Friday, June 24, 2011

Conservative and libertarian

Though much philosophical and ideological debate, polemic and argument can seem like a waste of time (and frankly much of it is), there will always be a place for it if only as an intellectual safety valve or as the mark of a free society. But can such debate be a truth-seeking activity?

Worldviews or ideologies are a mixture of facts (or purported facts) and (inevitably subjective) values. They can be partially assessed in terms of the facts (or falsehoods) they rely on, in terms of how well they reflect social and psychological realities, and also in terms of internal consistency or coherence.

Though internal consistency doesn't necessarily imply truth, testing coherence can serve a useful (if limited) purpose. Amongst those whose ideas are different but close, discussion can be productive. If I generally think like you but we disagree about this or that, I might be inclined to look again at those issues from your point of view, and you from mine. Two minds which are fairly close trying to reconcile areas of disagreement are not unlike one person finding incompatible elements in his own thinking and trying to bring them into some kind of harmony. There are certainly circumstances when explicitly setting out one's ideas in writing or in a discussion does make a difference.

Such clarifying discourse, however, is pretty rare, as most of the time - whether we mean to or not - we are just playing games, scoring points, defending long held points of view without really putting our beliefs on the line. And these problems are magnified when the setting is institutional and the participants are professional scholars.

The sciences are tethered to reality by strict conventions and procedures. Predictions are made and tested. Adverse results may often be explained away, but adverse results do make a dent in the credibility of those who support the theory in question. By contrast, in non-empirical areas (mathematics is a special case and can be seen as quasi-empirical in fact) the prizes go to those with the most persuasive manners, the most dogged commitment to scholarly tasks (and to writing grant applications), and the most influential friends and allies. Truth has little to do with it, and the proliferation of theories of human rights, justice, morality, equality, etc. is just about as far from science (which is marked over time by drastic pruning and convergence) as it is possible to get.

There is also the unfortunate fact that scholars with left-wing or (so-called) progressive views have, to a large extent, taken over the teaching of the humanities in universities as well as most of the important journals. One example: a preference for "creative" and "novel" approaches by the Journal of Social Philosophy is combined with a clear left-wing bias. The journal, edited by Carol C. Gould, "seeks to publish creative approaches to practical and normative issues ... such as those arising from economic and other forms of globalization, violent political conflict, and the multiplicity of cultural experiences worldwide." It "gives priority to the development of novel theoretical frameworks from social ontology to care ethics to cosmopolitan theories of democracy, human rights and global justice."

So is social philosophy just a cover for ideological posturing and empty talk? Not necessarily. But, clearly, the sort of thing promoted as social philosophy by the Journal of Social Philosophy is far too influenced by current ideological fashions. It is all too easy covertly or unwittingly to build values and biases into theories and models in the humanities, and the "novel theoretical frameworks" being sought are sure to be shot through with implicit values. A different style of social philosophy could, though, usefully identify hidden values and biases in social scientific research. Scientific disciplines must eschew values if they are to be truly scientific but reflection on such disciplines can legitimately incorporate substantive and explicit discussion of values as a central element.

System building in social philosophy and related areas is problematic. The countless systems and theories which have been elaborated are just so many incompatible and ultimately crude attempts to encapsulate the immense complexity of social reality into a linguistic construct - thin and static models of a dynamic world. (Computer simulations may, however, manage to capture important aspects of social reality.)

For me, then, social philosophy is mainly critical and analytical, but it can also involve the articulation of principles, directions, ideals and preferences.

The tradition of social thought which I favor draws on both conservatism and libertarianism because these currents of thought not only - as I see it - reflect the realities and the possibilities of human nature, but also because they do not appeal to grievances and resentments as leftist ideologies tend to do. Conservatives respect the cockeyed wisdom of tradition, libertarians the rationality of ordinary people (imperfect though it is and we are).

Both conservatives and libertarians embrace the present and, though they look to the future and hope, they do not, like radical leftists, look for salvation there... Life - when all is said and done - is good.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Democracy, debt and delusion

The Economist's 'Buttonwood' recently cited a BCA Research report which predicts - on the basis of some plausible assumptions concerning the continuation of current voting patterns relating to age, ethnicity and gender, and demographic trends - that the Republican Party will fade as a major force, and that even Texas will be a solidly Democratic state by 2030.

