CoyoteBlog had a good post discussing a common political tactic: Party A criticizes a policy or practice of party B, and party B responds, in effect, "Well, you did it first." CoyoteBlog characterizes this as tu quoque:
. . . . a Latin term that describes a kind of logical fallacy. A tu quoque argument attempts to discredit the opponent’s position by asserting his failure to act consistently in accordance with that position; it attempts to show that a criticism or objection applies equally to the person making it. It is considered an ad hominem argument, since it focuses on the party itself, rather than its positions.
I'm going to dissent a bit. Like CoyoteBlog, I will use the Obama Administration's penchant for czars, which Patrick savaged here.
Look, if someone stood up and said "Let us debate. Resolved: the use of 'czars' is a poor practice which we should henceforth avoid," then I think it would unquestionably be tu quoque to respond "hey, your party's President used them first!" That would be non-responsive. A logical and responsive argument might employ prior use as one element ("Czars are effective for reasons x, y, and z. Prior administrations have used them successfully."). But "you sucked before we sucked" is a poor response to the exhortation "let's stop sucking."
However, let's face it — most political arguments are not so pure. Most attacks on Obama Administration czars, for instance, are not pure propositions that the use of czars is bad practice. Rather, most have other arguments embedded in them, explicitly or implicitly:
- I oppose President Obama because he has appointed czars, and czars are bad.
- President Obama is destroying American democracy by using czars, which are bad.
- President Obama's radical agenda includes using czars, which are bad.
- People should be OUTRAGED that President Obama has adopted the language of totalitarianism by using czars, which are bad.
In each case, the portion I have italicized reflects an additional argument — usually a purely partisan argument — beyond the argument "czars are bad." In each case, the argument "Wait a minute — czars have been used before, and the country didn't collapse" is pertinent. In several cases, the argument "you never said boo about this when your party was doing it" is also pertinent. The proposition I condemn President Obama for using czars contains the premise "this is why I am condemning President Obama." The response "this evidence suggests that you are condemning President Obama for some other reason, because you have failed to condemn other Presidents for doing the same" is directly responsive to that portion of the argument, though it fails to address the "czars are bad" portion. This is especially true when the arguments include appeals to authority, as they often do: "I've been a Congressman for 20 years and I've never seen anything so outrageous."
In case it isn't clear — and it ought to be — I think that both sides use tu quoque and falsely cry tu quoque in various circumstances. Take, for instance, Congressional rules limiting minority-party rights, holding up judicial appointees in committee, etc. In each case, it would be better if we could have an open debate on the substance. However, that does not mean that when politicians and commentators offer critiques that combine substantive and partisan elements, the partisan elements must go unrebutted.
And let's not forget that accusing nearly every politician of hypocrisy and dishonesty is an essential component of keeping them in their place and reminding the public at large that they are all unworthy of respect or trust. I refuse to bow to a logical scheme that says I can't make fun of David "Huggies" Vitter when he says ACORN ought to be condemned for promoting prostitution.
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