Big Stick, The

(Argumentum ad baculum)

The threat, or use, of force as a means of persuasion.B10

The role of force in argument was discussed by Antoine Arnauld and Pierre Nicole in their Logic, Or the Art of Thinking (1662), and it was the strongest form of the fallacy—physically attacking one’s opponent until he gives in—that they had in mind. Naturally, they disapproved: “Any reasonable person will reject whatever is urged in so offensive a manner and not even the most stupid will listen.”B11

The threat can take many forms—blackmail, loss of job, execution—but its original meaning persisted in its name—ad baculum, “the big stick”.

Arnauld’s rejection of force as a means of argument was not a platitude. It was written not long before the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes (1685), the decision by Louis XIV to end years of tolerable coexistence with the Protestants and, instead, to apply persuasion in the form of the dragonnards—soldiers billeted at Protestants’ houses, with instructions to cause trouble—and to silence contrary arguments by breaking the Huguenot pastors at the wheel.B12

This was also a time when the state was still working out, by trial and error, whether and how to come to terms with the way in which the individual’s place in society was being shaped by the market rather than by ancient structures of citizenship, tradition and religion. There is no doubt that leaving matters to the market, to the price mechanism and to individual choices and contracts saves a good deal of trouble. The market can appeal to something even more persuasive than the big stick—namely, simple self-interest—and when this began to be recognised in the seventeenth century it was all a great relief. “Douce commerce”, sweet commerce, wrote Jacques Savary, an early management consultant, in a textbook for businessmen (also in 1685), “makes for all the gentleness of life”. The authorities themselves agreed: commerce is the most “innocent and legitimate way of acquiring wealth”, observed an edict of the French government in 1669; it is “the fertile source which brings abundance to the state and spreads it among its subjects”.B13

The market to a large extent replaced the network of duty, responsibility and social capital which had been the basis for social cohesion and reciprocity. This was the “Great Transformation”, which has delegated to the market so much of the burden of decision-making: it is prices that now do the heavy work of signalling shortages and excesses, drawing the attention of business to the detail of demand, and supplying an incentive to deliver. The government’s main task in a mature market economy is to keep it free of obstacles that might stop it growing—like a bemused farmer would treat the enchanted goose: keep the foxes out so that it can go on magically laying its golden eggs.B14

The shock is that this period is coming to an end. During the early decades of the century, the market will lose its magic as a stabiliser. The main burden of holding society and economy together will shift to culture and reciprocal obligation, embedded in social capital. Those assets will need to be remade. It will be difficult; we are starting in the wrong place. Our society and economics, food and transport, culture and politics, have evolved for a different world, and are riddled with cracks ready to break apart under pressure. But the alternative, should that fail, could be the big stick. You might think that the big stick is not the form of argument favoured by philosophers, even if it is the method used by the other side. But here is one who, from time to time, is driven to conceding that maybe there may be something to be said for it, after all:

What is a rational man to do, in the face of an appeal ad baculum? Knock-down arguments, alas, must be overcome not with a syllogism but a stick. Liberty and order are the prerequisites of reason. . . . [In order to] protect and defend our rare and happy heritage of freedom and stability, let us have the courage, patience and wisdom to enforce restraint (without repression) upon our erring children. Then and only then, can the dialogue of reason continue.B15


Related entries:

Distraction, Fear, Humility, Decency Fallacy, Character.

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David Fleming
Dr David Fleming (2 January 1940 – 29 November 2010) was a cultural historian and economist, based in London, England. He was among the first to reveal the possibility of peak oil's approach and invented the influential TEQs scheme, designed to address this and climate change. He was also a pioneer of post-growth economics, and a significant figure in the development of the UK Green Party, the Transition Towns movement and the New Economics Foundation, as well as a Chairman of the Soil Association. His wide-ranging independent analysis culminated in two critically acclaimed books, 'Lean Logic' and 'Surviving the Future', published posthumously in 2016. These in turn inspired the 2020 launches of both BAFTA-winning director Peter Armstrong's feature film about Fleming's perspective and legacy - 'The Sequel: What Will Follow Our Troubled Civilisation?' - and Sterling College's unique 'Surviving the Future: Conversations for Our Time' online courses. For more information on all of the above, including Lean Logic, click the little globe below!

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