A Tale Of Two Fallacies

   By VennerRoad, 5th Apr 2017

An old belief, custom or practice may have no merit, but unlike a new one, it has a track record, something you should always bear in mind.

Cannabis was once legal.

There are literally hundreds of different types of fallacy, but two of the best known, even if the relevant Latin phrases are not, are argumentum ad antiquitatem and argumentum ad novitatem. Even if English is not your first language you have probably sussed what they mean: the former is the belief that old ideas have merit; the latter that new or novel ones do.

In one sense there is nothing new under the Sun; technology aside, human nature and behaviour are much the same as they have always been, but by the same token, every old belief/idea/practice was once a new one. One would hope that bad ideas will eventually die out, or at worst will be held only by tiny groups of profusely ignorant people, but that is not necessarily the case. If though the choice is between a new idea and an old one, the old one is generally to be preferred because if nothing else it has a track record. It may have that track record for the wrong reasons, but someone or some institution is almost certainly benefitting from it.

This is nowhere demonstrated better than in the application of the criminal law. A couple of examples will suffice. Statutes of limitations in legal proceedings were implemented for very good reasons, including the fragility of human memory. This was recognised long before the pioneering work of Elizabeth Loftus and her team demonstrated how easy it is to induce false memories in even well-balanced people with the Lost In The Mall Experiment and The Bunny Effect.

In England, statutes of limitations have long been applied in civil cases, but not in criminal ones. In the United States in recent years a concerted and partially successful attack has been made on statutes of limitations in criminal, particularly sexual, cases. If Gloria Allred and her gang get their way, we will see in the United States what we have seen in the UK, namely demented females - and males - claiming to have been sexually molested or raped decades previously by teachers, neighbours and others, a process that will result in innocent and at times quite elderly men having their lives and families torn apart as corrupt or simply gullible police officers trawl for victims - as in the Cliff Richard case - in order to bolster the fantasy of repressed memories and the reality of pseudologia fantastica.

At the time of writing there is a push in the UK for even more increased state surveillance and snooping through the Digital Economy Bill and others. The usual platitudes are trotted out: the need to protect the young from sexual exploitation, to fight organised crime, and now much in the news, to fight terror. After all, if you're not with us, you're with the terrorists, right? The men who framed the United States Constitution, Magna Carta, the Code of Hammurabi, may have lived in a world without Windows 10, antibiotics or even electricity, but they were light years ahead of us because they understood human nature. They realised as did Lord Acton that power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.

The legal authorities in especially the UK already have Draconian powers of surveillance, something that was exposed not simply before the world had heard of Edward Snowden but before he was born. Yet they have been unable to prevent most of the recent terror attacks that have been carried out in Western nations.

There is though one problem to which many in law enforcement and social policy making are slowly waking up, that is the issue of drug prohibition. The use of recreational drugs is a scourge that destroys lives, that is a matter of record, but the cure, implemented especially from the 1950s, is worse than the disease. The obvious parallel is that of the so-called Prohibition Era in the United States which criminalised the consumption of alcohol. In Islamic societies where there are deeply ingrained social taboos against all manner of haram practices, this is not an issue, but in a country that is as addicted to alcohol as it is to guns, it could only spell trouble. The result was that the price of this now illegal substance rose exponentially, which drew in not simply people out to make a quick buck but organised criminal gangs. There were turf wars, murders, and in many places a total undermining of not only law enforcement but local government. Why should the police and other public servants enforce unpopular laws thereby transferring the contempt of the public to themselves, especially when they were not averse to a tipple? We have seen the same problems with recreational drugs, although on a much larger scale.

There are many other fields of especially government and public policy in which supposedly radical new approaches and practices are applied because they are new and radical, or simply for the sake of change. Anyone in government or out, at any level, international, national, or personal, should bear in mind that simple maxim: if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Or at the very least, think very carefully about the possible consequences before you do.

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