Thursday, November 11, 2010

Time Horizons: Conservatives Aren't Empirical

Ross Douthat linked to this 2005 article by Jonathan Chait arguing that liberals are non-ideological, practical empiricists interested only in producing beneficial outcomes.

Chait's thesis is most clearly stated here:
The contrast between economic liberalism and economic conservatism, then, ultimately lies not only in different values or preferences but in different epistemologies. Liberalism is a more deeply pragmatic governing philosophy--more open to change, more receptive to empiricism, and ultimately better at producing policies that improve the human condition--than conservatism.

As regular readers know, FLG takes the view that liberals are more empirical, but only becuase they focus relatively more strongly on the short-term, tangible, and first order effects and tend to ignore or dismiss long-term, less tangible, and second and third order effects. And by ignore or dismiss, FLG means these arguments are written off as irrelevant or downright irrational. See Alan's bogeymen accusation.

But what's even worse about Chait's stance is that it neglects the fact value distinction. As FLG has mentioned over and over, facts by themselves lead toward no conclusion. A conclusion requires the application of value and preferences. And so, there is no such thing as non-ideological, practical empirical policy or governing. The a priori assumption, which in fairness most of us make, that material conditions and material progress are the most important is itself a ideology.

Look, FLG isn't saying people conservatives aren't ideological. He certainly isn't saying Republican politicians cannot be either ideological or idiots. But the conceit that one's own side is the only rational or intellectually honest one is absurd in the extreme.

Now that FLG thinks about it, he thinks he object to a similar argument from Ezra Klein not too long ago. Look guys, if you think you are non-ideological because you look at data and merely want to improve material conditions, then let me tell you that you are 1) focused only on the short-term, proximate, and tangible and 2) you aren't being very pensive about the very profound extent to which you have an ideology.

9 comments:

The Ancient said...

Neither of them really thinks they are non-ideological. But they write to persuade, and that requires the conceit of objectivity, even as their pockets are stuffed full of biases, assumptions and (gasp!) prejudices.

P.S. Klein's a special case. A decade ago, the Post would never allowed someone so obviously partisan to write non-opinion pieces. (OK, there was Tom Edsall and Walter Pincus -- the Post's two delegates to the Comintern. But not many more.) That the editor and publisher permit this today reflects both a collapse of judgment and a profound uncertainty about the future of newspaper journalism.

FLG said...

So, they're not confused about their ideologicalness? They're liars?

The Ancient said...

So, they're not confused about their ideologicalness? They're liars?

"Liars" is such a strong word, and pointless, too, unless somebody's under oath.

Look, on both the Left and the Right there are people who think they're engaged in some Great Project. They want that project to succeed, and they want to do their part.

Paul Mellon used to complain about one of his London tailors, "Huntsman always cuts short!" -- by which he meant that they didn't include enough extra fabric in the finished garment to allow needed alterations as one grew older.

By the same token, people like Chait, Klein and innumerable others on both sides cut their arguments for today -- because, after all, they're not writing for the Ages.

The old joke about journalism is "tomorrow's fishwrap today!" I tend to think it's unrealistic to expect them to produce wrapping paper for fish as yet unborn.

FLG said...

The Ancient:

The very idea that they are involved in some great project, if they do indeed see themselves that way, makes them ideological by definition.

To say that they are not, when they are currently, at this very moment, ideological, makes them either liars or confused.

The Ancient said...

The very idea that they are involved in some great project, if they do indeed see themselves that way, makes them ideological by definition.

I'm resisting what I think is a slightly promiscuous use of the word "ideological." (Unless you want to argue that everyone is ideological, in which case I think the word lacks utility.)

People can have moral and political values, and be motivated, without being what I consider "ideological." I don't think very many of the boys who hit the beaches in Normandy were "ideological" -- nor many of their volunteer counterparts today in Iraq or Afghanistan. (A Marxist might object that they are ideological in reflecting the class-consciousness of the ruling class, or some such, but I can't take that sort of thing seriously any more.)

I have always felt that "ideological" was a term of abuse -- Je suis bonapartiste! -- and I am probably too old to change.

Perhaps we could compromise this out by calling them neither liars nor confused but lacking adequate time-horizons.

Andrew Stevens said...

I'm with you, FLG, so I'm willing to go the "everybody is ideological" route and pronounce them confused. Being "non-ideological, practical empiricists interested only in producing beneficial outcomes" is itself quite clearly an ideology. The question is not whether or not one is ideological, but whether one's ideology is correct. I am a rationalist who believes empiricism is false so that's the basis of my response to "non-ideological, practical empiricists interested only in producing beneficial outcomes."

Calling someone ideological should no more be considered an insult than calling someone opinionated. (What? You don't have opinions?)

Andrew Stevens said...

I feel stupid for not realizing it before, but of course what Chait is saying is that people on the left are utilitarians, i.e. they believe the ends justify the means, and people on the right are not, i.e. they may not be swayed by arguments over what the ends might be, because they think that means are important as well (and perhaps even that means justify the ends). But saying that utilitarianism is not an ideology - well, that's just baffling.

Tim Kowal said...

"Liberalism is a more deeply pragmatic governing philosophy--more open to change, more receptive to empiricism, and ultimately better at producing policies that improve the human condition--than conservatism."

The real odious component of this statement is disguised as an implied premise: that "the human condition" can be improved, or that such is a legitimate or principal aim of government. This is one of the key ways that liberals and conservatives talk past each other. Liberals rail that conservatives don't come up with plans to solve the world's problems and solve the "human condition." Conservatives, in my view, don't care about all the stuff. Perhaps "time horizons" is a way to take some wind out of liberals' sails, a way to counter that the way to solve the problems liberals' are worried about is to take the long view. But really, the truly conservative position is that government ought to sit tight until there arise the sort of problems our government was established to address; to observe the difference between threats to security and threats to comfort; to stop acting like Mrs. Reverend Lovejoy at every Dateline story, for heaven's sake. "Won't somebody PLEASE think of the CHILDREN!!!"

LibertyAtStake said...

The truly dangerous characteristic of Liberal ideologues is their inability to learn empirical lessons from the PAST. To wit; New Deal, Fair Deal, Great Society, CRA, Housing Bubble, Banking bailouts, Porkulus progression.

Massive top down government spending (hammer) and unfunded mandates (nail) are the only tools they have in their tool kit.

d(^_^)b
http://libertyatstake.blogspot.com
"Because the Only Good Progressive is a Failed Progressive"

 
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