BCA believes that the deficit problems in the U.S. will not be tackled until 2013, and (this is based on new research from the Pew Research Center) that spending cuts - especially to Medicare and Social Security - will be resisted by voters. Taxes will rise substantially:

"[H]igher taxes will lead to lower labour supply and slower capital accumulation. Eventually, further tax hikes will become self-defeating. At this stage, the U.S. will likely experience a fiscal and political crisis on a scale that has few parallels in history."

The problems of American democracy are mirrored in many other Western democracies today, and they go beyond the fortunes of particular parties and indeed beyond politics.

The Western liberal democratic model seemed until relatively recently to have stood the test of time and to have achieved a degree of stability. But increased populism and the gradual erosion of traditional institutions within Western countries has led inexorably to chronic budget deficits and accumulating public debt.

In the dark days of the 1930s and 40s, a group of European and American thinkers tried to articulate a social philosophy which had at its core the key principles of economic liberalism. Ludwig von Mises and F.A. Hayek played leading roles in the movement, but there were many others, now mostly forgotten.

They shared, by and large, a belief that human reason could help to define economic and social possibilities and impossibilities as a guide to policy-making. They developed a very sophisticated understanding of the way free markets operate and are able to process and assimilate complex information. But their thought also had a socio-political dimension.

These thinkers shared a distrust of majoritarian democracy which they saw as a potentially fatal flaw in Western political thought and practice.

It is only in recent decades that the complex, traditional structures and institutions of the West (structures which often embodied privilege and elitism, but also social complexity and autonomy) have been effectively dismantled - leaving what? Naked majoritarian democracy and its corollaries, political populism and an unsustainable welfare state.

The idea of freedom, that as far as possible people should determine their own lives, is a powerful one, and most Western countries have managed - until now - to deliver a high degree of freedom with social order and prosperity. But the relative freedom and prosperity enjoyed in the West over the past two centuries or so was not just the result of a particular political model. It was also dependent on deep social, cultural and historical factors or preconditions.

And, arguably, those preconditions for an effective and prosperous free society are no longer in place in the U.S. and many other Western countries.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Two kinds of people

We all have a tendency to think in terms of simple dichotomies, and often these dichotomies are strongly value-based and involve taking sides (good and bad, friend and foe, right and left ...).

The English writer Alan Bennett recalled that, as a child, he often saw inanimate objects as either good or bad, friendly or not friendly: one shoe brush (maybe the one for putting on the polish) was bad, the other (for polishing) good; one spoon was good, its fellow was bad, and so on.

Needless to say, these tendencies are stronger in some people than in others. They often manifest themselves in sporting or political contexts. Some people can watch a sporting contest or listen to a political debate without taking sides. Others - perhaps more naturally competitive - just can't be impartial.

A particularly amusing case relates to an old controversy between Isaac Newton and Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz whose respective claims to have invented the calculus led to much dispute at the time. The mathematician Gregory Chaitin couldn't resist joining the fray - more than 300 years later! - and, what's more, highlighting the personal and moral qualities of the two long-dead antagonists:

"Newton was a great physicist, but he was definitely inferior to Leibniz both as a mathematician and as a philosopher. And Newton was a rotten human being ... Leibniz invented the calculus, published it ... and then was astonished to learn that Newton, who had never published a word on the subject, claimed that Leibniz had stolen it all from him. Leibniz could hardly take Newton seriously!

But it was Newton who won, not Leibniz.

Newton bragged that he had destroyed Leibniz and rejoiced in Leibniz's death ...

Morally, what a contrast! Leibniz was such an elevated soul that he found good in all philosophies ... It pains me to say [really?] that Newton enjoyed witnessing the executions of counterfeiters he pursued as Master of the Mint." [Meta math! The quest for omega (Vintage Books, 2005), p. 57]

Later, Chaitin pities Voltaire, who satirized Leibniz and praised Newton:

"Poor Voltaire - if he had read Newton's private papers, he would have realized that he had backed the wrong man!" [p. 59]