Monday, April 11, 2005


Jonah Goldberg and Jonathan Chait have been debating over whether liberals are more "empirical" than conservatives. It all started with Chait's article in the New Republic:
Imagine that God were to appear on Earth for the unlikely purpose of settling, once and for all, our disputes over economic policy. And suppose that, to my enormous surprise, he announced that every empirical claim advanced by conservatives was correct. Cutting taxes produces such great economic growth that even the poor benefit. Privatizing or eliminating social programs like Medicare and Social Security will cause the elderly to save more money and enjoy higher living standards. Slashing regulations, by eliminating unintended side effects, actually does a better job helping those whom the regulations were intended to help than the regulations themselves. Suppose that God presented these conclusions so convincingly--if his stature alone did not suffice--that everybody immediately accepted them as truth.

How would liberals respond? No doubt by rethinking and abandoning nearly all their long-held positions. Liberalism, after all, claims to produce certain outcomes: more prosperity and security, especially for the poor and middle classes; a cleaner environment; safer foods and drugs; and so on. If it were proved beyond a doubt that liberal policies fail to produce those outcomes--or even, as conservatives often claim, that such policies hurt their intended beneficiaries--then their rationale would disappear. It may be hard to imagine liberals advocating capital gains tax cuts as a way to lift up the working stiff. But that's just because there's no evidence to show they do. If the evidence were to change, so would the liberal mindset. The point is that liberalism has no justification other than the belief that liberal policies produce beneficial outcomes.

Now imagine the opposite were to happen. God appears in order to affirm liberal precepts: Current tax levels barely affect economic incentives, social programs provide tremendous economic security at modest cost to growth, and most regulations achieve their intended effects without producing undue distortions. Would economic conservatives likewise abandon their views? Some certainly would, but a great many would not. Economic conservatism, unlike liberalism, would survive having all its empirical underpinnings knocked out from beneath it.

. . . [C]onservatism, unlike liberalism, overlays a deeper set of philosophical principles. Conservatives believe that big government impinges upon freedom. They may also believe that big government imposes large costs on the economy. But, for a true conservative, whatever ends they think smaller government may bring about--greater prosperity, economic mobility for the non-rich--are almost beside the point. As Milton Friedman wrote, "[F]reedom in economic arrangements is itself a component of freedom broadly understood, so economic freedom is an end in itself."

* * *

The contrast between economic liberalism and economic conservatism, then, ultimately lies not only in different values or preferences but in different epistemologies. Liberalism is a more deeply pragmatic governing philosophy -- more open to change, more receptive to empiricism, and ultimately better at producing policies that improve the human condition -- than conservatism.
Chait then cherry-picks several examples that show specific liberals being more "empirical" than specific conservatives.

Two responses come to mind:

1. You can't say that one philosophy is more "empirical" than another without knowing what the goals of the policy are. You just can't. An analogy: Who is in the best "health": A marathon runner, a champion weightlifter, a top sprinter, or a woman who has lived to 105? You have to decide whether "health" consists of endurance, power, speed, or pure longevity. Until you make that choice, there isn't any "empirical" question that is capable of being answered.

Same for economic policy. Which is "better": (1) a policy that maximizes freedom and autonomy, or (2) one that maximizes personal security and minimizes risk? There isn't any "empirical" way to say which goal is "better." But Chait repeatedly pretends that if some conservatives prefer (1), it is only because they are unempirical as to (2). Chait is fundamentally confused here. He doesn't understand that not everyone is even trying to maximize number (2) in the first place.

Nor does he understand that if conservatives prefer goal (1) while liberals prefer goal (2), both sides have made ideological choices that have nothing to do with "empiricism." A conservative could with equal confusion say that "liberals are unempirical" because they prefer their own set of policies even if it is conclusively demonstrated that conservative policies are empirically the best at maximizing freedom.

2. Who says that liberals consistently value empiricism, come what may? My impression is that many liberals, like many conservatives, are highly resistant -- to the point of being immune -- to any empirical evidence that they dislike. Let someone come out with a study showing that the death penalty deters murder (e.g., Cass Sunstein and Adrian Vermeule), or that charter schools are an improvement (Caroline Hoxby), or that school busing doesn't improve student performance (be sure to read the story of James Coleman), or that lower taxes improve economic growth (Gwartney and Lawson), or that school vouchers have any advantage at all (Paul Peterson et al.), or that the welfare state encourages broken families, and liberals hop out of the woodwork to take potshots at the study.

