The Whataboutism Fallacy

We’ve seen a new logical fallacy born during the last year or two: Whataboutism.

The way whataboutism works is as follows: Person A does something wrong. Person B does the same thing. Person B gets accused of the wrong doing, but then says, but “What about Person A? He is doing the same thing.”

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For example, let’s say that your big brother Derrick is always using up all of the toilet paper and leaving the empty roll. Because you share a bathroom, you’re always the one who ends up finding out about it at an inconvenient moment and dealing with the consequences. One day you decide that you’ll show big brother and leave the roll empty yourself. But the next person who uses your bathroom isn’t your brother, but your mom.

After calling down the hall for a new roll and taking care of things, she bursts out of the bathroom mad as a hornet and demands to know who left the toilet paper roll empty. You realize you’re caught, but try to avoid punishment by saying, “I did, but Derrick does that all of the time. Half of the time there is no paper.” How do you think your protestations would go, given that it was Mom who had suffered the injury and it was your doing, not Derrick’s, that caused it?

You would probably get screamed at while Derrick snickers since Mom’s anger would be directed at you, but not Derrick. There might be a new rule implemented that there must be a spare roll in the bathroom at all times and that the person who uses a roll is responsible to replace it immediately. Derrick may (or not) follow that rule, but Derrick would get away with essentially no punishment for his wrongdoing, where you would receive the full brunt of Mom’s rage.

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Obviously, whataboutism is a fallacy. If you do something wrong, it is wrong. Just because others have been doing the same wrong thing, perhaps for a long time, does not make it right for you to do.

In politics, however, whataboutism is being called by those in the Left against their critics to cover up hypocrisy and to cover their misdeeds. The goal is to shut down discussion of their wrongdoing and focus the attention only on the other side. For example, Trump goes down to his Mar A Lago estate and it costs a bunch of money to provide motorcades, planes, and security for the trip. When Democrats complain about this, Republicans point out that The Obamas were famous for taking lavish vacations to places like Hawaii, Martha’s Vineyard, Africa, Europe, and South America. These were trips that cost a fortune for transportation and security, far more than any of the trips President Trump is taking. Not only that, but the First Lady Obama would travel ahead of her husband, taking her own 747 and full security detail, even if her husband was coming out just an hour or two later. Once Republicans level this allegation of hypocrisy against them, the Democrats would hit back and say, “That’s whataboutism. We aren’t talking about the Obamas, we’re talking about Trump.”

Their goal is to shut down all talk about the Obamas and focus attention on the Trumps. Sure, the Obamas did all that Trump is doing and far worse. But you can’t talk about the Obamas, even though they were committing the same wrong (at a much bigger scale), because if you do, you’re committing a logical fallacy. You’re just bad and wrong for making this fallacy. And it is true that if Trump is wasting taxpayer dollars, that is wrong, and others doing it in the past does not make it right. But when the Obamas were wasting taxpayer dollars, that was wrong. They’re both wrong and both deserve criticism for doing so. New rules should be put in place to keep it from happening in the future, and at least an apology from those who did it in the past should be expected since I’m sure they knew it was wrong when they were doing it even if it was commonplace.

But saying that we can’t talk about the wrongs of the Obamas or others is also wrong, and evoking whataboutism as a way to shut down debate is committing the sin of hypocrisy in this case. If you have been sitting by, letting something happen for years and years as long as it was someone in your party committing the sin, you really don’t have a leg to stand on to call someone else out for the same sin just because now it is someone you don’t like and it is politically expedient. And you certainly can’t say that the sins of those in your party cannot be talked about and are not relevant to the current discussion if they were doing the same wrong and you were doing nothing about it. That is to be a hypocrite and by ignoring the wrong when someone on your side of the aisle is doing it you are giving up your moral authority to say something about it when those on the other side are committing the same wrong. By ignoring the wrong in the past, you are giving up your moral right to call it wrong in the future. In fact, to do so is patently unfair because you would be fickle and inconsistent, which itself is a moral offense.

To see this, let’s say that you have two sons. The first is always coming home after curfew, but you say nothing about it. By doing this, you’ve set the standard that says that coming home after curfew is OK. Would it be just fine on your part to punish your second son if he came home late one night? It is true that the second son was breaking the rules, but by ignoring the rules for the first son, you have effectively nullified them, or at least nullified your authority to enforce them. In order to regain the authority, you would need to apologize for letting it go in the past with the first son, proclaim that the rules would be enforced from now hence, and actually enforce them fairly on both sons. It would be wrong to punish the second son while letting the first son go without punishment.

