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Five argumentative fallacies and one methodological fallacy without which degrowth cannot stand

photo of Franco Iacomella

Franco Iacomella
30th June 2012


Excerpted from David De Ugarte in Five argumentative fallacies and one methodological fallacy without which degrowth cannot stand:

“The degrowth arguments form a unique fabric of classic, yet socially widespread, fallacies. Together, they form an argumentative fabric as false as it is seductive, which is able to generate the illusion of rationality, propped up on our own vices and intellectual laziness. However, it’s worth making the effort and coming back around to the perspective of abundance: while capitalism is driving us towards a cliff, degrowth leads us to think like lemmings.

In our debates with catastrophists and degrowthers, five argumentative fallacies and one methodological fallacy appear which are self-reinforcing and form a fabric that is difficult to unravel. In an arena like this, getting into the numbers debate is playing with marked cards in a game whose result is predetermined.

The methodological fallacy is obviously the Ricardian fallacy: accepting that there is predictive value in the results of a forecast made by projecting a single variable and “freezing” all other social factors that influence the studied process.

“If technology remains as it is and the rate of discoveries stays the same, petroleum reserves will run out at such-and-such a time and a sudden lack shortage of energy resources will produce an unprecedented crisis of civilization,” peak-oilers tell us… and they’ve had to correct the date on a half-dozen occasions in 10 years. The last announced date was 2010… and that was corrected, too. Technology evolves at an accelerated rate, and reserves are an economic variable, not a natural one. Economic variables are the result of other variables, and cannot be “frozen” without putting any prediction in doubt.

A similar thing happened to the famous demographer Paul Elrich, updater of Malthusianism. In his book Population Bomb (1970), he predicted a global demographic crisis by the end of the Seventies and the beginning ofthe Eighties with mass starvation in South America, Asia, and Africa. The result, despite the increase in population, was very different.

The Ricardian fallacy “works,” which is to say, we tend to let it slide, because it responds to the need for control and simplification in the 19th-century scientific narrative we were taught. But the fact is, it dramatically reduces the applicability of its own conclusions: it only shows “what would happen if.” And we shouldn’t forget that from the very moment we asked the question, we knew the conditions we put on it wouldn’t be met.”

Continue reading the full essay here.

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3 Responses to “Five argumentative fallacies and one methodological fallacy without which degrowth cannot stand”

  1. Sandwichman Says:

    David de Ugarte correctly identifies some fallacies that underpin the populist notion of “degrowth” but he is wrong in attributing those fallacies to the advocates of degrowth themselves. Rather, the fallacies that infect the degrowth argument are derivative from the noxious metaphor of economic growth itself — the idea that you can bundle abundance and oppression together and quantify the sum. The problem is that degrowth doesn’t make a radical enough conceptual break from the failed metaphor of growth.

    Does de Ugarte make that break? Not in this essay and not in his previous one on “Abundance Utopia and Degrowth.” Instead, he appears to adopt the equally fallacious position that if arguments for degrowth are fallacious, then “the opposite” of degrowth must be true. This is a false dilemma. Actually both growth and degrowth are fallacious because there is no conceptually coherent aggregate there that could perform the requisite growing or not growing. Degrowth at least has the value of drawing attention to the discrepancy, even if the terms in which it does so are flawed.

    It might help de Ugarte’s critique for him to acknowledge that Alfred Marshall — one of the originators of neoclassical economics — offered a similar methodological critique of the ceteris paribus analytical method. And, of course, Marshall’s warning has gone unheeded. There is thus nothing new in pointing out the fallacy of static analysis. Actually similar fallacies have been pointed out throughout the history of political economy. Ironically, the criticism of fallacies has often formed the foundation for the erection of new and more formidable fallacies of the false dilemma or ignoratio elenchi variety.

  2. David de Ugarte Says:

    We are very conscient that «abundance» is not equal to «growth» if you define growth in terms of national (capitalist) accountancy. Indeed an abundance society will be a zero-GNP economy, but we need to emphasize that we want abundance for all, not only for rich countries inhabitants, in other words we want to reject clearly the malthusian-racist message under degrowth

  3. Sandwichman Says:

    I agree that abundance and national income accounting growth are very different things. I admit that there are some advocates of degrowth who present a malthusian-racist message but I don’t think that is representative of the best degrowth thinking or of tendency as a whole. For the most part, what I see is people jumping to a growth-contrarian position as a reaction to the fallacy of growth. While I think such contrarianism is inadequate, I take some comfort in the suspicion that it is transitional. People abandoning one set of truisms are quick to embrace another set somewhat uncritically. I do think it is useful to challenge degrowth as a slogan and point out its conceptual ambiguities and lacunae. But at the same time it is necessary to recognize that those inadequacies are not unique to the degrowth argument.

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