Category Archives: Essays

Thoughts on the science, theory and philosophy of politics, Part I

People aiming to study and understand some aspect of society from an objective perspective have to consider whether their subject is influenced by political power or not. The difference between political and non-political subjects is fundamental because political power usually has a strong influence which must be explicitly accounted for. For the purposes of this essay and the following ones I will think of social studies (social science, theory and philosophy) as being divided into two subcategories: a political and a non-political (or apolitical) one.

Starting from this twofold division, I intend to examine two things. The first is the basic categorization of political studies into political science, political theory and political philosophy. What separates and links these three fields from and to each other? The second is how they compare with a similar division in apolitical studies: apolitical science, apolitical theory and apolitical philosophy.

The word “apolitical” may seem awkward, but I will use it simply to avoid the misleading use of “social science” and “social theory” as parallel alternatives to “political science” and “political theory”. In my usage the word “social” designates the general category and “political” and apolitical” are its two subcategories.

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The first drawback of government

I discussed two benefits of government in the previous essay. These benefits and the drawback I discuss in this essay are all concomitants of government – they exist wherever there’s political authority of some kind. They are not opposites that can be weighted against each other on a scale of good vs bad government. In fact it might be arguable that the one drawback I discuss in this essay, secrecy, is more extensive under democratic governments than under a dictatorial ones. Every manifestation of government will exhibit its own specific blend of mutual trust, shared resources and secrecy. Only practical experience can show if a specific combination of them is good or bad.

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Two benefits of government

In order to judge if government works well or badly, it’s useful to begin by considering why government is needed in the first place. This essay began with the working title three tasks of government, then three functions of government. This choice of words presumed a very active role for elected and selected government officials as public problem-solvers. As I thought about it some more I concluded active intervention is just one side of justification for government. The other side is the mutually beneficient interaction between citizens that good government passively enables.

That’s why I write about the benefits of government. Government officials don’t necessarily need to know and nurture the benefits of their work as they go about their tasks and functions. In fact some benefits of government arise merely from its founding (especially from foundational laws), others from stability. So in principle we don’t have to assume that the government is elected or even approved by the people. The two benefits I present in this essay will in any case be the same, even though their scope would certainly be greater under democratic government. I will in the following refer to the governing authority interchangeably as “the state” or “the government” or “the authorities”. Continue reading

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Ordinary knowledge

The forefathers of libertarian thought, Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich Hayek, wrote illuminating defenses of markets in their war of words against socialism and state planning in the early 20th century. At the center of their analysis was the spontaneous economic order created by the separate actions of individuals as they make choices in the marketplace. They argued that the ordinary knowledge of regular citizens could be pooled in the market and lead to a better result than any central decrees based on expert knowledge. von Mises and Hayek were not the first to articulate this idea, but they certainly surpassed their predecessors in both clarity and depth.

Orthodox libertarianism has fought a losing battle in most developed countries for a long time now, for good reasons. Even though markets are accepted as necessary mechanisms in modern society, few people consider them sufficient in themselves. The state must intervene to keep preserve equality and to keep the market from “failing”. Most discussions of market failure and state intervention seem to be based on a shallow understanding  of the dichotomy between ordinary knowledge and expert knowledge. Market failure results when ordinary knowledge is misinformed. State intervention is justified if its experts are better informed.

However, the importance and value of ordinary knowledge does not nowadays seem to get much attention beyond questions of market regulation. In this essay I will discuss ordinary knowledge from a few different perspectives and try to sort out a few preliminary ideas about its applicability in political decision-making. Continue reading

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Tacit politics

Philosophical descriptions of knowledge rarely contribute to the development of new knowledge. Scientists normally do research without analyzing the presuppositions and methodologies of scientific research. Each branch has an implicit understanding of valid methods and arguments, which is taught to students and redefined bit by bit each time a paper passes peer review. Such interactions are prescriptive even though prescriptions aren’t written down as an explicit set of rules.

Philosophical analyses of scientific knowledge, on the other hand, are descriptive but not prescriptive. They usually describe the presuppositions and methods of scientific inquiry. The philosophical interest lies in following the roots of rational knowledge as deep down as possible. Philosophy comes closest to prescription in questions of demarcation when science is to be separated from non-scientific (or pseudo-scientific) forms of inquiry. A philosophical analysis can be good for proscribing such forms.

Much the same considerations apply to political knowledge and its philosophical description. A philosophical analysis of political knowledge is descriptive, not prescriptive. I can philosophize about the forms of knowledge various political actors possess, but my theories will give no advice or guidance for practicing politicians on how they can improve their political knowledge. And if we want to distinguish between political and non-political forms of knowledge, we immediately ascend (or descend, if you prefer) to the level of philosophy. Only by philosophical analysis can we hope the demarcate political knowledge from related forms of knowledge such as social science and public opinion.

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