, monetary resources are limited and thus one comes at the cost of the other.”

    The statement is incomplete.

    Rarely will a budget be structured as “Only toilets and textbooks”. Thus the trade off is not “more toilets” or “more textbooks”, but rather
    1. “more toilets and textbooks but less X”, where X also costs money coming from the same budget pool.
    2. “more toilets and textbooks with efficiency program X” where X saves money in the same budget pool

    Moreover, assuming budgets to be unchangeable is wrong. Even when budgets are structured as a “school infrastructure budget” by the school board, or “education budget” by the state committee, they can be increased by
    1. increasing overall budget pool (by generating higher revenue and/or taking on debt) or
    2. reducing other expenditure within the overall budget pool (through improved efficiency and/or buying less of other stuff)

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