« Hyperbolize Much | Main | TV Time »

Empiricism, Liberalism, and Consequentialism

Jonathan Chait responds to my concerns about the looming public health dystopia (and I respond back) below the fold:

You argue that liberal pragmatism is politically weak, and I agree with you. I had thought about making that point, but it seemed like a diversion from my central thesis. But yes, have a platform that constantly changes and can’t be explained on a bumper sticker is a serious electoral weakness. I think it can be overcome – Clinton overcame it -- but it’s a weakness.

Your quarrel with my argument centers around a reduction ad absurdum argument that my pragmatism would lead to a totalitarian dystopia of banned junk food and mandatory workouts. But that wouldn’t be pragmatic at all. It would make people tremendously unhappy. People like eating cheeseburgers even if it shortens their life span. They wouldn’t like government agents pointing a rifle at them while they pant away on the treadmill. Such a system would obviously decrease the sum of human happiness. Pragmatism doesn’t mean single-mindedly pursuing one metric of human improvement without taking account of other factors.

But even if it somehow were the case that pragmatism could, at some level of logical absoluteness, lead to your totalitarian scenario, your argument doesn’t really address my central point. What I’m trying to describe is American politics as it exists. My claim is that contemporary economic liberalism is basically pragmatic, and therefore better able to formulate practically-effective policies than contemporary conservatism, which (like socialism) is fundamentally ideological.

I  thought you’d be grabbed by the fact that my piece was more philosophically-oriented than your average magazine piece. Of course it wasn’t nearly philosophically-oriented enough to withstand your analysis. But I didn’t intend the piece as a pure philosophical treatise. (I took my last philosophy course more than 10 years ago.) It’s possible that I used some philosophy jargon incorrectly and therefore inadvertently suggested that my argument means something other than what it I intended. My basic point is this: people often think that liberals and conservatives have different conceptions about the proper size of government, and they do. But the more precise distinction is that liberals are agnostic about the size of government, and therefore more evidence-based in their approach to public policy, and therefore better able to make policies that create a better life for most Americans (as most people would understand it, and excluding those people who think small government is a good in and of itself.)

If, despite my many caveats, the above definition endorses an ideology that would lead to mandatory facial tattoos or mass slaughter of some unfortunate demographic group or the abolition of football, please believe me that I did not intend to do so.

My reply: Agreed, basically.

(Most) American liberals are committed to a pragmatic problem-solving model of government in a way that (most) American conservatives and American libertarians are not. This makes liberals good people to vote for if you want pragmatic problem-solving from your government. Since I do want pragmatic problem-solving, I tend to think you should elect liberals. This is also why the non-liberals at Marginal Revolution make for congenial reading to me to despite their libertarian orientation. Tyler Cowen and Alex Tabbarrok also share my pragmatic problem-solving approach to policy issues even if they (often) come to different conclusions about it. They and I (and Jon) are all offshoots of the same consequentialist brand classical liberal reformism you see in Adam Smith, J.S. Mill, and Jeremy Benthan. Even if Tyler and Alex hew closer to the original policy prescriptions, we're all working broadly inside that tradition.

The quibble I meant to raise was merely that a pragmatic problem-solving approach to governance doesn't get you anywhere unless you first specify what the problems to be solved are. This process is difficult, especially at the level of abstract philosophizing, since different problem-solving efforts tend to interact. Jon believes he can dodge the perverse results of public health totalitarianism because such policies would "decrease the sum of human happiness." In other words, by adopting a Benthamite utilitarianism. I'm pulled toward this view myself, but it's not without it's own problems. All brands of consequentialism, moreover, tend to push you toward Parfit's "Repugnant Conclusion" which many people, including Parfit who ultimately holds that it's correct, find rather repugnant.

Still, all views have their problems, and I think this sort of thing -- pragmatic, empiricially oriented consequentialism, is the best way to go. I merely wanted to point out that this position does have its own dilemmas, dilemmas which perhaps can be solved by people smarter than me at some point in the future.

