The Hypocrisy-Charge Bias

There is a type of a bias that is so common in political commentary that it deserves a name. An example of this bias is exhibited by Brian Tamanaha over at the Balkinization Blog. Tamanaha notes that many Republicans in 2003 asserted strong arguments against judicial filibusters. But now that the Republicans will only have a minority of the Senate, with a Democratic President, they will have an incentive to engage in judicial filibusters. Tamanaha sarcastically writes, there is “nothing to worry about” because the Republican will no doubt continue their previous position opposing judicial filibusters. Obviously Tamanaha is charging the Republicans with hypocrisy, predicting that they will not conform to their stated principles.   

So far there is no bias, just a prediction of hypocrisy. The bias occurs when one realizes that the prediction of inconsistency is equally applicable to the Democrats. If the Republicans choose to filibuster, one could equally expect the Democrats to criticize such filibusters, even though the Democrats defended judicial filibusters in 2003.  So the charge of hypocrisy against the Republicans is equally applicable to the Democrats. Yet, Tamanaha says not a word about the Democrats. He can only see the hypocrisy of his opponents: hence the bias.

Once one identifies this bias – accusing one’s political opponents of inconsistency or hypocracy, but ignoring its equal application to one’s political friends – it seems to pop up everywhere. It is committed by Democrats, Republicans, liberals, and conservatives.

What is going on? Obviously, people are both good at discovering, and bothered by, the inconsistency of their political opponents. They are not so quick to discover their own team’s inconsistencies.

One way to think about this is that commentators who commit the hypocrisy-charge bias are not commenting on political events but are actually engaged in them. When Tamanaha suggests that the Republicans will not follow their stated principles, he is, as a Democrat, attacking Republicans. That his criticism also applies to Democrats does not matter. That is not his point. It is only a observer of political events who would be concerned in this situation with the fact that both parties are likely to change their principles because their interests have changed. 

Posted by: Mike Rappaport

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  • TGGP

    Orin Kerr actually was symmetric in his discussion of hypocrisy, including on this issue.
    http://volokh.com/posts/1225858249.shtml

  • http://shagbark.livejournal.com Phil Goetz

    There is a subtlety in that it is not always hypocritical to criticize a practice and engage in it. It isn’t hypocritical for someone to criticize the fact that PAC money is allowed, and still take PAC money, any more than it is for a basketball coach to criticize the 3-point long-shot basket rule, and yet still take the 3 points as long as that rule stands.

  • Constant

    So in brief, attacks on the hypocrisy of others are often hypocritical.

  • http://yudkowsky.net/ Eliezer Yudkowsky

    But Phil, it would still be hypocritical to criticize someone else for criticizing a practice and engaging in it, while engaging in the practice of criticizing a practice and engaging in it yourself. That’s the whole point of the post.

    Phil, remind me whether you’re a computer programmer or not?

  • http://thomblake.com Thom Blake

    Eliezer, I don’t get the impression that’s the point of this post (though it should have been). It seems that rapsmith takes it on face value that both sides are being hypocritical, while the only hypocrisy being perpetrated is the one you mentioned (not explicitly mentioned in the post).

  • Steve Downing

    Phil makes a pretty good point. But more than that, I think that a charge of hypocrisy is usually just an ad hominem argument.

    Generally speaking, lies are bad for the world. I have lied. I’ve even done it on occasion in full awareness that it was a net negative for the world and only good for me. It’s hypocritical (to at least some degree) of me to advocate telling the truth in nearly all circumstances, but I still should and I still do.

    If someone acts hypocritically, what it generally means is that they’re selfish, weak, or stupid (usually some combination). However, arguing on those grounds doesn’t address the substance of their hypocritical argument.

    Worse, I think too often, people fail to advocate good ideas because they know that they would be hypocritical in doing so.

    Calling hypocrisy is fine as a personal attack, but it’s important to remember that that’s what it is.

  • HH

    Isn’t this just a manifestation of common self-serving biases? It behooves me for people to think that I’m not hypocritical, so I’ll try to deceive them to think I’m not hypocritical, and that’s most effective if I actually believe I’m not hypocritical. On the other side, it behooves me to accurately gauge others, so there is no such deception with regard to the other side. As a result, most charges of hypocrisy are themselves hypocritical.

    I think rather than a new bias, we’ve found a manifestation of an existing one.

  • Raoul Duke

    Seems like the old truism: We judge ourselves by our motivations, others by their actions.

  • http://www.philosophyetc.net Richard

    Steve – it’s not “hypocrisy” to fail to live up to your own standards. Hypocrisy is when you insincerely publicly affirm a principle that you don’t truly (privately) endorse.

