The Dissident
POLITICS AND CULTURE FROM NEW PERSPECTIVES
Donate | Contact | Masthead | Discuss

DISSIDENT No. 3


POLITICS AND DEMOCRACY

Everything You Know About Politics

The Thoughtless Orthodoxy

Wal-Mart: The Big Friendly Giant


BOOKS + IDEAS + PROVOCATIONS

Islamic Democracy; An Exercise in Futility?

The Wisdom of Markets Isn't the Wisdom of Crowds

Hunters, Liars, and Philosopher Kings

Modern Economics as a Flight from Reality


ARCHIVE

DISSIDENT No. 1

DISSIDENT No. 2


books + ideas + provocations
Hunters, Liars, and Philosopher Kings: A Response to Jeffrey Friedman's "Theory Gets a Reality Check"
BY SEB BENTHALL



discuss this article

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 politics itself.

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 political debate.

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 policy outcomes?

Probably.

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 anti-political revolution.

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 itself.

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 — goes.

But that would be throwing out the baby with the bathwater.

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.

discuss this article

Seb Benthall is a senior at Brown University.

 

 

Donate

Contact

Masthead

Discuss
the articles

Distribute
on your campus