On the politics, which I think is interesting, part of the problem with this sort of view is that it tends to make defeats self-reenforcing. The case for Al Gore in 2000 actually good be put down in a simple postage-stamp kind of way -- "Things are good, keep the team that's been running the show and bringing the good times." And had he won and kept delivering good government, Democrats could have kept running on a platform of good government and gradual but real amelioration of living conditions (just as the Clinton years managed to produce steady progress in wages for the poor without any major new programmatic achievements) and, perhaps, winning. Once you're out of power, though, it becomes very hard to articulate a new platform and win public support.

February 18, 2005 | Permalink

TrackBack

TrackBack URL for this entry:
http://www.typepad.com/services/trackback/6a00d8345160fd69e200d83457e45269e2

Listed below are links to weblogs that reference Empiricism, Liberalism, and Consequentialism:

» Means to an end from coffee grounds
I feel like a laggard [historian] for writing about this two days after the essay was posted at TNR, but that's how quickly these things move! Anyway, Jon Chait argues that "[American] liberalism is, by its essence, unideological and simply... [Read More]

Tracked on Feb 24, 2005 12:08:00 PM

Comments

Even happiness isn't the point. If we really wanted that, we could just wire everyone's brains for maximum pleasure and set up a system to keep our bodies alive while we blissed out.

Posted by: Matt G. | Feb 18, 2005 12:28:32 PM

"The quibble I meant to raise was merely that a pragmatic problem-solving approach to governance doesn't get you anywhere unless you first specify what the problems to be solved are."

It seems to me Bush would fall squarely into this description, except he's in your opinion working on the wrong problems. It also explains Americans biggest problem with liberals - they'll trying to solve the wrong problems.

Posted by: Chad | Feb 18, 2005 12:39:58 PM

Modern American liberalism is crap. It doesn't even try to solve any problems, just to alleviate them, and only when there is little or no resistance; it's the ideology of a coward with good intentions. And what's worse - once in a while liberals get a bad case of rabies and then they turn into neocons. It's rather wicked, I must say.

Posted by: abb1 | Feb 18, 2005 12:42:38 PM

At least part of the problem is technocratic Dems have a very different culture of understanding what constitutes reliable evidence of a "reasonable belief." That is, it's possible to be a technocratic Republican and get to the same policy positions as this Administration. You could, for example, reasonably believe that eminent existential threats to the US allow for severe restrictions on civil rights - most Dems aren't really bothered by those restrictions during, for example, the Civil War. The difference is that Republicans seem to think that the mere existence of radical Islamists that hate us is an existential threat. Thus the civil rights restrictions they endorse - no lawyer/no trial, for example - are reasonable technocratic responses. I happen to think that their appraisal of risk is crazy, and that there is lots evidence to support my view that it's crazy. But they don't agree with my appraisal of the risks involved. (See, e.g., Posner's fear of grapefruit-sized nuclear bombs (somewhere on Leiter's blog, IIRC)). And I don't know what that leaves us with, except standing on the sidelines and begging them not to be such wusses.

Posted by: SomeCallMeTim | Feb 18, 2005 12:53:38 PM

Liberalism in its ascendecy wasn't very pragmatic. It was pretty idealistic and not very result oriented. The institutions that stuck around tend to be pretty useful though. The current pragmatic orientation of liberalism, while a good thing, is a sign of liberalism's electoral weakness.

On the subject of Marginal Revolutions. Tyler Cowen has interesting opinions that make you think. Alex Tabbarrok is a hack.

Posted by: joe o | Feb 18, 2005 1:12:25 PM

"American liberals are committed to a pragmatic problem-solving model of government in a way that (most) American conservatives and American libertarians are not."


http://www.ralphreed.com/blog.htm
Ralph Reed: "President Bush believes very strongly that he has been elected to solve problems, not pass the problems he has inherited on to his successors. That is why he is working to insure the long-term fiscal solvency of Social Security, and it is why he is leading the fight against terrorism, which our nation neglected for too long."

Does this mean that Ralph Reed and President Bush aren't "most conservatives", that Ralph Reed is full of hot air, or Matt Yglesias doesn't understand what's going on outside of his small world?

