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Liberalism and Empiricism

The other day I remarked that I thought America's progressive movement needed more ideology and less programmatic commitments and ad hoc coalition building. Mark Schmitt said I was wrong. While contemplating Mark's rejoinder, what showed up in my inbox but an email from Jon Chait featuring a sneaky pass-through link to his contribution to the TNR 90th anniversary issue. He argues that liberalism is, by its essence, unideological and simply committed to empiricism. Jon thinks of liberalism, in other words, as coextensive with the "reality-based community" that believes solutions "emerge from . . . judicious study of discernable reality.<

There's a lot of merit to that argument, but a serious weakness as well. Even if you don't think the Humean slogan "no ought from an is" quite expresses the truth of the situation, there's clearly something to it. Economics underdetermines economic policy, and adding in sociology, physics, and whatever else you may like doesn't change that fact. Liberalism isn't really unideological simply because nothing can be. Rather, the brand of liberalism Jon is describing is committed to a technocratic version of consequentialism undergirded by some theory of the good. This poses some problems.

One simple problem is that technocratism has a pretty limited political appeal. Timothy Burke had a very worthwhile essay (PDF) on this theme that he wrote in the immediate aftermath of the election. This is something lot of liberals of the "well-educated professionals" variety (i.e., those likely to be reading blogs) have some trouble understanding. When David Adesnik and Dan Drezner -- both of whom clearly despised John Kerry and found a great deal to admire in George W. Bush -- endorsed Kerry on the grounds that Bush was unacceptable after all because "As a professional researcher, I think I simply find it almost impossible to trust someone whose thought process is apparently so different from my own" that sounded to me like an irrefutable argument. The reality, however, is that most people aren't professional researchers or people who share that kind of mindset.

Beyond the narrow problem of crafting an appealing rhetoric, there's still a quite robust philosophical/ideological challenge posed by the need to specify goods in order to make sense of the technocratic agenda. Technocratic liberalism probably finds itself most robustly articulated in the form of the public health state which aims, in essence, to get people to live longer. This works out nicely because "it's better for people to be alive than dead" is an utterly uncontroversial claim outside of the highly unusual cases that give rise to interest in assisted suicide. Still, pushed to the margins it becomes slightly absurd. A tax on junk food would improve public health. So would a ban on smoking even in bars and clubs. A total ban on selling cigarettes and junk food would improve it more. As would, probably, a total ban on alcohol sales. But for that matter, so would a ban on fried chicken, french fries, and, indeed, the deep friers in which such foods are cooked.

One could get a panel of nutritionists together, have them come up with a restrictive menu of healthy foods (which would still allow for a pretty large degree of variety) and ban everything not on the list. The government could establish free gyms everywhere complete with treadmills and issue identity cards to everyone. You would be required to swipe your card and run on the treadmill for 30 minutes (at an appropriate heart rate, needless to say) three times a week or else pay a fine. The fine would be pretty low if you just missed four or five days a year, to allow for the fact that sometimes there are genuine extenuating circumstances. But fines would scale upwards with repeated failures to exercise seriously punishing the slackers. And the fines would be income-linked so as to take a serious bite out of even the rich. Exemptions -- or, better, alternative methods of discharging the exercise obligation -- could be worked out for people with disability. These two policies -- or even merely the mandatory treadmill one -- would do a great deal to improve health outcomes in the United States. A great deal more, I dare say, than would universal health care.

The trouble, however, is that we've now clearly gone beyond the bounds of sound liberal empiricist technocracy and established something more like Public Health Totalitarianism.

Pure empiricism was vacuous, so we tried to fill it with a simple, uncontroversial Good -- it's better to live than to die. But by leaning too heavily on that Good, we wound up trampling all over freedom and other Goods. Working this all out in a way that does justice to the complexity of human life and the pluralism of value turns out to be very difficult. I don't have any particular answers to offer here (if I thought I had -- or ever would have -- the capacity to outline a highly specific theory of the good and then defend a variant of consequentialism based on that theory, I'd have stuck with philosophy) but it seemed worth pointing out.

