The ThinkProgress article (linked to above) claims that Landsburg "defended Rush Limbaugh’s verbal assault on Sandra Fluke and said the Georgetown student deserved to be mocked." And according to that same article, UR president Joel Seligman expressed "outrage" that a professor would "openly ridicule, mock, or jeer a student in this way."
To be fair to Landsburg, he opens the controversial blog post by distinguishing between the mockery of persons and the mockery of a position, and he is careful to say that it is Fluke's position, not Fluke herself, that should be ridiculed. Here is the full money quote from Landsburg's post:
But while Ms. Fluke herself deserves the same basic respect we owe to any human being, her position — which is what’s at issue here — deserves none whatseover. It deserves only to be ridiculed, mocked and jeered. To treat it with respect would be a travesty. I expect there are respectable arguments for subsidizing contraception (though I am skeptical that there are arguments sufficiently respectable to win me over), but Ms. Fluke made no such argument. All she said, in effect, was that she and others want contraception and they don’t want to pay for it.
To his credit, Rush stepped in to provide the requisite mockery. To his far greater credit, he did so with a spot-on analogy: If I can reasonably be required to pay for someone else’s sex life (absent any argument about externalities or other market failures), then I can reasonably demand to share in the benefits.It's not so clear that Landsburg sticks with his distinction between mocking positions and mocking people when he goes on to question Limbaugh's "slut" label only to suggest that "prostitute" or perhaps "extortionist" would have been better choices. These are terms that apply to people, not positions or arguments. And his failure here may speak to the difficulty of drawing the line that Landsburg wants to draw. Perhaps, by their very nature, ridicule and mockery latch onto people. Can one make a mockery of something someone says without inviting laughter at the person who said it, without inviting others to consider the person a fool? Or is that what mockery is?
I'm not sure, but let's suppose that this is possible--that we can ridicule the things people say while continuing to extend the "basic respect we owe to any human being." The question is how mockery and ridicule should play into public discourse. Can it have a legitimate place when its main target is "ridiculous" statements and arguments as opposed to people?
(Note: As I've argued in different ways here and here, Limbaugh went way beyond ridicule to what amounts to a public verbal equivalent of sexual assault; even if there is a place for ridicule, there is no legitimate place for this. So, my question here should not be construed as about whether there can be a legitimate place in public discourse for what Limbaugh in fact did.)
If there can be a legitimate place for ridicule in public discourse, I would contend that its place must be viewed as supplemental. That is, you must first honestly argue that the statement under attack is ridiculous--that is, expose it as ridiculous--before inviting others to ridicule it. To do this, you have to begin with an honest (and charitable) articulation of what it is you want to critique. Otherwise, there is a real danger of ridiculing a caricature.
And this is something Landsburg doesn't do. He doesn't take the time to actually unpack the substance of Fluke's testimony. If you want to know what Fluke said, you won't have much of a clue after reading Landsburg's post. Landsburg says she doesn't give an argument of any worth. Instead, according to Landsburg, "All she said...was that she and others want contraception and they don’t want to pay for it."
Is that really all she said? No. Among other things, part of Fluke's testimony was that birth control pills are actually the proper medical treatment for certain recognized--and potentially life-threatening--medical conditions. She came to speak about a friend who had such a condition, and who lost an ovary because Georgetown wouldn't support health insurance policies that cover contraception.
More significantly, Fluke was offering testimony--that is, she was calling public attention to facts and considerations that might need to be considered in our public thinking. Offering testimony isn't the same as giving an argument--even if some testimonty gestures to an argument, and sometimes testimony comes complete with an argument. If the costs of pharmaceutical contraception--and the effects that these costs can have on the decision to use such contraceptives--may be relevant to the public controversy about the contraception mandate, then having someone testify to those costs is important even if the person delivering that testimony isn't developing a full-fledged argument using the information.
But Landsburg treats Fluke's supposed failure to give an argument as sufficient to warrant ridicule. To ridicule testimony for failing to be what it doesn't have to be in order to be useful testimony--well, that's unreasonable. If you want to make the case that the facts represented in the testimony are mistaken, that is worth doing...but Landsburg doesn't do that. If you want to make the case that the facts being testified to have no bearing on the question at issue, then you have to give an argument to that effect. Simply resorting to ridicule doesn't help decide the relevance of a piece of information.
So, even if we assume that ridicule can have a place in public discourse, it would seem that it has to be a supplement to honestly (a) characterizing and (b) critiquing what is being ridiculed--and neither Limbaugh nor Landsburg do this.
But maybe I've been too quick in dismissing Landsburg. Perhaps he is gesturing to an argument in his post. Although Landsburg clearly misses a crucial part of Fluke's testimony--about the serious medical uses for birth control pills--another feature of her testimony had to do with the cost of contraceptives. Maybe, if we narrow Landsburg's dismissal to this part of Fluke's testimony, he has the basis for an argument that this information isn't relevant to the public debate.
But what would that argument be? It isn't entirely clear, but the gist of his case seems to be summarized in the following sober statement of Rush's abuse-riddled commentary: "If I can reasonably be required to pay for someone else’s sex life (absent any argument about externalities or other market failures), then I can reasonably demand to share in the benefits."
