Doubt and Ideology
Erik just posted a piece considering how liberals and libertarians view liberty and justice, and how he is left ambivalent between these worldviews. If you haven’t read it yet please do so, I can wait…
Anyway, I found this part in particularly interesting:
How to construct and sustain a society that is at once flourishing and economically vibrant yet also just and fair is probably the single most important question for me (outside of our militarism and security state issues at least). Nobody, so far as I can tell, has satisfying answer. Pieces of the truth lie scattered about the ideas of the many.
When I first started working for my government, I was told by one of the more experienced analysts that every problem we dealt with was inevitably very complicated, especially the big policy issues (health, education, economic growth) and the reason for this is that if a problem was simple, we’d have solved it already and we wouldn’t be discussing it now. Naturally, it’s a little more complicated than that, some policy problems are new, but I still find that observation holds true. The easy problems were solved long ago, what remains is hard. Maybe because we don’t have an answer, or maybe because the answers we have aren’t politically feasible. But either way, the fact work continues is an indication that we haven’t got the answer yet.
Part of the reason for this is that the epistemology of the social sciences is way more problematic than that of the physical sciences. The human brain is perhaps the most complex object known to exist, and the global economy is no less than 6 billion + of these horrendously complicated machines interacting with each other in constantly changing ways. And on top of that, we can’t run proper experiments, expect for some small-scale phenomena. If only solving the great questions of economics were as simple as building a multi-billion dollar research apparatus and spending years of tireless effort studying the results.
Alas, the price of economic knowledge is much higher than that. The failures of development economics are evident in the 3rd world, and resolving the calculation debate cost a lot more, both in lost production and in lives. True socialism (i.e. the notion that the means of production should be owned, or at least strictly directed, by the state) is no longer a political force, but it took the collapse of the Soviet Union to make it happen. It’s as if the only means Sir Isaac Newton had to estimate the strength of gravity was to throw people of a cliff and listen for how loud the splat was when they hit the ground.
The other reason the social sciences are hard is the influence of politics. Everyone has their own idealogical perspective, and that’s no bad thing you – can’t figure out what works unless you have a coherent definition of “good” and “bad” to work from. But ideology can all too easily become more than a set of values. The human brain excels at deceiving itself, and if a fact is inconvenient to one’s worldview, our brains will often convince themselves that the fact is not true or not important so as to minimise the cognitive dissonance.
In short, the evidence is always weak, and everyone involved has a strong incentive to come up with a reason to ignore evidence they don’t like. As truth-seeking process go, this one sucks. But it’s all we have, so we light little candles in the cavernous darkness, hoping to find a little truth here and there.
I guess this is all just a long-winded way of saying that political debates are full of people who are too damn sure of themselves. Rather than trying to solve everything, we should stick to areas where we’ve picked up a bit of knowledge and use it as best we can: don’t try to centrally plan your economy, there’s probably nothing to be gained by restricting international trade, screw with the price system at your peril and if you persistently spend more than you take in you will eventually come to regret it. Government can’t be everything to everyone, but there are things it takes a coercive body to make happen and even if you don’t call it a government it will probably have to act like one.
These things I am pretty sure of, but the rest? We’ll just have to work that out between us, won’t we?