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The Impeachment

But now let’s look at the total absurdity of the impeachment of President Trump and how use of whataboutism to shut down debate here is totally unjustified because Biden’s actions are pivotal in deciding whether the President did wrong or not. To say that Biden’s actions are not relevant is to do a grave wrong to the President and would hamper his defense. For those who haven’t followed things closely, here’s the background:

Hunter Biden, Former Vice President Joe Biden’s son, was on the board of directors a Ukrainian energy company during the time that Joe Biden was Vice President and was the point man in the diplomacy between the US and Ukraine. Despite having no experience at all in energy or Ukraine, and despite having been drummed out of the Navy for drug abuse, Hunter Biden was receiving more than $1M per year for his role on the board. It appears that Mr. Biden did little or nothing to earn this salary while he was on the board. Obviously the question of whether the oil company was only paying Hunter Biden as a way to gain favor from the Obama White House, and more critically whether the Obama White House was providing that favoritism, is something worth scrutiny since that would be a case of bribery. It appears that it may be the case since the Vice President, Joe Biden, is seen at a policy forum bragging about how he got a Ukrainian prosecutor, one who was looking into the energy company, fired from his job by Vice President Biden’s threatening to withhold US aid to the country unless the action was taken.

President Trump is accused of trying to get the Ukrainians to dig up dirt on Joe Biden as a way to gain an advantage in the 2020 US election. In fact he is accused of withholding aid to the Ukrainians as a way to force them to do the investigation and, presumably, make sure that they find something whether any wrong was committed or not. When the President’s supporters say that the Biden’s should be investigated and that they should be called to testify in any impeachment trial that takes place, the supporters are accused of whataboutism. Critics of the President say that anything to do with the Bidens is off limits and all of the focus should be on Trump.

But, wait a minute. In this case, the actions of the Bidens is critical. This isn’t just saying that the Bidens were doing the same thing – withholding US aid to get Ukraine to do what they want – as the President is accused of, and therefore the President should not face justice for any wrong he committed. In this case, if the Bidens were engaged in shady deals with the Ukrainians and if bribery was involved, President Trump committed no wrong. As the chief law enforcement officer of the US, it is in fact his duty to investigate the matter to bring justice. We can’t have our officials, especially someone at the level of the Vice President, taking bribes in exchange for helping out foreign companies. Especially if that help affects US diplomacy and thereby the security of the country. The actions of the Bidens are not a distraction, but the centerpiece of the matter. Their testimony, and a full investigation of the matter, are tantamount in deciding President Trumps innocence or guilt.

What does this have to do with personal finance?

So, this is nice, but this is a personal finance blog. How is this relevant? Whataboutism, the real form, is used frequently to justify the actions that keep us in debt and keep us from reaching financial independence. When a spouse says that the family shouldn’t go on an expensive vacation when the funds are not available to fund retirement accounts, it is a fallacy for the other spouse to say such a trip is justified because all of the neighbors and coworkers are going on similar trips. Whether or not the neighbors will have money when they’re ready to retire has no baring on whether your family will have money to retire.

Likewise, it is whataboutism to say that the other spouse bought a new car, and therefore the spending money on the trip is justified. Overspending more is not a healthy action to take. It may have been wrong for one spouse to buy the car, but it makes things worse, not better, for the family to now spend even more money they don’t have on a trip.

In fact, as Dave Ramsey likes to say, doing things well financially is not normal. While there are some people who manage to come up with a decent new worth because they have a huge income, very few families who don’t have extremely large salaries make the choices needed to grow financially independence within their working lifetimes. In fact, most aren’t even ready to pay for expenses, especially medical bills, when retirement time comes. And even those who make large salaries rarely amass the net worth their salary could command if they were to save and invest the same portion someone in the middle class who was trying to become financially independent would do.

So, don’t let others silence you by claiming you’re using whataboutism in political and ethical discussions. If you have been consistent in your enforcement of ethics, there is nothing wrong with demanding that wrongdoing by all parties be corrected and punished where needed. If you have not been consistent, you’ll need to atone for your past and set a new standard before you can criticize in the future.

Don’t fall for whataboutism when it comes to personal finance, however. If you want to do something unusual like become financially independent, you’ll need to do very unusual things when it comes to you behavior. The neighbors and your coworkers are not the examples you’ll want to follow on your journey. Instead, be ready to blaze your own path. In this case, it is good to be the exception and not the rule.

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Disclaimer: This blog is not meant to give financial planning or tax advice.  It gives general information on investment strategy, picking stocks, and generally managing money to build wealth. It is not a solicitation to buy or sell stocks or any security. Financial planning advice should be sought from a certified financial planner, which the author is not. Tax advice should be sought from a CPA.  All investments involve risk and the reader as urged to consider risks carefully and seek the advice of experts if needed before investing.


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