    People often confuse the two — perhaps understandably, since failure to live up to publicly-affirmed standards is at least prima facie evidence that you don’t really take those standards so seriously — but it’s worth keeping clear on the difference.

  • http://profile.typekey.com/halfinney/ Hal Finney

    Whether it is new or not, it is certainly a common (and annoying!) tactic in politics. One thing that limits it is that usually the other side has an equally strong case to make against the critic, as noted in the post here. I have many times seen such charges of hypocrisy tossed back and forth on political talk shows, which always makes the participants look rather foolish. The tactic is more effective in writing since usually the other side is not present to respond.

    The fact remains that the charges of hypocrisy are valid – parties swap positions regularly depending on who holds power. I’m sure we will soon see Republicans inveighing against the excessive power of the chief executive while Democrats are more willing to grant the President leeway, the opposite of the political alignment under the Republican administration. It means that neither side is taking a position based on principle, but is motivated by expediency. It’s too bad, but of course that’s the way the world works.

  • Tyrrell McAllister

    Phil Goetz: There is a subtlety in that it is not always hypocritical to criticize a practice and engage in it. It isn’t hypocritical for someone to criticize the fact that PAC money is allowed, and still take PAC money, any more than it is for a basketball coach to criticize the 3-point long-shot basket rule, and yet still take the 3 points as long as that rule stands.

    This isn’t an example of “criticiz[ing] a practice and engag[ing] in it”. Eliezer was wrong to (appear to) concede this.

    The coach is “tak[ing] the 3 points as long as that rule stands.” But the coach doesn’t criticize other coaches for doing that. That would be hypocracy. Rather, the coach is criticizing the practice of letting the rule stand. So, unless the coach himself is responsible for letting the rule stand, he’s not criticizing what he engages in.

  • Yellow

    I agree with HH that this is just an instance of self-serving bias as applied to in-group/out-group members with respect to politics.

  • http://profile.typepad.com/6p010536355ce8970c/ Randy Ridenour

    I grant that the original case is an instance of hypocrisy, but I’m not convinced that it is a bias. There’s no reason to suppose that Tamanaha is guilty of a systematic reasoning error. I was convinced until the last paragraph, where it was pointed out that Tamanaha is engaging in political activity. If so, then it may well be the case that he does see his hypocrisy, but has good reason to be a hypocrite, if it serves his political ends. There are many reasons why such hypocrisy is bad overall, but that doesn’t in itself mean that it’s a reasoning bias. Not all hypocrisy is blind hypocrisy,

  • Consumatopia

    If the Republicans choose to filibuster, one could equally expect the Democrats to criticize such filibusters, even though the Democrats defended judicial filibusters in 2003.

    Two faults here. One is that criticizing the filibusters doesn’t mean criticizing them as unconsitutional, which was the issue in the 109th. A Democrat could still admit that the Republican has the right to filibuster while pointing out that they are hypocrites if they exercise that right.

    But even if Democrats took the same “nuclear option” in the 111th that Republicans almost took in the 109th, it’s not the same thing.

    You’re forgetting about the “Gang of 12” compromise, in which Republicans got most of their nominees in exchange for not deploying the nuclear option. No one was defending judicial filibusters as some kind of categorical imperative–filibusters in general are just a Senate tradition, a sort of tit-for-tat equilibrium, an application of the Golden Rule, a social norm that the majority grants the minority so that, when the rainy day comes and they become the minority, they will still have some say in Senate process.

    The Gang of 12 compromise deeply disturbed that equilibrium. It would be absurd for Democrats to accept a new norm of “judicial filibusters are valid unless the president is Republican”, but that’s what you’re insisting is the only non-hypocritical Democratic position.

  • Steve Downing

    Richard:
    That may or may not be the case. But semantics aside, claiming insincerity on the part of your opponent still doesn’t address the substance of their argument.

  • Mike Rappaport

    Consumatopia — Neither of your claims about my post are correct.

    First, the Republicans claimed that the filibusters were both unconstitutional and improper. The Democrats denied both in the 109th. Thus, if the Democrats claim they are improper, there would be an inconsistency. Further, Tamanaha make the point about opposition to the filibuster without specifying the ground of opposition.

    Second, the Gang of 12 (6 Democrats, 6 Republicans) compromise was criticized by the Republicans that Tamanaha mentioned. That the compromise occured says nothing about what most Republicans wanted. Nor was it necessarily what most Democrats wanted. Thus, the Democratic position in favor of filibusters has not been superseded.

