Hunters, Liars, and Philosopher Kings: A Response to Jeffrey Friedman's "Theory Gets a Reality Check"
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BY SEB BENTHALL
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PEOPLE ARE IGNORANT. THE AVERAGE MEMBER OF THE
public doesn’t know the most elementary information about
politics, and certainly can’t make sense of economics.
This is the opening shot from a new marksman in
the political arena, political theorist Jeffrey Friedman, in his Dissident No. 2 article, "Theory Gets a Reality Check."
This big-game hunter’s quarry is no less than democratic
Friedman believes that there are two ways people
try to solve social and economic problems. The first is
to venture into the political jungle and intervene in the
free market. Using what Albert Hirschman calls political
“voice” to arrive at solutions to social problems is
tempting, because we tend to believe either that we
know which policies will give us what we want (whether
individually or as a polity) or to believe that even if we
don’t know which policies are best, we can trust some
expert who does know.
But – according to our classical-liberal hunter – that
is a terrible mistake. Most of us know hardly anything
about politics; and the oracular experts, in their ivory
temples, are charlatans.
Friedman’s problem-solving alternative to politics
is the free market. The ability of individuals to freely
enter into and “exit” from voluntary exchanges sends
clear signals about society’s desires, and rewards only
entrepreneurs who address those wants. Granted, markets
are not perfect and there are externalities, but the
political cures are usually worse than the disease. In
other words, it is better to be served by markets – even
though they are imperfect – than to be bound to the
ball-and-chain policies of bumblers and quacks.
Unfortunately, our ambitious hunter has gone astray.
While markets do accomplish a lot of good and political
ignorance is a serious concern, Friedman’s argument
for laissez-faire capitalism does not hold up under its
own weight. Rather than taking down politics, our lone
gunman comes dangerously close to shooting himself
in the foot.
By understanding his argument, we can gain insight
into the limitations of politics; but if we are passionate
about improving society, we need to stay sharp, take up
arms, and enter a different jungle: the jungle of everyday
MORE HEADS ARE BETTER THAN ONE, SOMETIMES
Yes, people are stupid. Or, at the very least, they are
shockingly ignorant about politics.
Evidence of the public’s general ignorance abounds
– see last year’s National Geographic Society survey,
which noted with weary dismay that 11 percent of
Americans can’t find the United States on the map,
47 percent can’t locate the Indian subcontinent, and
almost two-thirds can’t find Iraq. Of course, it’s not
just geography; Americans don’t even understand the
basics of their own Constitution. In 1979, 76 percent
of the public could not explain the First Amendment in
even the vaguest way. Likewise, it’s true that the public
doesn’t understand economics. In 1989, 43 percent of
the public did not know what a recession is.
And yet we live in, and even actively promote, a system
that empowers the untrained mob: democracy. On
the surface, it would seem that a basic requirement for
democracy should be an informed electorate. Citizens
need to understand the policies that will be inflicted on
them if they are to choose among them wisely in the
voting booth. Or, at the very least, if they do not have
an in-depth understanding of political issues, the public
needs to be good at picking leaders who do.
Given the public’s almost startlingly broad political
ignorance, can we trust the electorate to deliver good
Of course, no one is an expert on everything, and
few of us know anything in any depth at all. But there
is some hope if we remember an oft-overlooked fact,
lost to logicians and political theorists but cherished by
statisticians: errors can cancel each other out. As long as
on any particular question, random citizens will be able
to provide an accurate answer slightly more often than
somebody picking an answer totally at random, then
their voice is useful, because the more such citizens
who chime in, the more likely the majority of them will
agree on the right answer. Taking a vote makes sense if
you think that people are more likely to be right than
wrong, even if no individual knows for sure if she is right
or wrong. Public ignorance need not doom democracy.
“THE FALSE GOD OF EXPERTISE”
Perhaps, however, there is no reason to think that a voter
picked at random is likelier to be right than a political
roulette wheel. In that event, aggregating people’s votes
will not solve the problem of public ignorance.
In this scenario, the defenders of politics will
have to retreat to elitism. While the public may know
nothing of politics, political experts do. As long as the
experts are in power, we can trust that political solutions
will generally serve us well.
But the stakes are high, and depending on experts is
a risky gamble. How can we be certain that experts are
not, as Friedman claims, “false gods”? How do we know
that experts actually exist and can be reliably identified?
The arguments against the use of expertise in
politics come in three flavors. The first, exemplified by
Friedman in “Theory Gets a Reality Check,” points to
the recent history of social science to argue that, rather
than progressing over time toward an ascendant truth,
social sciences are regressing into a quagmire of dogmatism
and popular bias. A given set of currently popular
experts – Friedman adduces Marx, Durkheim, and
Foucault – are shown to have placed sloppy reasoning at
the heart of their theories. After tracing the pernicious
influence of their fallacies throughout contemporary
social science, Friedman challenges us: Why should we
put our faith in pseudo-sciences that still honor the
bogus? Surely we ought not to trust them or the so-called
experts they produce.
Friedman’s second argument against trusting the
expertise of elites is more subtle. He claims that expertise
in social science is questionable because it rests
on dubious methodological foundations. The lack of
controlled social-science experimentation makes statistical
hypothesis testing difficult, if not impossible.
The empirical research is a sham. The opinions of
academics are therefore hopelessly prone to social and
historical influence instead of the influence of evidence.
“Experts” are unable to think outside of the paradigm
in which they are trained, and therefore are ignorant in
the worst sense — not merely ignorant of the facts, but
ignorant of their own ignorance.
