I do not agree with the president on everything, though I've often defended some of his less popular statements and policies, against liberals who think his views are too conservative and against conservatives who think his policies are simply not conservative. It should never be said that I defend him no matter what he does. I happen to agree with him more than any liberal or moderate would, and I also happen to agree with him more than most conservatives would. That's not because I agree with whatever he would say but because I simply think he has the right views on many things that I don't think either major party gets quite as right. That being said, I wanted to disagree with something he did that I suspect most people I know would agree with him on. Last Friday, he made a statement criticizing Bill Bennett's infamous comments Wednesday morning about abortion and its social effects. I don't think the president was right in declaring Bennett's comments "not appropriate". I've seen two complaints against what Bennett said, one completely stupid and the other based on a genuine but misguided worry, indeed a logical fallacy. This second sort of issue comes in two forms, the more prominent and more misguided one and the less prominent and a little more reasonable one that I think ultimately is still not a good reason to criticize Bennett.
What Bennett said was pretty clear and straightforward. He was responding to a caller who thought you could argue against abortion on social consequences grounds. In particular, the caller wanted to say that abortion is wrong because if we didn't have it we'd have more taxpayers, and the GNP would be higher. Society would be more productive. Regardless of whether such a claim is true, if abortion is wrong it's for much deeper reasons than that. Bennett wanted to distinguish between the mere consequences of an action and what makes it wrong, thus siding squarely on the non-consequentialist side of ethical theory (which is the right view). He wanted to make this point by showing that an action can have good consequences without being a good action. So he picked an example that most everyone would consider horrendous with consequences that, independent of other factors, would be good. Since the original example was just like that, his point would be made, and it would be a very effective way of making the point. So he chose the example of aborting all black babies, which no one in their right mind would consider a good thing, not only for the horrific element of killing a whole generation of kids (presumably without consent of either parent). What's even worse is that it singles out just black babies to kill, which is verging in the direction of genocide. Yet surely such an action would reduce crime, Bennett points out. This is thus a very good example of the sort of argument Bennett wanted to make his point. He could have made it raceless and just had every fetus being killed regardless of race, but that wouldn't have been as bad a case, and he wanted it to be very bad.
The stupid complaint against Bennett's argument is that he had described a terrible action. But that complaint is simply to misunderstand the argument. The role his example has in the argument is that it's a counterexample to a particular claim. To serve as such a counterexample, it needs to be a very bad action with a good consequence. The worse the action, the better the example. The more sophisticated complaint against Bennett understands the nature of the argument but has trouble with his consequence. They don't think it's very nice, or polite, or something to use a particular empirical fact in his argument. That empirical fact is that more crime takes place in predominantly black neighborhoods, more crime takes place at the hands of black people, and more crime is against black people than is the case in white neighborhoods, by white people, and against white people. This is a fact that's been observed by empirical study and is not disputed by anyone. There is one caveat, however, and it's an important one. Steven Levitt says:
It is true that, on average, crime involvement in the U.S. is higher among blacks than whites. Importantly, however, once you control for income, the likelihood of growing up in a female-headed household, having a teenage mother, and how urban the environment is, the importance of race disappears for all crimes except homicide. [hat tip: Juan Non-Volokh]
As far as I know, Levitt's point is undisputed. It may not be, but it doesn't matter. Bill Bennett may or may not be aware of Levitt's statement, but that doesn't matter either. His point still stands, even if Levitt is right (and I wouldn't be surprised if he is). Levitt's point is that race itself as a factor isolated from other factors does not lead to high crime. I'm not sure why anyone but a racist would think it would. I would have assumed without even looking at any other factor that it's the sociological patterns within black America that lead to the higher crime rate. Levitt seems to have isolated those. Growing up in a female-headed household, having a teenage mother, and being in a more urban environment apparently all affect the crime rate. It's not race itself. Therefore, we shouldn't conclude that race itself causes a higher crime rate. Does that mean Bennett is assuming some racist premise? I've heard Democratic commentators repeating such a mantra not a few times in the last few days. The problem is that it's a fallacious argument. What Bennett said is still true.
Bennett said that aborting all black babies would decrease the crime rate. The fact that what leads to the higher crime rate among blacks is not race does not change that fact. There is a higher crime rate among black people. That's because black people are more likely to be in more urban areas, black people are more likely to be born to a teenage mother, and black people are more likely to grow up in a female-headed household. Those factors do increase the crime rate among black people, and if you aborted a whole generation of a group who will have a higher likelihood of crime due to such factors, then it would indeed be likely that the overall crime rate would go down, other factors being equal. This argument requires no assumption that black people are by nature more likely to be criminals. The claim that Bennett must be assuming something only racists would believe is simply false. What he said makes perfect sense without such an assumption.
Now there's one slightly more reasonable complaint someone might make, and I've only seen it suggested just once. Someone might argue that everything Bennett said was true and not deriving from some racist view of blacks as criminals, but it could have a bad effect on whoever might hear it. It might promote the view that black people are by nature criminals. I don't think this is a good complaint, however, even though it's a much better argument than the other two. I don't much like any argument of this form. It basically amounts to saying that we should give in to simplistic thinking and not bother to make careful distinctions because people might misunderstand you. It's tantamount to saying that we shouldn't prmote careful thinking because people don't know how to think carefully. Isn't the proper solution to woolly thinking to model careful thought and let people observe how to think issues through in a way that demonstrates the very sort of thing people need to see to improve in this sort of thing? I just don't think giving in to simple-mindedness is a good reason to refrain from using a counterexample that really does illustrate a good consequence of a bad action, even if some people will mistakenly conclude something that doesn't follow. So I think President Bush was wrong to call Bennett's remarks inapprpriate. That seems to me to be giving in to forces in our society that he simply shouldn't be giving in to.