  • Lord

    One can criticize the reasons for a filibuster or the process of a filibuster. Will we see a majority of Democrats opposing the process of a filibuster as we saw a majority of Republicans opposing it? Seems extremely unlikely. Now some Republicans may support it even if the majority continue to oppose it, but that is all it takes. If those that opposed it then now use it, that would be bypocrisy, just as if those that supported it then would be guilty of it if they now opposed it, in process not in reasoning. Will you see the former or the latter? I think the former more likely and the latter highly unlikely.

  • Lord

    More simply, a Republican that previously opposed it has a great incentive to be hypocritical, whereas a Democrat the previously supported it has very little.

  • Consumatopia

    In support of Lord’s point, note that the six Democratic members of the Gang of 12 agreed to vote against most but not all judicial filibusters. Unless you want to call Dems who voted for cloture on Roberts and Alito hypocrites, you have to recognize there’s some assymmetry here. Nobody was saying that all judicial filibusters should be sustained, but some people were saying that no judicial filibusters should be sustained. Those people are in greater danger of hypocrisy than their opponents.

    And regarding the Gang of 12 further, as you say, the minority Democrats did not get all that they wanted. Why should Republicans–with a significantly smaller minority than 109th Dems–get everything they want? You can’t talk about “Democratic position” like it’s a thing outside time–the Democratic position in 2005 was adherence to norms and tradition, but “nuclear option” brinkmanship and the Gang of 12 de facto changed those norms. It would be illogical for Dems to maintain the same position today.

  • http://entitledtoanopinion.wordpress.com TGGP

    Also, who is this rapsmith character?

  • http://entitledtoanopinion.wordpress.com TGGP

    I must have skipped past the bottom of the post. Nice to have you here, Mr. Rappaport. Do you have another webpage as many other contributors here do?

  • http://profile.typekey.com/rapsmith/ Mike Rappaport

    TGGP — Thanks for the welcome. I am a longtime reader of OB and also blog at The Right Coast, a law professor blog. See http://rightcoast.typepad.com/rightcoast/. My webpage is http://home.sandiego.edu/~miker/

  • http://profile.typekey.com/rapsmith/ Mike Rappaport

    The comments of Consumatopia and Lord are interesting. They persist in attempting to show — well it is not exactly clear, but my best guess is — that the Democrats are more justified in changing their position or less likely to change their position. I find their arguments quite weak, and even if they are right, it is not clear what their argument would prove. But I don’t care to debate that question. What is interesting is that they don’t want to discuss the bias, but want to engage the political issue. Clearly, there is something about politics that gets people going — much like religion. A very old point I know, but still one not sufficiently appreciated.

    Posted by Mike Rappaport

  • http://wolog.net/ Ping

    I think you’re avoiding the substance of the dispute, Mike. Your argument that there is bias depends on your statement that the charge of hypocrisy against the Republicans is “equally applicable” to the Democrats (your words). Consumatopia and Lord are disputing this point. Since your claim of bias rests squarely upon this point, you are obligated to defend it if you want to defend your claim of bias.

  • Guest

    No, you’re overreaching here. Tamanaha might be accused of excessively enthymemic argumentation, but not bias, at least on the facts presented here. He’s making the argument that there are factual grounds for suspecting that one group will be likely to act a certain way in the future, but he’s not revealing those grounds, holding them to be self-evident. You’re going well beyond that, and assuming that whatever he says about the one group automatically applies to the second. Which is completely unjustified. So it would make sense for you to charge him with being snide, or partisan, or with not fleshing out his argument with facts, but for you to assume he’s biased is (1) assuming facts not in evidence, as the phrase goes (2) actually committing the error you’re accusing him of committing, which, ironically, is hypocritical. I’d call your argument an instance of the “false balance” fallacy so common in journalism these days. Whatever you call it, your argument is not persuasive.

  • http://profile.typekey.com/pennockd/ David Pennock

    Great post. I agree this is one of the most vexing biases, and seems to crop up in all realms of human relationships, not just politics. It gets recursively worse when the argument goes “meta” and the two sides start being hypocritical about who is unfairly charging the other of being hypocritical.

  • bambi

    As far as I can tell, this is just a right wing rant against democrats. I have nothing against such things really, just like I have no particular objection to left wing rants against republicans… but it seems out of place for overcomingbias, which hopefully can avoid being just another partisan schlockfest.

  • bambi

    Another way to put it: One way to think about this is that commentators who write about the hypocrisy-charge bias are not commenting on political events but are actually engaged in them.