February 18, 2005 | Permalink


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» Technocracy from Political Animal
TECHNOCRACY....This is a bit of an airy topic, but indulge me. Responding to a Jon Chait essay suggesting that liberalism is fundamentally nonideological, Matt Yglesias says:The brand of liberalism Jon is describing is committed to a technocratic versi... [Read More]

Tracked on Feb 18, 2005 12:25:05 PM

» 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 12:10:42 PM


Nor do most people desire to be led, or protected, by professional researchers. Nor do they all agree that the mindset of a professional researcher is the appropriate one for a leader.

Posted by: Brandon | Feb 18, 2005 10:52:51 AM

Would it make any difference if they did all agree? If there's any objective quality of 'appropriateness', a researcher's mindset would either be appropriate or not, and people's opinions on the matter would be irrelevant. If there's no such quality, then there's no truth of the matter - and if there's no truth involved, what does it matter whether someone has that mindset or not? If it doesn't make any difference, then the beliefs that it matters either positively or negatively are false.

Posted by: Matt G. | Feb 18, 2005 11:04:16 AM

That's the nice thing about libertarianism; Once you establish that liberty is the good the government exists to provide, you allow everybody to pursue their own vision of the good for themselves, to the extent possible without infringing on others' pursuit of their own favored goods. I think the Declaration of Independence put it best:

""We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. --That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed,..."

Government doesn't exist to make men happy, but merely to open the way for them to make themselves happy. Liberals tend to forget that.

Posted by: Brett Bellmore | Feb 18, 2005 11:05:57 AM


Matt, very nice, though somewhat obvious, debunking of Chait's silly (at least as your summarized it) argument.

What about Schmitt's? He isn't saying we (liberals) don't need conceptions of goods, he's expressing skepticism that we can sit down and agree on a coherent, unified conception of the good. What do you think of that?

Posted by: AF | Feb 18, 2005 11:24:23 AM

At this point in history, particularly in the US, it would be interesting to see how far you get with the good of 'species survival is better than extinction', or maybe national survival.
Combine that good with certain givens:

People like freedom and prosperity
Freedom means the ability to experience individuality and choice

As the many seek more widespread and deep prosperity,
Connectedness (of markets, individuals, etc),
Technologization, Efficiency, Standardization, Coordination of Security and Resource Management all increase
Let's call these trends Globalization

As the many seek freedom, Local/Cultural Distinctness, Empowerment, Choice, Unique Opportunities, Autonomy, are demanded
Let's call that Localization

Government must enable increasing Globalization and Localization in such a way as to avoid species self-destruction/extinction
It must become thoroughly neutral, transparent, accessible, responsive, balanced and judicious while accurately reflecting back to the populace the populace's own culture ... it must become a clear and wise mirror used for the purpose of efficiently coordinating the freedom/prosperity seeking of the onlookers

Posted by: jimw | Feb 18, 2005 11:33:17 AM

But this is exactly why liberalism is so confusing and messy. Conservatives have gotten themselves to a point where they believe A LOT of things are just absolutely good or bad, regardless of circumstances (which are mere technicalities). Hence, tax cuts are always good, economic regulation is always stifling, abortion is always wrong, etc, etc.

Liberals, on the other hand, tend to think that circumstances matter a lot, because ultimately they're concerned with practical results for people. The problem with this is that liberals tend to develop more nuanced and seemingly inconsistent positions on a lot of things.

For a lot of people, the certainty of conservative principles is simply more comfortable and compelling than the nuance of liberalism, because 1) in a scary world people like to believe their leaders are certain, and 2) most people intuitively believe that some things are inherently good/bad, right/wrong, and sometimes liberals come off as dismissing any type of absolute truth or right. And that doesn't work for most people.

I suspect there is actually some kind of attainable liberal set of absolute principles, and I suspect lots of people would actually agree with it, but getting there would require sacrficing a bit of nuance and run the risk of upsetting various members of the perilous coalition, not to mention leadership to get there.

Posted by: flip | Feb 18, 2005 11:34:44 AM

Liberty can hardly be the good the government exists to provide, Brett, unless there are other threats to my liberty than, as libertarians tend to suppose, government itself. And of course there are: the unrestricted exercises of "liberty" by those who have too much power over the lives of others, i.e., the rich.

