Arnold Kling  

Who are the Empiricists?

Thrift vs. Paternalism... Public Opinion and Democracy: ...

Jonathan Chait devotes a long article to arguing that liberals are pragmatic and empirical.

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.

That explains why liberals are leading supporters of experiments with school vouchers.

It is interesting that a famous book by Thomas Sowell, The Vision of the Anointed, is dedicated to the converse proposition. Sowell argues that statist solutions are endorsed by liberals despite their manifest failure. He argues that it is liberals who are impervious to empirical data.

For Discussion. Over the past 50 years, what is the most significant example of (a) mainstream liberal opinion changing in response to facts; (b) mainstream liberal opinion failing to change in response to facts; (c) mainstream conservative opinion changing in response to facts; and (d) mainstream conservative opinion failing to change in response to facts?

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COMMENTS (13 to date)
Randy writes:

Sorry, too many questions - not in the mood for thinking that hard. Just a quick comment;

Pragmatism is about doing what works. Both sides are pragmatic - the methods are different because the objectives are different.

Movie Guy writes:

Over the past 50 years, what is the most significant example of (a) mainstream liberal opinion changing in response to facts; (b) mainstream liberal opinion failing to change in response to facts; (c) mainstream conservative opinion changing in response to facts; and (d) mainstream conservative opinion failing to change in response to facts?


Quick answers:

(a)social security protection; tax increases
(b)social security reduction; tax reductions
(c)tax increases (however reluctant)
(d)tax deductions (provide more, regardless)

cameron mulder writes:

I think the use of the term liberal from the short snipit that we are given is not the same liberal that the blogger is useing. It seems to be more liberal as in political thoery liberal, and not liberal as in pundint liberal.

But i would argue that with the rise of third-way liberals (clinton, tony blair). We see that in response to the economic and political events of the late 70's and early 80's we saw a shift in liberal efforts from a statist to a more market-based public/privet partnership solutions.

While conservative solutions seem to still be rooted in less governmnet, return to basic values ideology. While there have been some interesting policy ideas from conservatives, many are just the same less governmnet is better government mantra, or the thought of return to values (such as abstince only sex education)

So in answer to your question
(a) rise of third way liberals (Clinton, DLC, Tony Blair). If you look at healthcare proposals from Kerry or even the enviromental solutions provided by the Kyoto treaty, we see market based solutions.
Also changing views on vietnam war. Liberal supported it at first, till we found it to be unwinnable, and then turned aginst it based on the fact that it was not achieving the aims we had.

(b) Maybe support for free trade, although there are many mainstream liberals who support it.

(c) I can't think of one, i'm sure there is, but i can't think of one right now, sorry... ALthough conservatism is inherently aginst change

(d) Budget deficits. According to Price Of Loyalty. dick chenney said "regan proved budget deficits don't matter". I consider Dick and the whole gang in the White house to be conservatives (Although there is a good argument they are not). They have not learned the problems of budget deficits as they should have in the late 80's and early 90's

there is my long winded response

Jonathan Brown writes:

It is impossible to find an example where empirical judgment has changed a liberal position in the last 50 years. Throwing trillions at poverty without changing the GINI didn't work - the answer - throw more money at the problem. Projections of income from raising taxes on the highest levels of income are notorously inaccurate always expecting more than is realized. The liberal solution? Keep thinking about raising rates on highest income people. And on and on and on.

Economists often claim that theirs is an empirical science. I go back to Hayek and worry that sometimes all of us are a bit too tied to numbers and not enough to thinking out the effects of a problem without the proofs but with careful thought.

Bob Knaus writes:

If you extend the time frame to 100 years the answers become easier, because we have the consensus of history's verdict. My examples would be:

a) Eugenics, popular with the progressive set during the 20's and 30's but anathema after the Nazi horrors

b)Central planning, despite the well-documented disasters of famine, war, and poverty it has led to since the 20's... if only we could do a better job of organizing co-ops!

c) Tolerance of non-traditional relationships -- one needs a historical view of how taboo that divorce, living in sin, homosexuality, and single-parent families used to be to appreciate the degree to which today's mainstream religous and cultural organizations have embraced such former pariahs.

d) Populism/Nativism -- while the paranoid style in politics can occur on either end of the political spectrum (see Michael Moore) it seems that a George Wallace style populist pops up far too often on the conservative side to appeal to our Ice Age programming which makes us hate the "other" tribe.

Josh Speaks writes:

My short takes:
a.I honestly can't think of one. Not because liberalism hasn't changed over the years, but because they haven't changed (IMO) in response to facts.
b.The "war" on poverty or government involvement in health care.
c.Grudging acceptance of government intervention through social programs.
d.Trade deficits.

I don't mean to pick on anyone else's ideas, but how is Kyoto a market-based solution? The idea of industrialized governments mandating standards that will stifle industrial growth doesn't seem market-based to me at all.

cameron mulder writes:

Kyoto has market based solutions as part of the overall plan. CO2 markets are a based part of dealing with the global warming issue, and is used as a key way to decrease the amount of CO2 emmissions

Without a better understanding of the actuall plan, i have doubts about the true understanding of Kyoto and other multilateral plans to deal with global issues.

