Vice President Biden created a stir in a speech in Flint, Michigan by claiming that by opposing the Administration’s latest Stimulus bill, Republicans would force cuts in police and as a consequence rape and murder rates would rise. Biden cited as proof what turned out to be bogus statistics on crime in Flint. Not only were the data faulty, the logic of the argument fails as well. Opposition to a particular program does not logically equate to opposing the goals of the program.
Biden was apparently given some bad statistics by Flint officials, so he thought rape and murder had gone up substantially in the past few years as the police force was reduced. Actually it didn’t. But let’s suppose that the crime rates did rise. What would that prove?
Many factors influence crime rates, so if crime rates rise or fall we cannot necessarily attribute the change to the size of the police force. One factor, for example, is law enforcement policy. Crime rates dropped dramatically in New York City after policy was changed to vigorously enforce the laws against relatively minor crimes. The criminals taken off the street for minor crimes were also responsible for major crimes.
Other factors include changes in the laws themselves, the effects of court decisions on the rights of the accused, and the policies of prosecutors. Social trends also influence crime rates. An uptick in gang activity or drug trafficking may drive up crime rates. Over the long term demographics affects crime rates; older people commit fewer crimes.
There are also raw statistical variations; in Flint there were hundreds of crimes, not the tens of thousands needed for reliable statistics.
Using data from a single city to claim cause and effect due to the size of police force is false, but there is another fallacy. It is reasonable to suppose that if all other factors are equal more police would arrest more criminals and we would deter crime. So even if the specifics Biden cited were in error, isn’t it the generality true that Republicans are facilitating crime by opposing the latest Stimulus? No, it’s not true, and the reason is what I’m calling the Biden Fallacy.
There are two cases to consider. The first case is that crime rates are acceptable relative to other spending priorities. What, crime can be acceptable? Make a list of all the things that are unacceptable: world hunger, poor healthcare, terrorism, air pollution, traffic deaths … With a little effort, one can list dozens of genuinely significant problems in society. Citing any one of them as unacceptable does not make the case that we ought to cut back on spending on all the others in favor of the one cited.
It also does not make the case that the particular problem is best solved by more taxes and government spending. Each increment of taxation reduces the freedom of the individual, and that loss of personal freedom is balanced against societal goals. Perhaps the status quo is acceptable after all, or perhaps it is a problem that can be solved by changing laws or policies. It might be a problem for individuals to treat, perhaps with more attention to their personal security.
Having first considered the possibility that government was spending enough, the second case is that the people agree that more money should be spent by government on crime. The Biden Fallacy is to suppose that passing a particular program, in this case the new Stimulus, follows from agreeing that something should be done. An alternative is that since more police are needed and there is high unemployment, that we ought to cut police retirement benefits to pay for more active officers. Biden might have given the same speech, only with the punch line changed to say that the costs of policing must be reduced.
The need for more policing doesn’t inevitably lead to any specific way of providing it. All the alternatives should be considered. Policing has traditionally been a local responsibility, so having the Federal government assume the burden is not a necessity. There are many other possibilities: cutting other areas of government to pay for it, changing laws or policies, and encouraging more individual responsibility for security. It’s a matter for debate.
The fallacy is supposing that opposition to a particular program is opposition to the goal. Republicans can be opposed to crime, but not favor a new Stimulus as the remedy. In fact, it’s quite possible to be opposed to crime but feel that other problems are more pressing.