My last essay stimulated an interesting comment. For reasons that will become clear, I chose not to allow it in the usual place (i.e. the comments section). Behold:
Your premise is horrendously flawed in a pragmatic – and moral – sense.
“The Heritage Foundation is going to have a harder time finding a good solution than The Brookings Institution.”
Yes, because the The Heritage Foundation has a line in the sand drawn, they will have a harder time finding a solution to any problem. That, however is not a bad thing. It is a necessary thing and a damn fine thing, though we may argue over the value of the preconditions.
It’s probably wrong and immoral to divorce solutions to problems from such preconditions. As a “triggering” example – We could solve a lot of the crime problem, such as it is, and drop “firearm related” crimes in half by simply removing / culling the Blacks or putting them back in chains. That would certainly count as a new idea for solving problems facing society at the local, national and global level completely untethered to preconditions.
There is also the issue of “falsehoods.” Americans and liberals don’t even agree upon the definitions of key words, e.g., racism and sexism, much less what constitutes such things. That makes it essentially impossible for us to reach a consensus on what is true or false.
This is a curious comment, for a number of reasons. It left me in a bit of a pickle. I had to grapple with whether or not I should trash it on account of its rather pungent undercurrents of racism or let it roam free. Free speech is one of the paramount values of any civil, progressive society. People should be allowed to harbor and express opinions that others feel are racist or otherwise execrable. However, it’s much less obvious how much leeway they should be given in expressing those opinions. Should a private citizen who values free expression suffer racist views as matter of principle?
The above comment is difficult to parse in that respect. My impression is that the example of culling “the Blacks” was used largely to knock me on my heels. A rhetorical stab at upsetting a liberal snowflake, as it were. It’s clear from the context that the commenter rightly suspected that I would find that idea reprehensible. Probably, he (I’m assuming this is a dude) does too. I highly doubt that he is an open champion of slavery or genocide. Putting aside statistics on the racial distribution of violent crime, it is clear that the man does think blacks are innately predisposed to criminality. It is strongly implied by the context and further reinforced by a reading of his other writings. This man is a racist and he is espousing racist views.
Ultimately, I decided to trash the comment. My reasoning is this: if I were the proprietor of a shop and a customer showed up loudly championing racist nonsense, I would give him the boot. I believe he has the right to have and express those views. But I also have an overriding interest in not having my establishment tainted by his poisonous bigotry. I could be tainted by virtue of allowing him to propound racist views, souring my fortunes as a result. The raw reality is that having comments like this on my blog could lead to the perception that I am sympathetic to racist thinking. That would be an irrational conclusion, but – as I’ve just spent an entire essay arguing – humans aren’t necessarily all that rational. The man has a right to express his perspective, but he does not have a right to unlimited venues for doing so.
All that aside, I think the commenter did raise some interesting points. That’s why it is seeing the light of day instead of slipping quietly into the invisible fathoms of the digital ether. He argues that preconditions are necessary and useful tools for evaluating solutions to political dilemmas. This is absolutely true. I don’t think I argued otherwise. My argument is not that there should be no preconditions. Rather, the preconditions should be external to the question we are trying to answer. They should set up terms that can be used to evaluate any proposal, independent of the beliefs that motivate it.
Now for a brief, but useful, digression…
In philosophy of science, there are two related ideas that really muddle the relationship between observation and theory. They are the problem of the theory laddenness of observation and the underdetermination of theory by evidence.
The former expresses the belief that we can’t make sense of what we see absent a preexisting set of ideas about how to parse our observations. Seeing light bend around a massive object wouldn’t mean much without a number of theories about the physics of light and massive objects.
The latter expresses the belief that the evidentiary relationship between what we observe and explanatory propositions is not always clear. If someone designs an experiment that turns up a result unfavorable to their hypothesis, it’s not immediately obvious where the problem lies – does it refute their hypothesis or does it refute some underlying assumption about the operation of an instrument used to measure the result?
The theory laddenness of observation and the underdetermination of theory by evidence are both useful ideas. Absent some preconceptions about how things work, it is impossible to evaluate the relationships between what we think and what we see. In science, these problems are attenuated by the community structure of science and the demand for universality and empirical consistency. Scientists check and recheck one another’s work in light of shared ideas about what it means for a hypothesis to be true. The preconceptions scientists bring to bear in experimental or observational work are those that have been repeatedly corroborated and that have consistently escaped refutation. That is, we have good reason to think they are true.
As a result, we are perfectly justified in using established scientific principles and scientifically derived evidence in evaluating statements about what is true about the world. At the same time, no scientific theory is held as immune from refutation. Scientists use the principles of general relativity to understand the universe without demanding that everything they observe in the universe conform to the predictions of general relativity. Though the methods of science are not without their flaws, they nonetheless remain the best methods we have making sense of the world and assigning confidence to beliefs about the way the world works.
Returning to the matter at hand…
The Heritage Foundation is hobbled by the self-imposed circularity of its reasoning. By saying that all good solutions must conform to the limited government, free enterprise mold they set up conditions that forbid numerous policy options independent of their usefulness. This type of precondition is not useful, because it sets up the question in such a way that any corroborating evidence is granted special priority while any contradictory evidence is rejected by definitional fiat. If someone argues that government regulation is a useful mechanism for solving a variety of public goods dilemmas, the Heritage Foundation is permitted to reject this argument simply on the grounds that good solutions to social and political dilemmas must involve small government.
Consider an engineering firm that exclusively deals in building bridges. Their founding creed is “to use steel and truss architecture to build strong bridges”. The founders and shareholders are adamant about this, so the engineering firm approaches all rivers, bays, and canyons with an eye for how they might be bridged by steel beams and truss architecture. This line of thinking forestalls consideration of other designs and materials that might actually build a stronger bridge. Perhaps advances in carbon nanotubes yield a design for a suspension bridge that is practically unbreakable. This would be the best design under a lot of conditions, but the engineering firm won’t use it because they’ve established steel and truss architecture as a binding precondition on bridge designs.
This is precisely the situation in which the Heriatage Foundation and smaller government, freer markets at any costs ideologues have trapped themselves. Certainly policy proposals need to be evaluated in light of some preconditions. For instance, are they based on premises that are justifiable in light of available evidence? Do they actually prevent or cause outcomes as desired? Are they morally justifiable? I never argued that preconditions are useless. They are immensely important. But the preconditions need to be useful. The preconditions assigned by the Heritage Foundation based in false premises. They are also framed in such a way that their only use is to reinforce the ideological commitments that spawned them in the first place.
As I wrote previously, scientists who did research in this way would not be very effective. What the Heritage Foundation is doing is not the same thing as what scientists are doing when they use the principles of general relativity to make sense of time dilation or Doppler-shifted galaxies. Instead, the Heritage Foundation is in the position that scientists would be in if they decided that all good experiments or observations must confirm general relativity – everything else must be rejected. But things are worse than that even. Because the premises that motivate the Heritage Foundation’s ideological prescriptions are false, they are in the position of scientists who demanded that all experiments confirm the predictions of the phlogiston theory of combustion or some other idea from the dustbin of failed ideas.
Finally, a brief note on the commenter’s last point: this is just silly. He seems to be implying that because some people assign different subjective interpretations to words, we might as well abandon the entire business of evaluating claims for accuracy. The fact that people might have differing views on what counts as racist behavior does not mean it is impossible to investigate whether or not the premises of neoclassical economic theory are good representations of observable reality. This point is so ridiculous that it probably belongs in the pathetic heap of ideas that are not even wrong.