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Critical Thinking and the Lack Thereof: A Case Study

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In my last blog I offered a definition of what critical thinking entails, but to keep within the bounds of the blog I did not explore any examples. This week I'd like to offer a case study in the need for critical thinking in everyday life. One of the keys to critical thinking is the ability to see everything in context—that is, in relation to other relevant information. So, let's take the current libertarian strain in American politics that is challenging the existence of both Social Security and Medicare on behalf of lower taxes for individual taxpayers. Since this libertarian view is visible both in the Tea Party ideology, which has come to dominate Republican Party policy, as well as in the candidacy of Ron Paul (whose base is significantly represented by younger voters), it is a significant feature of current political life, having moved into the mainstream after years of marginal status. That makes it very much worth thinking about. I want to examine this from the point of view of someone who embraces libertarian thinking, not from a counter-ideological viewpoint. To begin with, then, libertarianism is a species of individualism (ultra-individualism, one might say), and so reflects a long-embraced American cultural mythology. The libertarian individualist believes that it is in his or her own best interest not to have to pay any taxes for the support of someone else. Ignoring the moral aspects of such a position (and as I said in my last blog, while moral judgments are not absolutely excluded from critical thinking, they are certainly marginal to it), let's look at it from the perspective of the individual.  Young libertarians are especially drawn to the position that they should not have to pay taxes to support an older generation, and contend (at least implicitly) that they will be able to take care of themselves when they grow old, in part by saving and investing the money they didn't pay in taxes. Seen by itself, and not in relation to any other factors, it might appear that being relieved of such taxes might accrue to the advantage of the individual. But nothing ever happens in isolation. If, in the current instance, Social Security collapses (and every day there are new warning signals that it is heading for bankruptcy unless revenue increases can be achieved—a hopeless hope) and Medicare is drastically cut back (which is very much a threat in the Republican budget proposals), Americans of retirement age will either choose not to retire or retire much later than they had planned to. This would have two damaging effects on the young libertarian. On the one hand, if the older generation delays retirement, their jobs will not be made available to younger job seekers (indeed, when the U.S. Congress in the 1970s abrogated all mandatory retirement age rules, there was a great fear—not at all unjustified—that there would be a disastrous effect on an entire generation of young scholars). On the other hand, older workers who do retire, but without adequate Social Security or Medicare support, are likely to be compelled to fall back on their adult children for assistance (this is already happening, just as adult children are returning to the parental nest because there aren't enough jobs for them available). In either case, young libertarians (and young everyone else) are going to have to pay a steep price. To see this one has to employ critical-thinking skills by seeing the relationship between actions. Note how one's own moral commitments are neither necessary to the analysis nor particularly helpful. At any rate, it is highly unlikely that a libertarian can be convinced that there is a moral duty to help others (indeed, Robert Nozick's Anarchy, State, and Utopia, a book much beloved by libertarians, has offered to them a logical argument in defense of their position; but as I noted in my last blog, logic alone does not constitute critical thinking). By analyzing the real-world relationships between actions and beliefs, however, we can reveal how the libertarian position on Social Security and Medicare is contradictory, not logically but experientially. Given the power of libertarian thinking in American society today (most remarkably among the young), this is no trivial revelation.
About the Author
Jack Solomon is Professor Emeritus of English at California State University, Northridge, where he taught literature, critical theory and history, and popular cultural semiotics, and directed the Office of Academic Assessment and Program Review. He is often interviewed by the California media for analysis of current events and trends. He is co-author, with the late Sonia Maasik, of Signs of Life in the U.S.A.: Readings on Popular Culture for Writers, and California Dreams and Realities: Readings for Critical Thinkers and Writers, and is also the author of The Signs of Our Time, an introductory text to popular cultural semiotics, and Discourse and Reference in the Nuclear Age, a critique of poststructural semiotics that proposes an alternative semiotic paradigm.