After all, no study is beyond all criticism. Maybe the sample size wasn't large enough, or there was selection bias, or there was omitted variable bias, or there were too many cross-correlated variables, or there's another data set that is somehow better than what the researcher used, etc., etc., ad nauseam. Do liberals mention such criticisms because they are all hard-headed empiricists who demand the utmost rigor out of every study that comes their way? Maybe a few of them are. But most liberals want the world to agree with their ideological conclusions, and are determined to ignore or discount any counter-evidence.

And to be fair, the same goes for many conservatives' attitudes toward studies involving global warming, racial profiling, a few studies showing the opposite conclusion on the minimum wage (Card and Krueger, for example) and the relationship between taxes and economic growth, or articles about the French health-care system. I'm not trying to argue that conservatives are generally better at being empirical. (To do so, I would have to cherry-pick examples as Chait did.)


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Many people believe that Liberals are “smarter” than Conservatives. Chait’s particular version of this belief focuses on empiricism: to value facts and reason over faith and superstition. I’ve noticed that there is a general difference between Liberals and Conservatives, but my experience suggests the difference (which is arrogance, not intelligence) is the dependent variable, not the independent one.

Generally speaking, the Liberals I’ve encountered tend to think of themselves as very intelligent, and they believe that because they are smart they are liberal. They mistakenly believe the independent variable (intelligence) causes the dependent variable (liberal worldviews). I can’t remember where I read this, but this is described as the conceit of intellect.

Buck’s comments are spot on. Liberals tend to have a difficult time distinguishing between fact and opinion. To a Liberal the statement, “The State should act to maximize personal security and minimizes risk” is a fact that can be proven with reason. The inability to properly recognize this statement as an opinion based on specific value judgments demonstrates a certain lack of intelligence. It is this lack of intelligence, the inability to understand a different point of view that causes Liberals to throw up there hands and say, “Well, if Conservatives can’t see the obvious it must be because they are so stupid.” Or worse, they are controlled by religious fanatics.

Liberal hear how God is described to Sunday school children and assume that peoples’ understanding never evolves beyond that. This is another conceit. “They said (you know, the ubiquitous “They”) that God is this guy with a white beard and a magic wand that causes it to rain frogs. Therefore, anyone who believes in God is stupid.”

I was listening to a Lutheran bishop once while he described how the Church’s judgment is informed. He gave an analogy to a tricycle. The front wheel is the Bible. The two back wheels are tradition and experience. The conceit of the Liberals is that we can ignore tradition because our intellect is so powerful experience and reason alone are all we need to make the world a better place. (But of course, “better” is also a value judgement.)

9:38 AM  
Blogger Doc said...

People of all ideological stripes hold their ideas almost as tightly as they hold their children. If God appeared and endorsed conservative economics, the liberals would immediately begin assembling papers to explain to God all the points He overlooked in coming to such an ill-thought out view. Conservatives would do the same in the opposite scenario.

I am a scientist by training. One would expect scientists to be among the most empirical people around. After all we are constantly testing our ideas and adjusting them. But look at history.

Centuries ago, when geocentrism was all the rage, what did scientists do when they noticed retrograde motion in the planets as they crossed the sky? Did they say, "Well, I guess we were wrong. Let's come up with a new theory?" No, they invented the convolutions of epicycles in a desperate attempt to hold on to their theory.

When classical electromagnetism (Maxwell theory) failed to explain phenomena like blackbody radiation, did scientists objectively conclude their theories were wrong? No, they fought tooth and nail to try to keep their theory alive and to reject the emerging quantum theory that did explain it. Albert Einstein himself basically wrote himself out of the front lines of science because he refused all his life to accept the quantum physics that came along in the 20th century and so got left behind as science developed.

Look at liberals today regarding the Iraq war. Things are looking up over there. Are they adjusting their views to the empirical evidence? No. Look at the fear in some people's writings when they consider the possibilty that maybe Bush was right after all. By the same token, how many neo-cons have rethought their world view after seeing how far their view was from reality? How many still insist there were WMDs over in Iraq, and that Hussein was actually a threat to our security?

People are not typically empirical.

