Tag Archives: knowledge

Empty causes: the enterprise agenda

Democratic decision-making is difficult for many procedural reasons. It proceeds by slow debate, compromises and logrolling. Additional difficulties stem from deficient knowledge. Social-scientific data is often vague, open to varying interpretations and vulnerable to sceptical objections. Data gathering is far too slow for political challenges which demand swift responses. And the long-term consequences of many decisions can only be guessed.

But specific political agendas also face their own typical knowledge-related challenges. In this essay I will discuss the epistemological challenge of the enterprise agenda, which promotes the virtues of competitive markets. The backbone of the enterprise agenda is its defence of free economic enterprise as the primary source of societal well-being. The agenda promotes individualism and low levels of economic redistribution because well-motivated actors pursuing their own interests will, with limited state guidance, form patterns of economic co-operation which are beneficient to all. The enterprise agenda welcomes all entrants to a global competition where successful effort and ingenuity are rewarded while poorly executed attempts are deservedly eliminated. This agenda aims to expand market exchange in society.

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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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Leadership of old

Modern theories of government relish the idea of well-informed leadership. Leaders are expected to make decisions based on correct factual knowledge.  A whole industry of fact-producing institutions has been established to gather and publish societal information: reports, articles and statistics of various kinds. The leader’s task is then to assimilate selected bits of this information and put it to constructive use in the game of politics so that society may be steered in the direction that he or she deems beneficial. Even though the information-processing capacity of one person is very limited and most of the available information may be inaccurate, the ideal remains.

Yet factual and scientific knowledge of society is limited and incomplete, as I strive to show in my other essays. System effects disturb assumptions about simple cause-effect relationships, statistics reflect presuppositions rather than reality and surveys produce inconsistent results with disputable results. In short, there’s a gap between the ideal of informed government and the actual knowledge base which stands at its disposal. Only a part of societal information can be considered “true” in a meaningful sense. This state of affairs will be elaborated in more detail in future essays, but in this one it leads me to this question: assuming for the moment that factual knowledge (i.e. scientific knowledge, objective knowledge) can only play a limited role as a guide for governmental decisions, what other forms of knowledge play a part in political decision-making?

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It must be real

In his excellent book The Mismeasure of Man Stephen Jay Gould provides a great historical critique of intelligence testing. His focus is not so much on the tests themselves but on the fallacious conclusions which early 20th century scientists all too eagerly drew from them. Again and again he shows that supposedly objective proofs for the inequality of races were based on nothing more than prejudiced interpretations of statistical data. Some scientists resorted to direct falsification, but it is striking how many acted in good faith without any particular political agendas on their minds, yet still ended up concocting results which were clearly influenced by racist prejudice.

The generally accepted preconceptions of the times predisposed people to interpret the data in a certain way. Since most Africans lived in huts and utilized only primitive technology it was clearly unthinkable that they could be endowed with mental capacities comparable to the white man. An immediate consequence was that any given study of intelligence had to be defective if it didn’t show a clear difference between white and black. The properly scientific thing to do was then to revise the testing procedure or the results until the differences – objectively true as they were, by virtue of common sense – could be discerned.

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