Finally, Friedman asks, whom do we trust to coronate
the philosopher kings? Even supposing there are
honest and competent scholars who have, by luck or by
superlative intelligence, avoided the mistakes of their
colleagues and attained real expertise, how could we
ever find them? We might use heuristics, like educational
pedigree, but our institutions do not work miracles:
academics disagree with each other on almost all things,
which is evidence enough that any one of them, taken at
random, will likely be incorrect.
Moreover, if we knew enough about politics to properly
evaluate a particular candidate’s claims, we wouldn’t
need to be searching for experts in the first place!
TRUST NO ONE?
Epimenides of Knossos, a Cretan circa 600 B.C.,
proclaimed that “All Cretans are liars.” Many centuries
later, analytic philosophers like Bertrand Russell
pointed out the logical conundrum of such a claim. If
Epimenides, a Cretan, says that all Cretans are liars, he
must be saying that he too is a liar. So we have no reason
to believe him.
The way out of the dilemma is to notice that
Epimenides must simply be mistaken: his claim, when
spoken by him, is self-refuting. We should not and cannot
take him seriously. The moral of the story is one that
has been relearned in every line of philosophical inquiry:
general, negative statements about one’s own veracity or
capacity for knowledge undermine themselves.
As outlined above, Friedman’s ignorance argument
does its best to abolish all hope for expertise. And with
experts out of the way, there’s no room for political
meddling; we should just let the free market run its
course. But before we denounce all social scientists, and
social science itself, as unreliable or, worse, fraudulent,
we should look more carefully at the anthem of this
If we are denouncing all social science because we
have demonstrated that prominent social scientists’
arguments are flawed, then we presuppose the success
of our own arguments, despite their coming from the
same discipline. And if we tell Kuhnian stories about
scientists caught within a historically situated paradigm,
we are drawing on a social-scientific theory about
social science, built in part from historical accounts
of its progress. So in both cases, those arguing against
trusting experts may be using social science to undermine
As Cretans know, this move is problematic. But suppose
we forget Epimenides and accept the spirit but not
the letter of Friedman’s warning against experts. Let’s
assume that most so-called experts are wrong and that we
wouldn’t be able to pick the right ones out of a crowd.
This line of reasoning leads to complete skepticism
about the social sciences – including the economics on
which Friedman draws for his exit-based alternative to
politics. If we cannot trust ourselves and can’t trust the
authorities, then we have no access to truths about the
way society works, and we might as well give up on the
political or economic intellectual project altogether.
Anything — laissez-faire, totalitarianism, anarcho-syndicalism
But that would be throwing out the baby with the
AN APPEAL TO REASON
Let’s retrace our steps to where we were just before we
took the skeptical dive.
We believed, until then, in our capacity to discriminate
good arguments from bad. In fact, it was our
ability to reason — to evaluate theories and methodologies
— that got us into a skeptical mess.
If we are to avoid complete skepticism regarding
politics or anything else in life, we need to trust our own
judgment at least enough for learning to be possible. If
a new argument passes our scrutiny, we may hold on to
it until we are faced with an effective counterargument.
There is no reason to think reason will fail us utterly: all
Cretans can’t be liars.
Once we recognize our own power to analyze
political arguments and scrutinize the evidence used by
social scientists, we can regain our confidence in social-scientific
inquiry and reinvigorate our interest in political
and economic affairs. This means that those who
are so inclined can continue the fight for laissez-faire
capitalism — or for anarcho-syndicalism, social democracy,
or the status quo.
But now the going gets tougher. The meta-debate
about the possibility of knowledge is over; we have
restored politics to a domain where knowledge, and
therefore expertise, is king. We can strive for expertise
ourselves, engage ourselves in the issues at hand and
fight for what we believe to be the greater cause, all the
while acknowledging our own fallibility and maintaining
an open mind.
If we wish to fight for laissez-faire capitalism, we
need to defend it with reasons on the same plane as
those who would have the government impinge on it. If
an economist points out a market failure due to information
asymmetry, or a sociologist points to deleterious
effects of inequality in society, we need to wrestle with
those ideas seriously, rather than remaining in voluntary
ignorance of them.
But that’s a tall order. We are intellectually mortal,
and cannot be politically omniscient. Sometimes, we
need to defer to experts, which means, in the best cases,
choosing our authorities.
Here comes the last stand of the ignorance argument.
How can we select the right expert on a topic on
which we have no expertise? How can we choose based
on anything other than the faulty heuristics of academic
degrees and rhetorical force?
We need to use our heads. Choosing an expert is
risky, but risks can be mitigated by critical thinking
and reasonable heuristics. We can identify fallacious
intellectual trends, like the functionalism of Marx and
Foucault that Friedman criticizes, and dismiss the so-called
experts who ally themselves with such fallacious
ideas. But we can also identify careful thinkers with
whom we agree on a number of issues and have confidence
that their worldview is like our own. It may be
difficult, but success is a matter of degree; recall that
the flourishing of a democratic society could depend
only on our being able to select good experts better
than pure chance would.
Politics may not automatically put the real experts
in power without our intervention, but engaged thinkers
can do their best to weed out the good experts from the
bad. We can identify where market failures exist and how
to solve them, or who to trust about such things. And we
can direct our idealism and activism accordingly.
Rather than a wholesale libertarian rejection of
politics, a commitment to social welfare requires an
active and humble engagement with political ideas
and a willingness to follow the best ones we can find,
whether they lead to laissez-faire policies, regulation, or
redistribution. We may be surrounded by liars, soothsayers,
false gods, and lone gunmen, but if we can appeal
to reason, we can make it through the jungle.
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Seb Benthall is a senior at Brown University.