10:05 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think that the conceit of liberals that they are so much smarter than conservatives makes them less empirical. If your self image is predicated on the premise that your smarter and know best, then it becomes harder to admit your wrong because you have so much invested in your being right. Recall after the Iraqi elections the reaction of some liberal to the idea that maybe Bush was right. It rocked their whole worldview and self concept.
Slate published an essay by some New York liberal after the election about the unteachable ignorance of the Bush voters. After reading it I remembered what NYC was like when the Liberals had a monopoly on city government. It was a crime ridden, fiscal mess, with houndreds of thousands of people leaving. Then Giuliani was elected and the city went through a renaissance. And yet someone who just lived through an object lesson in the effectiveness of Republicans versus liberal governance had the temerity to call conservatives unteachably ignorant. If liberals admit that they can be wrong and conservatives right, who are they going to look down on?

10:26 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It may have been Richard Hofstadter who pointed out that academics and intellectuals tend to be more biased than others because they are inclined to think they have to have an opinion on everything and think they are correct on everything, including subjects outside their fields. In colleges, these people tend to be liberals as hiring surveys show. The non-academic or non-intellectual might even be humble enough not to feel bound to have an opinion on all kinds of matters. I recall a study of jurors mentioned in Psychology Today about 20 years ago or so that showed that the least objective jurors were scientists because they were too biased, i.e., opionionated. The most objective were Protestant ministers. They had open minds. Theologian John Haught might add: If you know there is a God and that you are not God, then you know you don't know everything and you also know that there is truth to be discovered. If you act as if you are God, you have nothing to learn. If you don't believe in God, you may end up in a relativism that throws up its hands about finding truth or values. Whitehead suggested that if a culture abandoned religious belief, thus losing the idea that there is a God as intelligent origin and final goal of the universe, science might become pointless meandering (or ideology, one might add). Others have noted that science thrived where there was Jewish belief in a divine wisdom present in the universe and/or Christian belief in a intelligible Logos; these encouraged study of the universe since such study helps one understand God (not to mention help make the world a better place). Muslim culture sputtered when it overstated God's unknowability and rejected the value of an image or icon.
R.L.A. Schaefer Dubuque Iowa

11:49 AM  
Blogger The Asserter said...

One thing missed by critics of Chait is that his thought experiment is nonsense to begin with. A poster above mentioned "if God were to endorse conservative economics"; well that's just it, God wouldn't (and can't) "endorse" one ideology's take on economics or another in the first place, because *any* ideology is premised on a basket of ultimately subjective preferences.

Chait's thought experiment asks us to suppose God were to "affirm" liberal economic precepts. But this can't happen. It's not just that it's a fantastical hypothetical, it's that it *can't* happen even in principle. God can't "endorse" a set of ideological beliefs as being Correct any more than God can "endorse" chocolate over vanilla (or vice versa) as the Best Flavor.

So what on earth is Chait talking about? He imagines God "endorsing" one side's subjective preferences (something God cannot be called upon to do, even hypothetically/rhetorically) and then asserts that the other side would ignore God's "affirmation" of those subjective preferences. It is on this circular, bootstrapped basis that he calls conservatives non-"empirical".

Well, let's try the approach with a similar issue: I happen to think that chocolate tastes better than vanilla. Jonathan Chait, hearing this and preferring vanilla, says that I wouldn't change my mind even if "God" were to state, once and for all, that Vanilla Tastes Better Than Chocolate. Well, in fact, Chait is right: I wouldn't change my mind just because someone claiming to be God said that. But Chait hasn't proved anything, except for the fact that the "God" in his thought experiment is an impostor.

Because "God" can't say that one flavor or another is "Best" any more than he can say that laissez-faire or welfare-state economics is "Best". Both require making a *subjective* judgment, in the latter case a judgment about tradeoffs, values, preferences, cost-benefits, etc. God can tell us our *calculations* (and predictions) are Wrong but he *can't* tell us that our *subjective preferences* are Wrong. So as Buck says, Chait is confused. In particular, he doesn't seem to know that his personal preferences are subjective rather than Universal, Objective Criteria That Everyone Must Agree With.

2:26 PM  
Blogger Bill Baar said...

Don't need God for this one. Economic Liberalism used to mean a planned economy. No one believes that anymore and everyone's converted to a belief in a market economy. Even the Maoists in China. The conservative economists won. All that's left now are green eye shade questions about tax rates.

3:47 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I’d like to respond to comments by the asserter. I’m not quite as hard on Chait as you are. I believe there is some merit in Chait’s hypothetical. The chocolate vs. vanilla debate is one of pure personal preference whereas I think Chait was driving at the morality of public policy. I think Kant defined morality by saying one should universally will that all people in the same situation should act in the same manner. So all lies are immoral because even if you thought your reason for lying might be altruistic, your lie might unintentionally cause harm, which would make you morally responsible for the harm, or some such nonsense.

