Spot the fallacy

I’ve been spending a lot of time absorbing various lectures and books available on the Mises Institute site. It’s a great resource, but… you’ve really got to be careful when they talk about history, especially the Civil War (and, to a slightly lesser extent, World War II).

Usually, though, they at least attempt to make their arguments coherent. Thomas J. DiLorenzo, who is a very engaging lecturer, generally brings out a great many unknown or little-known facts about the Civil War. But then he’ll do something that makes the listener (or reader) pull back and treat everything he’s said as suspect. His relentless refusal to call the Civil War anything but “the war to prevent Southern secession” is one example.

Here, from his latest book Organized Crime: The Unvarnished Truth About Government, is another. See if you can spot the gigantic, enormous, blinking neon problem with it:

The population of the United States in 1861 was about one-tenth of what it was in the early twenty-first century. Standardizing for today’s population, the number of Southerners who perished as a result of the total war that was waged on them would be the equivalent of 3.5 million deaths. That would make the Lincoln regime significantly worse than the Pol Pot regime in Cambodia. If the new estimates of some 450,000 Southern deaths comes to be accepted, then the Lincoln regime would be more than twice as bad as the Pol Pot and North Korean communists and four times worse than the Vietnamese communists in terms of democide.

There’s actually a lot wrong with this. But what struck me immediately was this: What is DiLorenzo’s rationale for adjusting Civil War deaths to the population of the US today?

When you compare numbers, if you “standardize”, you do it to try to get closer to a true comparison. The US population right now is over 300 million. Cambodia’s population at the time Pol Pot took power was about 3 million. The way to make a comparison is not to inflate the number of the man you hate (and make no mistake, DiLorenzo hates Lincoln) to make him look worse. Generally, in comparisons between two countries, you turn the numbers into a percentage.

Pol Pot’s regime killed approximately 33% of Cambodia’s population in less than a decade.

Lincoln, even accepting every other dubious premise that DiLorenzo fudges, can claim (using DiLorenzo’s worst numbers and ascribing all of them solely to Lincoln) 1.5% of his country’s population.

But the problem is, that doesn’t make Lincoln look worse. So that’s not what DiLorenzo did.

If the Mises Institute wants to shed its reputation for harboring loons and closet racists, they’ve got to stop endorsing crap like this. DiLorenzo can be, and frequently is, a very good historian. Even on Lincoln. But when his hate overwhelms and he stoops to cheap shots like this to validate his hate, he does himself no favors.

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