Posted by: SqueakyRat | Feb 18, 2005 11:43:20 AM

Of course there are other threats to liberty besides one's own government... Primarily other governments, of course, but also less organized forms of criminality.

Posted by: Brett Bellmore | Feb 18, 2005 11:47:13 AM

So which is it, Brett? The provider of liberty or a form of criminality?

Posted by: SqueakyRat | Feb 18, 2005 12:00:06 PM

Matt G,

redness. If no one could agree about anything anyone else said was red, would we still have an appropriate criteria for redness? No, because correct use of the predicate red is dependent on rules about its use which we create. If there aren't any rules, then there isn't the property, but if there are, then there is. Just because something isn't reducible immediately to an empirical question which isn't dependent on the way language is used, it doesn't mean there's no truth about the matter. Rudeness is another obvious example.

Posted by: Rob | Feb 18, 2005 12:01:37 PM

Isn't that also the problem with feudalism? Feudal lords lived off of the labor of serfs, who benefitted by supporting the lords by being protected by them. But the greatest danger to serfs (besides disease and starvation, neither of which the lords did much about) were other feudal lords.

If governments are both the greatest defense against the loss of liberty and the greatest danger to liberty, maybe we should start rethinking the relationship between citizens and politicians.

Posted by: Matt G. | Feb 18, 2005 12:06:29 PM

"Primarily other governments, of course, but also less organized forms of criminality."

Monopolies of the sort that drove Teddy batshit were highly organized, and quite a bit more powerful than most governments of the time. Your particular faith is to believe that it is impossible for this to be so.

Libertarians would have quite a bit to gain in credibility by admitting that highly effective liberty constraining power exists independently of governments, and that historically, an important role of government has been to ensure a level playing field among all players.

Will that happen? Nah. It's just a matter of faith, after all.

Posted by: Russell L. Carter | Feb 18, 2005 12:08:27 PM

This raises an interesting question, namely: how do you organize people effectively if they don't share a core ideology?

The standard liberal answer over the years, of course, is "through their interests". However,
a) Interests are not necessarily divorced from ideology, and
b) Organizing through interests has led to the current progressive quandary of having a million "special interest" campaigns, rather than broader, overarching campaigns.

Chait's comments are also interesting in light of the conservative claim that conservatism is the negation of ideology. Maybe people just like to believe their own ideologies are, er, reality?

Posted by: Tom Strong | Feb 18, 2005 12:15:32 PM

All empirical evidence shows that empiricism alone does not inspire people to do great works.

I don't know if you need ideology per se, but you need shared values, grands and memorable themes, and a banner to gather under.

Maybe we have enough empiricists, but we need more meta-empiricists to study how to muster support for our empirically based programs.

Posted by: Paul Callahan | Feb 18, 2005 12:25:42 PM

"So which is it, Brett? The provider of liberty or a form of criminality?"

Why can't it be both? Essentially government is a highly evolved form of protection racket. Ideally it's more protection than racket, but it does have a distinct tendency to backslide into just being a racket, if circumstances allow. Which is why eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.

Posted by: Brett Bellmore | Feb 18, 2005 12:28:19 PM

"No, because correct use of the predicate red is dependent on rules about its use which we create. If there aren't any rules, then there isn't the property, but if there are, then there is."

But we can change whether there are rules or not. For a term to be useful, it has to refer to something beyond an arbitrary system of endless assignments. If, when we ask whether something is 'red', all we're doing is asking whether we've agreed to call it that, then the answer is whatever we say it is. If that's the case, why bother asking the question?

Posted by: Matt G. | Feb 18, 2005 12:33:01 PM

A tax on junk food would improve public health...As would, probably, a total ban on alcohol sales. But for that matter, so would a ban on fried chicken, french fries, and, indeed, the deep friers in which such foods are cooked.

While it might be demonstrable that universal abstention from these things might improve public health, it does not follow logically that a ban on them would; you seem to be neglecting that (1) bans are not completely effective, and (2) bans have (nonmonetary, particularly, in this discussion) costs of enforcement.

