Simplicity of argument is a dangerous heuristic

As a society, we tend to use an argument's simplicity as a heuristic for its strength. When faced with two arguments, the simpler argument has a decided advantage. As a result we're constantly pushed to make arguments shorter and more memorable. TV heads try to deliver 5 or 10-second sound bites to sell a policy position. Movie advertisers won't sell a movie they can't make a convincing case for in a 30 second commercial. Politicians use frames as one-word arguments: pro-choice vs. pro-life; protectionism vs. food security; the "death tax."

When humans lived in tribes I can imagine that this heuristic served us well. Economies and societies were simpler. There was no government, and not a whole lot of complex interaction between sectors of an economy. Simple arguments were best for the tribe.

In today's world simple arguments can wreak devastating damage. Better phrased, arguments cannot be ruled out because they are complex.Price controls are a great example of a simple, deadly argument. The argument is that when prices for basic goods are too high the government should set a lower price so that people can afford the good. Conversely, if prices are too low have a price floor so that producers don't lose money. It sounds dangerous to let prices float around unsupported, and let industries shrink and expand at the market's will. But the free market has been shown time after time to be the best system for economic growth that we know. The arguments for price controls, supports, "gas tax holidays," central planning and such are economic losers, but they remain popular because the rebuttals to each argument are more complicated.

There are two possibilities; either free marketeers will continue to fail because the arguments for free trade, against price restrictions, windfall taxes, and "gas tax holidays" are more complex than the arguments against them. Or, our society will move away from using an argument's simplicity as a heuristic for its strength, at least where the economy is concerned. I'm not hopeful.

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