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21.3.12

Evidence and ideology

I agree with Alex Berezow that our political system would benefit from a greater focus on scientific values of evidence and reason. Where I disagree is his claim that libertarianism is particularly well suited to accomplish this. While there are libertarians committed to reason, and there are certain issues (such as the War on Drugs) where libterarians are uniquely attentive to the evidence, this is also a movement that has more than its share of climate change denialists. And I have some pretty serious doubts that Ron Paul, who Berezow praises, had any real evidence to back up his newsletter's claim that "95 percent of the black males in [Washington DC] are semi-criminal or entirely criminal."

But Berezow is not just off-base about the science-compatibility of libertarianism. He is also confused about the relationship between science and ideology. He writes:

... the seductive allure of libertarianism relies on its simple assumptions: People should be as free as possible. Our laws should reflect reality. Government policies should be analyzed using logic, not ideology. There are no grand appeals to shaping the world in America's image, no quixotic promotion of economic equality and no obsession over the moral character of the nation.


There is no necessary conflict between promotion of equality and the use of logic. Ideologies are grand narratives that weave together some basic factual claims with fundamental values. Equality is one of the values that makes up liberal ideology. A logical liberal would then employ reason and evidence to determine how best to pursue the goal of equality -- What are the actual inequality levels between certain groups? What is the relative effectiveness of in-kind welfare (eg food stamps) versus cash grants versus structural changes (eg pro-union regulations) versus laissez-faire? Similarly, a logical conservative would investigate which policies would work best at encouraging church attendance, strengthening heterosexual nuclear families, and reducing abortion. Libertarianism strikes me as less in need of logic and evidence than liberalism or conservatism, because libertarian values -- such as "maximize negative freedom with respect to the state" -- can be translated into policy with a minimum of empirical questions.

Indeed, of the three most popular US political philosophies, libertarianism frequently strikes me as the most ideological. Libertarians promote their philosophy as a unified narrative, founded on a central value of freedom and more intellectually tight than conservatives or liberals who are allegedly inconsistent in their views of economic versus social freedom. Libertarians ask us to look at the big picture and see how the status quo is fundamentally flawed regardless of which of the two main parties is in power.

Libertarianism even has the tendency to turn reason itself into an ideology (after all, they named their most prominent political magazine after it!). Natalie Reed gave an excellent analysis of this phenomenon in the context of the skeptic community. People can easily become convinced that particular conclusions are endorsed by Reason, and therefore that opposition to them is anti-Reason. One particular way of thinking is treated as the pure expression of an eternal logic, closing the mind off to its possible flaws*.

I'm all for incorporating science into politics and policymaking. Just don't assume it will necessarily follow along with libertarianism.

*Note that I use the realist word "flaws" here. This is not a relativist argument urging us to respect "other ways of knowing" as all equally valid. This is a skeptical argument warning us not to be too quick to assume that we've hit upon the one right procedure for thinking about the world.

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