Doubt & Certainty continued
“The whole problem with the world is that fools & fanatics are always so certain of themselves, and wiser people so full of doubts.” ~ Bertrand Russell, via commenter TKOEd’s comments in the first Doubt & Certainty thread
TKOEd was disappointed in my last piece:
The above quote is my email signature. I read the title & assumed it would a post more along those lines. As a self-described liberal I was highly disappointed.
Why? Because I think your characterization of liberal certainty is not a good one.
I don’t think most liberals are as cocksure about any policy prescriptions as you make us out to be. I think liberals are certain about the things we want accomplished when it comes to a particular policy question. I don’t think that necessarily bleeds into a certainty of success.
In the process of writing an extremely long and rambling 2300+ word post, I think some of my finer points were lost in the shuffle, and some of my lesser-fine points were made in ways I did not entirely intend. First of all, I do not mean to characterize liberal certainty any which way though I can see how the Manzi excerpt could leave that impression. I’m speaking broadly about certainty in general and specifically about the sort of blind certainty that I think emerges when teams and tribalism become too central to our way of thinking about the world. I don’t think people can live entirely in doubt or entirely in certainty ever, but I think one is on safer footing – ethically and otherwise – at least coming from a position of doubt rather than from a position of certainty.
This doesn’t mean that you cannot act until you are certain, that you cannot support specific policies or candidates or even ideologies – it simply means you start from a position of doubt and work your way through the ideas from the ground up rather than the other way around. Sort of like the scientific method. When you’re working from a hypothesis you have to let the facts determine where you end up – not the other way around. The easiest way to spot phony science is when you see people working backwards from a predetermined conclusion and filling in the data as they go in order to make it conform to the results. Same for politics. And teams have a way of making us do this, of presenting us with expectations of conformity that require us to work backward from certainty rather than forward from doubt.
Nor was my post meant as a broadside against liberalism. I do mention that I find dispositional conservatism (or whatever you want to call it) the most compelling political philosophy (if it is that) and that I would consider myself, still, a dispositional conservative. But politically I am much more a limited-government liberal (or something along those lines: a Cameroon Tory? a Cleggian Liberal Democrat? a liberal-tarian?). I wrote the following because I really do think there is no good American equivalent of my political leanings, and I think, by the way, that many other people are in the same boat as myself:
In short, I am not sure if I am a conservative or a liberal or a libertarian or an independent. I only know that I am an adherent to the philosophy of doubt (however often I am lured by its seductive twin) and that, as such, I tend to abhor movement politics, cringe at the faux certainty of those good team players so quick to shut down debate – and sometimes, every now and then, envy the certainty of these movements and their followers.
I wrestle endlessly with my political self-definition, because I am a Steppenwolf, because I have a constant desire for certainty, for an ideological home, for all of that – and at the same time, I know that because of who I am I will never be content with any hard lines drawn around myself. Because I am full of doubt and because I don’t want to attain the sort of certainty that I fear might blind me. Of course, this is not necessarily a call for incrementalism either as some commenters read it – I believe in radical change occasionally as well, and am somewhat radical when it comes to civil liberties. I attempt to temper my own radicalism by acknowledging that we are in a democracy, and so we must muddle through.
This Wilkinson passage is fitting here, both because I agree with Will’s larger point that economics is a morality play and because it ties directly into the concept of experts vs. democracy, another point TKOEd took issue with in my post. Here’s Will:
There is a straightforward conflict between expert macroeconomic management and democracy. This ought to be more openly acknowledged and discussed. When elite economists demand more deference to technocratic consensus, they not so subtly demand that (even more) immense political power be ceded to them and their grad-school pals. To become angry that this power has not been granted, that select expert voices do not drown out the crowd, is to lament that in a liberal society other less expert voices are also heard. The gamble of democracy is that this evidently unwarranted equality of influence may deliver suboptimal policy in the short run, but will deliver the most materially and morally satisfactory results in the long run. Fits of expert indignation may be righteous. Bruising rants against dim foes may be damning. Trenchant retorts may be logically airtight. But no pile of Nobel prizes and prestige degrees, no matter how high heaped, will ever amount to a coup. For this, we must be grateful.
Like TKOEd, I’m skeptical of the collective wisdom of the American people. I’m not any more skeptical of the people we put in government. But those people wield enormous power; and nor are they acting in isolation. What they can and cannot do is often limited by other people perhaps less brilliant or less honest. Even the most skilled technocrat with the best intentions has to navigate the labyrinthine halls of power, compromising here, giving special favors there. Often it is the very corporations and special interests that liberals decry who benefit the most from centralized power and complexity, from the good intent of human failings. Limiting government, then, in my view is a very progressive goal. We will have experts in government no matter what – and that’s not a bad thing – but we should expect what they can achieve in real life to be far less than what they can achieve in theory. They are as human as we are and as prone to mistakes. We should look to limit the scope of their mistakes.
Again, conservatives are as guilty of certainty as liberals are – often more so. The conservative movement is nothing if not a rigid movement of ideological authoritarianism, punishing any and all who fall out of lockstep with irrelevancy. Nothing on the liberal side of the equation comes close at least in terms of organizational solidarity. Of course, such blind lockstep can afflict any group regardless of political stripe.
So this is much more a discussion of doubt vs. certainty than it is liberalism vs conservatism, or at least that was my intention.