  • Mike Rappaport

    How disappointing these last several comments have been. I came to Overcoming Bias for a discussion of the bias, not to engage in political arguments. You will see in my post that I said everyone commits this bias — both Republicans and Democrats. The commenters seem to be bent out of shape because I used an example of a Democrat who was biased. Politics is the mind killer.

    Please this is a distraction, as some of the commenters have seen.

    I really don’t want to engage in further discussion about the underlying issue, but it is my experience, that if you don’t respond, people assume you have no response. So let me at least say some things. (I have also addressed the issue in an above comment.)

    Posted by Mike Rappaport

    Lord and Consumatopia do not prove their assertions. First, it is not necessary for the Democrats and Republicans to be equally open to inconsistency for my point to hold, just comparable inconsistency. In any event, I believe they are equally open to inconsistency.

    Second, it is said that the Democrats on the Gang of 12 gave up something, so that distinguishes them. But the Republicans on the Gang gave up something as well. So it is equal.

    Third, Lord says it is less likely that we will see a majority of the Democrats opposing the filibuster than a majority of the Republicans favoring it. No reasons are given. This is not an argument, just an assertion.

  • Patri Friedman

    This bias is so old and so common, it’s in the Bible: “And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother’s eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye?”

    I don’t think the bias is particularly surprising. Rather than having general “hypocrisy-detection algorithms” that look for inconsistencies everywhere, our hypocrisy-detection functions as part of our machinery for attacking our opponents and confirming our own viewpoints. Thus we look in our brother’s eye, but not our own. The underlying motivation seems to be attacking opponents, not being consistent.

  • Patri Friedman

    This bias is so old and so common, it’s in the Bible: “And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother’s eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye?”

    I don’t think the bias is particularly surprising. Rather than having general “hypocrisy-detection algorithms” that look for inconsistencies everywhere, our hypocrisy-detection functions as part of our machinery for attacking our opponents and confirming our own viewpoints. Thus we look in our brother’s eye, but not our own. The underlying motivation seems to be attacking opponents, not being consistent.

  • Consumatopia

    Mr. Rappaport, I’m sorry, I didn’t really see anything else in your post nontrivial other than the assertion that anyone who fails to agree that “the charge of hypocrisy against the Republicans is equally applicable to the Democrats” is biased. The idea that people are somewhat blind to the faults of their faction is fairly well-established. The only novel points to be made are those relevant to the specific instance. The “politics” of it, if you will. Note that others have commented on more general themes, but you only seem to find the interest to respond to the “political” issue, to arguing the facts of the specific instance.

    First, it is not necessary for the Democrats and Republicans to be equally open to inconsistency for my point to hold, just comparable inconsistency.

    There is a point you COULD have made that wouldn’t have depended on that assertion, but the point you actually made (that anyone disagreeing with your assertion is biased) does indeed depend on that assertion holding true, as Ping clearly pointed out.

    Second, it is said that the Democrats on the Gang of 12 gave up something, so that distinguishes them. But the Republicans on the Gang gave up something as well. So it is equal.

    The Gang of 12 was a change in the status quo favoring the Republicans. Whether it’s everything they “wanted” doesn’t matter–the question is, was it more or less than what they had under the previous status quo? For the Democrats, it was less, for the Republicans, it was more. And they obtained by brinkmanship. Which has obvious implications for tit-for-tat games like the Senate’s traditional respect for minorities.

    Third, Lord says it is less likely that we will see a majority of the Democrats opposing the filibuster than a majority of the Republicans favoring it. No reasons are given.

    Well, he gave one reason, and other is so obvious that it shouldn’t need to be mentioned.

    1. “One can criticize the reasons for a filibuster or the process of a filibuster.” These are two different things, with only the latter being arguably hypocritical. Why do the latter if the former is sufficient?

    2. Numbers. The Dems only need a few Republicans to vote yes on cloture to get nominees through. Considering how many Dems were willing to vote for Roberts and Alito, it’s not all that likely that Dems will need to be hypocrites to get their way.

    Finally, on the subject of bias generally, I think you should take another look at Mr. Tamanaha’s post, and scroll down to the comments. Compare that comment, and Mr. Tamanaha’s reaction to it, with this thread here. Someone notes an omission in Tamanaha’s post, and he immediately concedes it. Someone points to problems with one of your assertions and it’s just repeated dodging. Whose bias is worse? Why are you disappointed in your trip to Overcoming Bias when someone tries to help you overcome your bias?