David Thomson writes:

Jonathan Chait’s argument is silly. Liberals desire power. A more libertarian economy marginalizes the political class---and this enrages liberals. The empirical evidence is overwhelming that statist remedies result in a poor nation. And what in heaven’s name is Chait talking about regarding France’s health system? Isn’t this the same nation where thousands of the elderly died during the summer months only a few years ago?

cameron mulder writes:

Statist policy solutions result in poor nations. Interesting, but can you explain western europe. Have about Switzerland? how about the economic growth of China over the last 20 years? The japanese economy. All of these have serious statis solutions to various issues.

Also if you look at the health outcomes of populatoins. Industralized nations with national health care tend to do much better then those without (granted this is a little bias with the fact that the united states is basically the only one without a national health care system). They also spend less of GDP on healthcare.

From what i know of people who have used the French medical system, they all say it is top notch. If you have a serious health issue it is dealt with quickly. There can be problems when it is a less serious condition though.

In regards to the deaths due to a heat wave. The same thing happens in the United States when we have serious heat waves. I can remember chicago haveing that problem not that many years ago. I think the issue was that the homes were not prepared for it becuase it was such a freak event. It would be like if the pacific northwest had a serious heat wave. Many people don't have airconditioning in there homes becuase it would only be used for maybe a week or two in a normal year.

Mr. Econotarian writes:

Most of "Old Europe" have fairly good enforcement of property rights, freedom of pricing, good monetary policy, reasonable freedom of trade and capital flows, and low levels of corruption. These are things that most African countries would love to have for enhanced economic growth.

What Germany and France do have is significant labor regulation and high amounts of redistribution through taxation.

The issue is that Germany and France are performing 1-2% lower in GDP growth than the US, and about 5% higher unemployment because of this. That is the decision they made for a slightly different culture and economy.

Lawrance George Lux writes:

Over the past 50 years, what is the most significant example of (a) mainstream liberal opinion changing in response to facts; (b) mainstream liberal opinion failing to change in response to facts; (c) mainstream conservative opinion changing in response to facts; and (d) mainstream conservative opinion failing to change in response to facts?

a)Vietnam Vets moving from Pariah to Cause Celib,
b) Liberal refusal to accept inviability of Medicare.
c) Conservative views on Vietnam
d) Conservative refusal to accept the dsstructive economic pattern of Tax Escape, and shifting the Tax Burden downwards.

I specifically did not read the other Comments before I wrote this, and will now read them. lgl

jen larson writes:

I think if we're going to be pragmatic we might start thinking about opinions outside the spectrum. It has value, but it is also directing the models with which we solve problems.

I think I am mostly liberal. I think to a large extent my general values have been accepted. Most agree blacks should have the right to vote, that women can do most jobs, that at places regulation is necessary to restrain private activity, that some redestribution of income by government is good. The questions become one of matter and degree. As is to be expected many special interests which support the various parties become rigid and worse, the various forces interplay and right now conservative forces are checking and modifying some "liberal" interests. But I think most of us have some concerns about trial lawyers, about the organization of education and even concern that the selective process in universities may discourage different approaches. These are all traditional liberal attitudes.

I also happen to think that most of my fellow citizens are decent, I note from experience that I make mistakes and though it makes all kinds of choices that are errors on balance, the system of votes, structural balances, complex political alliances results in a system betterr than any of us could design. It is a market of sort even if an imperfect one.

Now I happen to believe that this conscious recognition and acceptance of this, and working with it can in many cases tweak the system to do better. I also believe that the focus on divisions is conflicting individuals who want to work within this "paradigm" and I think this old fashioned civics model is ignored by the majority on both sides.

I think our biggest enemy is rejection of logic on both sides. I will give examples from the right, I think the mechanisms of the left are somewhat different.

- One frequent tendency I find among certain rightists is to take ugly sentiments (that of Professor Churchill come to mind) say X is left, X has Y, opinion, all leftists have y opinion and from there liberals are leftists...

If I were to employ the same thing I would point out that falwell and Robertson claimed that 9/11 was god's punishment, we deserved it because of homosexuality and the ACLU, Bob Jones has claimed God hates America and then claim that all rightwing Christians then all right wing people then all conservatives held these views and constantly hector them if they didn't continually denounce them. The one thing I will point out is that the followers of these individuals are probably a larger and much more effective group than those who cluster around the radical left.

But I don't think them represenative of the right, yet I can tell you that in many rightwing circles anyone who differs gets tarred with the ugliest statements.

Similarly many on the right have started to assume that bad news is the fault of the carrier. We see it Iraq. There are all sorts of places where informaation which exposed and acted on could save lives. I give as one out of many, many examples the question to Rumsfeld on armor. Whether or not it was planted is an interesting story and should be explored, but it also became clear there was a lack of armor and that it's producer had plenty more capacity. Failing to focus on this could cost lives.

There is no excuse.

So I would suggest that there are reasonable people all over the spectrum, that the spectrum is at best a crude classifer of beliefs and that pragmatic people might start making first or at least significant loyalty to their own kind rather than to those who might vote the same way they do.

Randy writes:

Modern Liberals want; More income redistribution and less emphasis on traditional values.

Modern Conservatives want; Less income redistribution and more emphasis on traditional values.

This is pure Pragmatism - Value, not Truth. Neither facts nor power will settle the matter. The solution is compromise.

We have no organ at all for knowledge, for truth: we know, or believe or imagine, precisely as much as may be useful in the interest of the human herd, the species: and even what is here called usefulness is in the end only a belief, something imagined, and perhaps precisely that most fatal piece of stupidity by which we shall one day perish. Friedrich Nietzsche
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