How do we charitably develop this into an argument? Here's one way to do it: (1) If a health insurance company through whom I have a policy covers the birth control pill, this amounts to me being required to pay for someone else's sex life. (2) All else being equal, I can be legitimately required to pay for something that another person enjoys only if I can be extended a right to demand a share in the benefits. (3) All else is equal. (4) Therefore, a health insurance company through whom I have a policy can legitimately cover the birth control pill only if I can be extended a right to demand a share in the benefits of others' sex lives. (5) But, it would be wrong for anyone to be extended such a right. (6) Therefore, it is wrong for health insurance companies to cover birth control--since doing so would be permissible only if accompanied by the conferral on all policy-holders of a right that cannot legitimately be conferred.
If this is the argument, then it rests on at least one false premise, namely (1). I've already addressed some problems with this premise in an earlier post--in brief, that it equates (i) paying for a policy that provides coverage for a whole host of possible expenses, most of which a given policyholder will never incur, with (ii) paying for one of those expenses (in this case the price of pharmaceutical contraceptives) incurred by policy holders other than oneself. If I have a minor shoulder injury whose only effect on my life is that it impedes my capacity to play my violin, my health insurance policy will cover this. Does that mean all policy holders are paying for me to play my violin? Or is it better to say they are paying a monthly premium so that if they face something similar, they'll be covered?
There are differences between covering birth control that is being prescribed to suppress fertility and covering treatment for an illness or injury--differences that make a big difference from the standpoint of Roman Catholic natural law theory--but that is a different issue, and what it gives rise to is a very different argument against covering contraceptive, based on a certain conception of what constitutes health care (one rooted in natural law). What I want to consider here is Landsburg's argument rooted in the idea that you're paying for someone else to have sex if your health insurance policy covers contraception (a coverage of which, like so much else in the policy, you may never personally avail yourself).
In considering this argument further, I want to focus on a different consideration than I've laid out before, one that is likely to speak to an economist. The problem is this: I'm not subsidizing someone having sex if my insurance policy premiums help to pay for birth control, because you don't need birth control in order to have sex. What I'm paying for, if anything, is for others not to get pregnant when they have sex.
And here's the thing: Every single health insurance policy out there that I know of covers the costs associated with pregnancy and child birth. And those costs far exceed the costs of contraception. So, covering contraception isn't paying someone to have sex--for which I then can supposedly claim a right to enjoy the benefits. Covering contraception is a way to reduce the number of pregnancies that result from people covered by the policy having sex. And reducing the number of pregnancies can be construed as a cost saving measure. So, covering contraception doesn't force other policy holders to pay for the sex lives of the sexually active policy holders. Rather, it reduces the costs of health insurance policies by reducing how often policy holders have to pay for the pregnancy and childbirth costs of other policy holders.
In this respect, coverage of contraception operates from a financial standpoint a bit like coverage of preventive medical screenings. Are you paying for other people to be screened for cancers you are not personally susceptible to if, by paying for the screenings, the insurance company saves money in the long run and thus helps keep your premium lower than it might otherwise be?
I suppose Landsburg could argue that if my health insurance policy covers the costs of pregnancy and childbirth, then I am paying for other people to have children and that, as a result, I should have a right to share in the benefits (visitation rights, maybe?). And since I can't claim such a right, insurance companies should stop covering the costs of pregancy and childbirth forthwith. This does seem to be a parallel argument. If Landsburg takes his original argument seriously, he should also take this one seriously--and claim that the way to avoiding forcing people to "pay" for other people's sex lives is to stop paying for pregnancy and childbirth care as well as contraception. But if so, it seems to show that there's something amiss in Landsburg's overall reasoning.
In fact there is. His argument just isn't any good at all, as far as I can see. And that's the problem with appealing to ridicule as your "go to" strategy: If you'd taken the time first to carefully lay out your case for the conclusion that someone is being ridiculous, you might discover that your case isn't very good.
At this point, I might--following the principle that ridicule has a place after you've demonstrated that some line of thinking isn't any good--launch into some colorful metaphor ridiculing an academic at my alma mater and inviting people to laugh at his silly arguments. But this last move strikes me as needless and probably unhelpful.
(Addendum: Blog posts are often written off the cuff, and so it would be unfair to evaluate Landsburg's overall merits as an academic--either as a scholar or as a teacher--in terms of a single blog post that wasn't sufficiently thought through. It seems clear that Landsburg's comments do not rise to the level of indecency that we find in Limbaugh, even if Landsburg failed to appreciate the indecency of Limbaugh. It also seems clear that Landsburg wants to distinguish between ridiculing people and ridiculing their positions, wants to discourage the former even as he endorses the appropriateness of the latter, and wants to stress the importance of showing due respect. By all means point out what you think to be Landsburg's poor reasoning. By all means express disapproval of his position in silent protests. But to treat Landsburg's comments as if they were anywhere near as serious as what Limbaugh did would be similar in absurdity to equating Kennedy's remarks to Limbaugh's. It would trivialize what Limbaugh did. Landsburg clearly failed to appreciate the severity of what Limbaugh was doing, but failure to appreciate the gravity of an offense--perhaps by virtue of a too-cursory reflection in it--is not the same as committing the offense.)