  • http://www.hopeanon.typepad.com Hopefully Anonymous

    I think this post diminishes the blog. I get the games in your post (ordinally listing democrats first in a sentence such as “It is committed by Democrats, Republicans, liberals, and conservatives” yada yada yada) , it would be more in the spirit of a Robin Hanson blog to discuss bias-exploiting techniques like this transparently.

  • Tyrrell McAllister

    @Hopefully Anonymous

    Like those who are so hypersensitive that they perceive sexism or racism everywhere, you are exhibiting a hypersensitivity to perceived bias.

    Writing is by nature a linear mode of communication, so it is impossible to name the elements of a set without “ordinally listing” them. It seems pretty uncharitable to call that unavoidable fact a “bias-exploiting technique”.

  • Douglas Knight

    I would like to point out Guest’s comment, which I think is exactly right, but is being drowned out by comments which are almost right that MR can get away with nitpicking.

    If anyone (unlike MR) is actually interested in this as a bias, the question that occurs to me is why it is not uniformly distributed. Democrats are far more likely to call Republicans hypocrites than vice versa.

  • bambi

    All you’re saying is that partisans point out the flaws in their idealogical opponents more than in their friends. Well, duh. You just got annoyed by some blogger on the other side of the aisle and wanted to vent about it.

    Hypocrisy is hypocrisy, whether the complaints about it are “balanced” or not; that makes this post a slightly tasty bit of irony, but otherwise uninteresting.

  • http://hanson.gmu.edu Robin Hanson

    Are we hypocritical about hypocrisy? Do we not actually care very much, but pretend to be offended by our opponents’ hypocrisy as a way to dis them?

  • Consumatopia

    Democrats are far more likely to call Republicans hypocrites than vice versa.

    I can see how that’s true on social issues. On economic/social welfare/ecological issues the reverse is probably true (think of Edwards’ mansion or Gore’s electric bill). In general, the side that calls for the higher standard on an issue is the side more likely to be called hypocrites.

    Are we hypocritical about hypocrisy? Do we not actually care very much, but pretend to be offended by our opponents’ hypocrisy as a way to dis them?

    I think there’s contexts where hypocrisy is actually a substantive charge that both sides really do care about it. Think about what “hypocrisy” could mean in the context of an Iterated Prisoner’s Dilemma.

  • Mike Rappaport

    Two points:

    First, some commentators (in the beginning) claimed that not every inconsistency between words and action is hypocrisy. I agree with that. But even if the inconsistency alleged is not hypocrisy (and the accusation is simply of “convenient inconsistency”), the bias still remains. The accuser is criticizing the other side of convenient inconsistency, but not his own side.

    Second, Randy Ridenour said that if the accusor is participating in the politics of the matter (that is, he knows that his side is also open to the inconsistency), then it is not a bias. Quite true. In these cases, either 1) the accusor is making a political point which he knows applies to his own side also (and therefore is not subject to the bias) or 2) the accusor is not aware that the inconsistency applies to his own side and is moved by the bias. It is one or the other.

    Posted by Mike Rappaport

  • http://www.hopeanon.typepad.com Hopefully Anonymous

    Tyrell,
    You seem to want to fit my post into a politically incorrect truth-tellers vs. hypersensitive whiners narrative. That might be because people claiming to attempt to reduce bias in society have been peddling that narrative rather than presenting our best available information about bias and bounded human rationality as natural phenomena. However, I think the literature is pretty robust now on how ordinal presentation of information can affect its interpretation by normal, boundedly rational people. That and other framings in the orginal post in my opinion are the more interesting place to go with it on Overcoming Bias.

  • MH

    I think I smell bias here. Can’t this kind of tut-tutting wait until the Democrats actually attempt to remove Republican’s filibuster rights, instead of discussing some hypothetical future hypocrisy?

    And if the 111th Congress comes to a close without that ever happening, can we expect a mea culpa post for the automatic suspicion of equally-bad behavior on the part of the Democrats?

    Second, it is said that the Democrats on the Gang of 12 gave up something, so that distinguishes them. But the Republicans on the Gang gave up something as well. So it is equal.

    Uh, what? No, equality only follows if what each side gave up is of relatively equal importance.

    Third, Lord says it is less likely that we will see a majority of the Democrats opposing the filibuster than a majority of the Republicans favoring it. No reasons are given. This is not an argument, just an assertion.

    I’m sorry, I must have missed the part where you gave your reasons for asserting that Democrats are equally likely as Republicans to reverse their 2005 stance?

    Oh wait, you didn’t. If only there was a word for when you require a higher standard from someone else than you hold yourself to…

    I’d call your argument an instance of the “false balance” fallacy so common in journalism these days.

    Agreed 100%.