If an individual were to come across a person in the dessert that was dehydrated and close to death, and the individual could give the dehydrated person water without risking his own safety, I think we would universally will that the individual should give the dehydrated man water without regard to the ability to pay. I say that because I think we can all agree that giving a dying may water is “helping” him.

Where I disagree with Chait is that we don’t universally agree on the objectives of our public policy. Take welfare. Even conservatives agree that welfare should help the poor, not hurt them. But what does “help” mean. By what objective criteria do we define “help”? The liberal would say that if we simply kept him alive, indefinitely, with food and shelter, that constitutes help. If we gave him methadone to smooth out the rough spots between heroin fixes, that’s helping too. And if we buy him an Xbox to entertain him, that’s more helpful. The Conservative would say that these policy prescriptions are not help at all. He still does not feel as though his life has any purpose. He still doesn’t possess the skill needed to provide for his own sustenance. The Liberal’s “help” has miraculously transformed the welfare recipient from a parasite into a slightly older parasite.

Chait claimed that his use of God was to create an unimpeachable authority on consequences of policy, something no human study could do. I think he did it because he though God would shame people into accepting his understanding of morality. Chait gave as an example “Cutting taxes produces such great economic growth that even the poor benefit.” What Chait doesn’t force God to do is define “benefit.” If a $10 tax cut gives the poor $1 is that a “benefit”? What if it is only $0.05? I suspect that Chait believes benefit is defined by a reduction in the “wealth gap” or that material gains of $0.05 cannot be considered a benefit if a widening wealth gap injures self-esteem in the process.

Where this really gets hard is in the probabilistic nature of public policy where you also have trade offs. Suppose you have 10 drug addicts with a life expectancy of 1 year each. Suppose Program A gives them clean needles, raising their life expectancy to 5 years each and Program B gives them each a swift kick in ass and a heaping dose of shame, which “cures” only 10%, giving him a life expectancy of 40 years. Total life expectancy under Program A is 50 (10 * 5) years with zero cures and life expectancy under Program B is 49 (40 + 9 * 1) years with 1 cure. Chait claims that he invokes God only to tell us without question what the consequences of the programs would be. I suspect he believes God will endorse his needle exchange program. But of course, if we had God at our disposal we could determine which one was predisposed to the kick in the ass cure and give the other 9 free needles.

5:11 PM  
Blogger The Asserter said...


On inspection you don't seem to have a significant dispute w/my post. If your main point was that chocolate v. vanilla was a simplistic analogy then, uh, granted. In any event, opinion disagreements re: what are the objectives, what is "help", etc - subjective judgments - are precisely what I was trying to call attention to by the analogy. And your drug-addict example illustrates my point perfectly. "God" can tell us quantitative, objective, predictive facts such as the numbers 50 vs. 49 of your example. What he *can't* tell us, even in principle, is whether that single stat 50>49 is sufficient to prefer A to B as being "better", because this requires defining "better" according to some actual criteria, criteria which will inevitably be subjective. Which, again, was precisely my point, as yours seems to be.

As far as the additional idea that Chait had in mind God endorsing some specific morality, the thing is, that might have been an interesting and provocative type of argument for him (or someone) to have made, but it's not the argument Chait actually made, or claimed to anyway. Again, Chait's entire thesis was that "liberals" like him are more "empirical". If he really was implicitly smuggling morality into the discussion via God it would be self-refuting, or to put it another way, that would prove my point.

But I don't think he was, exactly. I think he just doesn't, or can't, recognize that his preferences/values/tradeoff criteria are subjective rather than objective. That is why he thinks his thought experiment makes sense when it does not.

Again, God *can't* say one or another economic ideology (which intrinsically embodies, entails, and/or follows from some basket of preferences and judgments about tradeoffs) is "correct". He can say that such and such *numerical* economic predictions that an ideology's proponents might often make (e.g. tax cuts will increase revenues..) are true or false, but he *can't* say that e.g. a flat distribution of wealth is "better" than one with a high rich-poor gap, or vice versa. That sort of issue is for humans to decide according to their (subjective!) preferences, and as such belongs to the realm of politics. It was rather puerile of Chait to fantasize about God coming down on his "side" of a political dispute in the first place.

Surely God has more important things to occupy himself with than our marginal tax rates.


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