This is a particularly glaring oversight considering that you mention a complete ban on alcohol, which was attempted in this country, with some rather deleterious effects.

Posted by: cmdicely | Feb 18, 2005 12:49:40 PM

Chait's idea is the same old same old (John Dewey, Karl Popper), and it stopped working about 1988 with Dukakis, the competence candidate (who, as I remember wasn't terribly liberal; just from Massachusetts.) Regardless of the the intrinsic merits of this as a theory of governance, you have to get elected first.

It's really astonishing to me that anyone can still be saying this after 24 years of defeat. The big rap against Kerry and the Democrats from non-Democrats is that they don't stand for anything, and the Democratic leaders also consistently undercut and demoralize the committed Democratic rank and file.

One reason Democrats are so wretched in this area, I believe, is that so many of them have had most of their life experience in academia, administration, or the professions, where detachment and competence are everything and "character" is bracketed out (i.e., some degree of good character is assumed, but when evaluating a professional there isn't any line for superior character).

Character means sticking to your principles, and has a big element of macho also. It probably traces back either to the frontier or old aristocratic ideas of knighthood.

It's completely irrelevant, of course, that only one of the last four Republican Presidents (Bush I) showed any real evidence of good character. We're talking about presentation. The Republicans play to the voters' ideas of what good character is, and especially flatter the voters for their own good character.

I've gone on long enough. But I also think that the collegial and bureaucratic roots of the Democratic Party have also destroyed the "reality-based Democrats"' ability to respond to people who plan to turn reality uoside down.

Posted by: John Emerson | Feb 18, 2005 12:50:32 PM

"that only one of the last four Republican Presidents (Bush I) showed any real evidence of good character"

If by "good character" you mean lying about what he intended to do once in office, in order to get elected by people who'd have otherwise opposed his nomination with every fiber of their being... I can't think of a recent President who was in more of a hurry to violate his campaign promises, and jettison his base.

Posted by: Brett Bellmore | Feb 18, 2005 1:01:25 PM

John Emerson,

I think that Ford showed some character. In fact, I would say that in his quiet way he showed a lot more character than Herbert did.

Posted by: Abby | Feb 18, 2005 1:10:43 PM

John, this isn't the text of a campaign speech. It's an analysis article in a highbrow small-circulation magazine read entirely by political junkies. I'm often in agreement with your various hobbyhorses but you should confine them to the appropriate threads. The fact that Democratic campaign rhetoric needs to become more partisan doesn't mean that any writing geared towards other audiences must also be silenced.

I think what's going on here is that you just don't like Chait, which I find mystifying, considering that he's been one of the harshest press critics of the Bush administration out there - much harsher than many writers to his left.

Posted by: JP | Feb 18, 2005 1:22:59 PM

JP, I'm not silencing anyone. I'm pointing out that there's no way to get a campaign out of the non-ideological wonky approach, and that the Democrats have been trying that and failing for years. It's not a question simply of being more partisan, but of actually being willing to say someone and stand for something (ie., have an ideology). Voters perceive the Democrats to "stand for nothing", and it's an issue with them. That's where "flip-flop" came from -- Kerry was perceived to be trimming on every issue.

I don't think that it's possible to be unideological and empirical in the back room and then strap on a point of view when you go out to campaign. The Republicans do have an ideology -- low taxes, deregulation, military assertativeness, social conservativism -- and they've convinced 51% of the people that they're right. A lot of what they say and do is fake, but there's something there, and they're able to take the battle to the enemy (us.)

Posted by: John Emerson | Feb 18, 2005 1:34:36 PM

Abby -- I forgot Ford entirely. He left a small footprint. Say "3 out of 5",

Posted by: John Emerson | Feb 18, 2005 1:35:38 PM

OK, Brett, have it your way. Bush I was a piece of shit.

Posted by: John Emerson | Feb 18, 2005 1:36:39 PM

Well, of course, Democrats tend to like Bush 1, since it was campaign promises Republicans liked that he was breaking. My point is simply that when one guy in the opposition betrays somebody else in the opposition, it may be to your advantage, but it still doesn't constitute "good character".

Posted by: Brett Bellmore | Feb 18, 2005 1:47:53 PM

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