Posted by: Chad | Feb 18, 2005 1:16:26 PM

When dealing with a solvency problem of debatable proportions "pragamatism" is the first thing I think of when I hear ideas like borrowing a few trillions and throwing it into the market.

Posted by: absynthe | Feb 18, 2005 1:23:14 PM

Matt, any comments on the appointment of John Negroponte as intelligence head? - I'll bet that does more to impact public health in the next couple years than anything - scary...

Also, not a good sign for liberatarians or leftists...

Check out these posts on the subject:

http://bloogeyman.blogspot.com/2005/02/everything-is-ponteing-to-trouble.html

http://newest.warblogging.com/journal/1148

Hope this starts getting more visibility than it has been...

Posted by: The Healthinator | Feb 18, 2005 1:27:09 PM

Chad,
I believe MY is working with an implicit understanding of the well documented divergence of Bushian rhetoric and Bushian policy -- perhaps some day 'Bushian' will actually be defined as the existence of such a gulf.
Bush policy is not in the least based on empiricism -- it is based on faith.

Posted by: theCoach | Feb 18, 2005 1:38:48 PM

"Pragmatism doesn’t mean single-mindedly pursuing one metric of human improvement without taking account of other factors."

From a practical standpoint, the form of pragmatism being discussed favors easily quantified metrics over tough to quantify metrics. That is why the health-dystopia is not easily dismissed. It is easy to show that 20 minutes on a treadmill will improve your health--it is tough to show how much it will make you unhappy to be forced to do so. It is easy to show how the cheeseburgers hurt your health, it isn't easy to quantify how good they taste.

"(Most) American liberals are committed to a pragmatic problem-solving model of government in a way that (most) American conservatives and American libertarians are not."

I don't buy that. It took Democrats decades to come around to obviously needed changes in the welfare system. There are still a huge number of defenders of rent controls in New York. Liberals have an excellent focus on temporary amelioration but they often don't have a good grasp on the fact that amelioration and problem solving can work in different directions when talking about problem solving.

Posted by: Sebastian Holsclaw | Feb 18, 2005 1:45:40 PM

OK, I'll bite, what's Parfit's Repugnant Conclusion? Is it anything like the Utility Monster problem?

Posted by: C.J.Colucci | Feb 18, 2005 1:48:49 PM

Then there are subjects like gun control, where liberals are just out there in la la land as far as respect for empirical experience is concerned. I mean, half the country had successfully adopted concealed carry reform, when you guys were predicting that there'd be "blood in the streets" if my state of Michigan tried it.

Posted by: Brett Bellmore | Feb 18, 2005 1:57:15 PM

Parfit's Repugnant Conclusion is essentially that if you rank possible worlds according to "total" utility, then adding people whose lives are barely worth living to a population that's well off improves the situation, because they ARE positive contributions to total utility, even if small.

Posted by: Brett Bellmore | Feb 18, 2005 2:05:34 PM

Yes, I'll second C.J. Colucci's questions. What is Parfit's Repugnant Conclusion?

I am not exactly a liberal, more of a progressive. I'm quite conservative about a lot of things, but I can't stand anything to do with the modern conservative movement.

I'm not exactly an agnostic on the size of government. In general, I would say that less government is better except when it isn't. (I do support universal healthcare, but I would oppose a state takeover of the health care system a la Britain's NHS, because I do think the outcomes are worse AND because it tends to restrict freedom.)

I have real problems with consequentialism and utilitarianism as philosophies. Those concerns kept me away from economics,, for example, but the biggest danger to my mind is that it can lead to liberal apologists for torture like Alan Dershowitz. Most people find the practical argument that information obtained through torture unreliable to be convincing, but I say that if you could prove beyond any doubt that torturing someone really would reveal the location of the bomb and save thousands of lives, it wouldn't matter. It would still be terribly wrong. That's my problem with the technocrats, and it may explain why I never really trusted the Clintons--not enough of a moral vision.

Posted by: Abby | Feb 18, 2005 2:06:17 PM

Liberals have an excellent focus on temporary amelioration but they often don't have a good grasp on the fact that amelioration and problem solving can work in different directions when talking about problem solving.

Whoa, I am agreeing with Sebastian Holsclaw on something. Something's gone terribly wrong, obviously.

