The Overuse of Godwin's Law
Godwin's Law often serves a useful purpose: References to Hitler, Nazism, or the Holocaust are conversation stoppers, inappropriate for use as analogies when less extreme analogies would suffice.
But invoking Godwin's Law can itself be carried too far. Sometimes analogies to the Holocaust, Nazism, or Hitler are not just perfectly relevant, but useful and more informative than any other conceivable analogy. There are things worth learning from historic crimes, and to remove these crimes from rational discourse is not only an insult to the victims of those crimes (who ask us to not forget their history but to learn from it so that it never happens again) but is also to commit the same type of intellectual error as violating Godwin's Law itself, by closing off discussion too early.
Phoebe Maltz has an article in a recent issue of the fusionist magazine Doublethink (unfortunately the article is not available online) titled "The End of Anti-Semitism." Maltz argues that because of the Holocaust, it is now next to impossible to accuse someone or something of being anti-Semitic, because unless the offense rises to the level of the Holocaust itself, the accuser is brushed off as engaging in hyperbole. There seems to be no middle ground anymore: either someone is Judeophile or the second coming of Adolf.
Part of this problem arose because of bigots themselves, who defended themselves against charges of bigotry by making claims like, "I can't be a racist because I don't want to reenslave black people, I just want to live separately from them."
So, the example that inspired this post. As anyone who has argued with an anti-immigrant restrictionist well knows, the first argument they use is an appeal to positive legal authority. In this thread on remittances, TLB from The Lone Wacko blog claims that politicians who oppose crackdowns on illegal immigration and accept money from campaign groups who share their views are PoliticallyCorrupt (Lone Wacko's unique style of overcapitalization and under use of the spacebar), while politicians who enforce crackdowns on illegal immigrants and accept lobbyist money from anti-immigrant interest groups are presumably just HonestPatriots doing their jobs.
Um, no Lonewacko, the politicians enforcing unjust laws are the ones who are corrupt. An unjust law is no law at all and can (and should!) be routinely violated. Your fetish for respecting unjust laws is… disturbing. I’m glad Anne Frank never tried to hide in your attic.
Notice: the comment from Micha Ghertner is not a new low for libertarians, just one of a very long series of extreme lows.
I hasten to add that since I don’t know what the situation is in their universe, in ours we will always have borders and enforcement for them, otherwise billions of people would try to come here with (to we sane people) predictable results. Also, in our universe living in MX is not akin to facing going to the gas chambers.
I mean, really.
Notice how the conversation subtly shifts away from the issue of whether or not one has a duty to follow an unjust law, and to the separate issue of what the utilitarian consequences of open borders might be. TLB clearly does not want to answer the question asked of him.
Complain all you want, TLB, but you have ignored the question. Does an unjust law demand respect or not? Is it corrupt to violate an unjust law, or is it corrupt to enforce an unjust law? The Anne Frank analogy points directly to these questions. You don’t wish to answer because answering means acknowledging either than unjust laws demand no respect and that to enforce them is itself corrupt, or it means acknowledging that you would have turned Anne Frank in to the authorities. In the first case, you would be contradicting your own stated “enforce the law” fetish; in the second case you would look like a monster. You choose.
And your claim that “billions” (plural!) would try to enter and live permanently in the U.S. in the absence of international apartheid belies a tremendous ignorance of economics. World population is currently 6.7 billion. If we take your claim on its own terms, and assume that immigrants make conditions in the U.S. less attractive and not more, then it is preposterous to assume that 25% or more (i.e. “billions”) of the world’s population would immigrate here, unless we first ignore the dynamic effects of immigration itself. The more people arrive - assuming as you do that immigration is a net harm - the less attractive immigration becomes to potential immigrants, and thus immigration tapers off at an equilibrium.
But, then, explaining basic economics to anti-immigration bigots is never an easy task.
Now, at this point I figured the conversation was pretty much over. I never really expected TLB to answer my question, because to do so would either be to admit that he would have in fact worked with the Nazis since he has such high respect for "The Law", or it would mean he would have to acknowledge that not all government-made laws are worthy of respect, which would remove the anti-immigrationist's main talking point. I made the argument for the benefit of any inlookers, who were not as fully convinced as TLB was that laws deserve respect no matter their content and no matter their congruence with actual justice.
But commenter Ben jumped right in with what inspired this digression on Godwin's Law:
Micha, you’ll want to study up on Godwin’s Law to avoid derailing a potentially interesting conversation. This thread is officially over and you’ve officially lost.
Sorry, Ben, but Godwin’s Law cuts both ways. It is true that one should not overuse extreme analogies, especially when they are totally inappropriate and uncalled for given the specific situation, but at the same time, this cannot mean that all extreme analogies are at all times inappropriate, or else whatever we might potentially learn from past tragedies would be forever lost as a source of moral education and wisdom.
Invoking Godwin’s Law when a Hitler, Nazi, or Holocaust analogy is actually relevant is just as much of a logical error and conversation stopper as invoking a Nazi analogy when doing so is irrelevant to the argument. Godwin’s Law does not and cannot mean that all discussion involving what we might learn from the experience of the Holocaust is totally out of bounds for rational discussion.
And the Anne Frank analogy is not just completely relevant to this particular discussion, it is also frequently used in moral philosophy as an example of what is wrong with overly-legalistic ethical systems such as strict interpretations of Kantian deontology. If it is the case that one must never tell a lie no matter the consequences, then it must also be the case that one must give an honest and correct answer to Nazi officers if they ask you if you are hiding any Jews in your attic. And since most people rightfully recognize such a conclusion as morally outrageous, we are able to see what is wrong with strict obedience to immoral government laws.