The appeal to consequences or argumentum ad consequentiam is an argument in which the proposition is deemed true or false depending upon whether it leads to favorable or unfavorable consequences. It is a fallacy. In his column on the Obama Administration’s wildly optimistic early estimates of the state of the economy David Leonhardt observes
The first explanation is that the economy has deteriorated because the stimulus package failed. Some critics say that stimulus just doesn’t work, while others argue that this particular package was too small or too badly constructed to make a difference.
The second answer is that the economy has deteriorated in spite of the stimulus. In other words, the patient is not as sick as he would have been without the medicine he received. But he is a lot sicker than doctors realized when they prescribed it.
To me, the evidence is fairly compelling that the second answer is the right one. The stimulus package does seem to have helped. But its impact has been minor — so far — compared with the harshness of the Great Recession.
It strikes me as a fine example of the appeal to consequences. If in fact the stimulus failed and by failed I mean failed because its premise was wrong, then there’s very little we can do other than to weather out the storm and ameliorate the conditions of those in need as best as we are able.
I think it’s arguable that the stimulus package was intended to fail. My preference would have been to frontload the stimulus with more measures likely to pump money into the economy fast. Instead of that the stimulus was structured in such a way that much of the spending comes just in time for the midterm elections. That’s not a confidence builder for me. Arguing that it was structured that way to prevent a double-dip recession is like looking five moves down the road for the endgame while not realizing that your opponent will place you in checkmate in the next move.
What is the empirical evidence that the stimulus has prevented things from getting worse?
Tigerhawk agrees that Mr. Leonhardt’s column is fallacious but his pick for the fallacy is the false dichotomy:
The author of the article suggests that there are two possible explanations — that the stimulus has not worked, or that the economy was in much worse shape than understood and would be even worse without the stimulus — and elects the second. There is, of course, a third, which is that the Obama administration could not honestly forecast the depth of the recession (even as it was pushing for the stimulus package) because then the Congressional Budget Office would have projected deficits even worse than now foreseen, and that would stoke opposition to President Obama’s vast and expensive program to redesign the health care, energy, and financial sectors of the economy. Call me a cynic, but I pick the third.