Posted by: abb1 | Feb 18, 2005 2:13:27 PM

Those concerns kept me away from economics,, for example, but the biggest danger to my mind is that it can lead to liberal apologists for torture like Alan Dershowitz.

Dersh's problems don't stem from consequentialism. Alan on his own would never have come to the tortured conclusions that he does.

Alan thought that it was a terrible libel when Palestinians would allege they were tortured by Israeli's until Israel started admitting it tortured people and made a law making it technically illegal to torture people for fun and not without some more serious purpose. Suddenly, Alan finds the moral case for torture.

I guarantee that if Israel started putting up bouncy castles on every street corner he would start churning out articles about the benefits of bouncy castles and it would have nothing to do with consequentialism or utilitarianism.

Posted by: absynthe | Feb 18, 2005 2:16:12 PM

The difficulty with avoiding Parfit's Conclusion, is that if you try to maximize average utility instead of total, you arrive at the conclusion that the ideal world is a handful of really, REALLY happy people.

The easiest way to avoid it is to just decide that utilitarianism is a crock, of course.

Posted by: Brett Bellmore | Feb 18, 2005 2:19:31 PM

...and it would have nothing to do with consequentialism or utilitarianism

It sure would be utilitarianism of a sort.

Posted by: abb1 | Feb 18, 2005 4:05:27 PM

Matt -

"The quibble I meant to raise was merely that a pragmatic problem-solving approach to governance doesn't get you anywhere unless you first specify what the problems to be solved are."

You are overstating this point, for two reasons. First, acceptance of the legitimacy of a particular procedural framework necessarily has implications for policy, if not requirements. Second, a major characteristic of the conservative ascendance is its branding of state action immoral. The best quote comes from Richard Land, in the NYT:

But Dr. Richard Land, president of the ethics and religious liberty commission of the 16-million-member Southern Baptist Convention, called Mr. Wallis "a left-wing evangelical" ill-qualified to instruct Democrats on conservative Christian values. "The Democrats are turning to the guy they can find that is least scary to them," Dr. Land said.

He argued that Mr. Wallis misunderstood conservative evangelical voters because he conflated the moral issue of alleviating poverty with the practical issue of whether Democratic policies are the way to do it.

"I don't know anybody who is in favor of poverty," Dr. Land said. "He doesn't seem to have adequately comprehended that the debate is over, based on the 30-year experiment, about whether big government or free markets work better at producing wealth for everybody."

Posted by: Dave M | Feb 18, 2005 4:29:04 PM

I don't know either Dr. Land or Mr. Wallis, but I'm quite sure neither of them has any special insight into what policies best alleviate poverty. At best, the religious expert can give us reasons to take the "fuck 'em, let 'em starve" option off the table -- or, in many cases, force people who actually hold that position to disguise it as opposition to "ineffective" policies while not putting forward anything of their own likely to work.

Posted by: C.J.Colucci | Feb 18, 2005 5:15:05 PM

C. J. Colucci:

That was sort of my point. Jim Wallis (editor of Sojourners) doesn't want to rule out governmental efforts to alleviate poverty, adopting a pragmatic approach. Richard Land, on the other hand, dogmatically rejects the idea that governmental efforts can ever be successful in the alleviation of poverty (though not in the imposition of sectarian mores). The "agnostic" position, on the other hand, is the liberal position. That's really what the Democratic party is about these days: proffering potential solutions to generally accepted social problems. The Democratic Party, with its conservative and progressive wings, encompasses virtually all sincere policy discussion.

The problem is twofold. First, pseudo-conservatives are steadily chipping away at a perhaps imaginary prior consensus as to what our social problems are (i.e.- poverty good, discrimination ok, etc.), thereby forcing liberalism to stop putting the rabbit into the hat. Second, pseudo-conservatives are steadily chipping away at the idea that debating policy is a desirable thing. Dissent is treasonous, resolve is paramount, government is evil (except when it helps us)...

Democrats have the dual challenge of, in the long run, defending the very idea that government is capable of doing good things (best illustrated in the Social Security debate, actually), and the idea that discussion of ideas is desirable.

Posted by: Dave M | Feb 18, 2005 5:35:53 PM

Debate is great. In fact, I've got an idea: The next time Democrats don't like a nominee, and want to filibuster, they can do so by debating the nominee's merits. Instead of just filing a slip of paper. What do you say?

The real problem is that there are a fair number of Democrats who can't seem to accept that, debate or no debate, at the end of the day it's the people who won the elections who get to make policy. Which means you're not entitled to win the debate.

Posted by: Brett Bellmore | Feb 18, 2005 6:26:11 PM

Brett, what are you talking about? The notion that minority parties are to ultimately step aside for the majority party's agenda, and that debateis merely a formality rather than a platform for the expression of legislative power seems to fly in the face of the idea of representative democracy. All 100 people on the senate floor won elections, and have the permission of their constituents to act in both active and defensive roles. More importantly, representative democracy is all about creating an intermediate forum between the popular vote and the actual decision making, so that lawmaking can be debated and practiced by people who have better judgement than the mob. As a voter, I want my representatives to partake in strenuous debate with the presentation of competing facts and judgements, and to show the ability to make pragmatic choices after getting all the facts. Granted, this is hardly a realistic expectation these days with the majority party, Democrats included, generally perceiving the voters' endorsement of its ideological campaign slogans as a mandate to pursue them blindly in Washington.


I still believe there is plenty of pragmatism in the GOP, especially from people like Olympia Snowe and Arlen Spector who seem to be holding the fortress for the very pragmatic and beneficial notion of small(er) government rather than joining the doomed crusade to raid the most popular and useful remnants of liberalism. However, the political pressure on those from the right, with ideologues booming from the White House and paranoid hatred of 'the left' echoing among the media and the constituents, makes it nearly impossible for them to maintain their good judgement and the enthusiasm of their vote-base as well.

Democratic liberals, on the other hand, are forced to be either pragmatic or irrelevent in their opposition to the hard right judicial and economic policies. The downside is that they can no longer run with an irrelevant ideological left wing message in their districts. The upside is that they have the opportunity to define themselves as men and women of sound judgement who fight to oppose reckless right-wing policies that are increasingly arousing the suspicions and concerns of voters. My hope is that the wellspring of paranoia that continues to brand democrats as radical socialist ideologues will have weakened a little by 2008 once voters get a better taste of President Bush's continuing clash with reality. But democrats have got to do their part to promote the 'judgement card' while promising practical, region-specific ideas, if only as a way to connect with voters.

Posted by: Jake Haisley | Feb 18, 2005 8:53:21 PM

I'm not suggesting that debate should be purely a formality, and indeed I'd like to see the Democrats in Congress make a greater effort to defeat Republicans on some issues, relating to a few of the real civil liberties that you are willing to acknowledge the existance of. There are a few procedural reforms you might pursue, too, to limit the power of the leadership, now that they're Republicans... And if you go at them seriously, you might peel free enough of the Republican caucus to actually win on them.

My point is simply, that the Senate rule that's exploited in order to filibuster, is one that's meant to make sure that debate is not artifically cut off, NOT meant to allow a minority to prevail in the end.

So, have the blasted debate, don't just file a slip. You've got the right to be heard, not the right to get your way in the end... THAT, you have to win in that debate, by changing minds.

Posted by: Brett Bellmore | Feb 18, 2005 9:43:34 PM

Liberalism in its ascendecy wasn't very pragmatic. It was pretty idealistic and not very result oriented. The institutions that stuck around tend to be pretty useful though.

From what I remember of the late 1960's, I have to agree that back then liberalism was idealistic, and definitely not pragmatic.

The current pragmatic orientation of liberalism, while a good thing, is a sign of liberalism's electoral weakness.

I'm not sure what the cause and effect is here. Did liberalism become more pragmatic because liberal ideology became less popular, forcing liberals to look for pragmatic justifications of liberal programs? Or did liberalism become more pragmatic over time, and therefore lose the ability to attract voters who were looking for ideologues?

Posted by: Kenneth Almquist | Feb 18, 2005 10:01:29 PM

The comments to this entry are closed.