Arnold Kling  

Jeffrey Friedman on Edelman and Caplan

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In an email, he writes,


Like the Frankfurters (and Caplan), Edelman simply couldn't understand why everyone didn't agree with him--his own (Marxist) views were so self-evidently true!--that he reduced the views of those with whom he disagrees to dark drives.

Read the whole thing, which I copied below the fold. I think that Friedman is correct to highlight the issue of reductionism in Edelman's writing. I think of reductionism as the refusal to take someone's reasoning at face value, and instead to look for deeper motives. I agree with what I think Friedman is saying, which is that unless you have good empirical evidence going for you, reductionism is not a valid analytical tool.

Nowadays, reductionism is often simply used as a rhetorical device. "He is talking his book." "He is writing what he is paid to write." "the G.O.P. commissioners are just doing their job, which is to sustain the conservative narrative."

Marx and Freud are the two most influential reductionists of all time, and my sense is that a paradigm that derived vaguely from Marx and Freud was widespread among intellectuals in the 1950's.

All that said, when I read this


Ethanol supporters managed to slip a one-year extension of the ethanol subsidies into the bill senators approved Wednesday to extend the Bush-era tax cuts.

I give Murray Edelman his due. This subsidy is the sort of thing that organized interest groups really care about, while the rest of us watch the drama over estate taxes and taxes on high earners. In fact, my guess would be, based on Edelman, that some significant goodies in the bill are even further under the radar than the ethanol subsidies.

Friedman's email:


I have a mixed reaction to Edelman too--but mostly negative. When I was still a history grad student I was at some boring party and pulled one of his books off the shelf, retired to another room, and was fascinated. This played a small role in my eventual decision to switch into political science. I must have happened into some of the passages on the simplistic nature of people's political notions.

However, Edelman routinely conflates cognitive factors like that with emotional ones--much like Bryan Caplan does--which I consider facile. I think your post sets the scene very well: there was no attempt to understand Nazism as a belief system that produced ideologues who had actual ideas, not just emotions--every bit as much as liberals, conservatives, moderates, libertarians, Christians, Jews, Muslims, etc. Instead, Nazism was explained away as "irrational," i.e., emotional. No real understanding can follow from this; there's a huge difference between explaining and explaining away. To apply this psychologistic framework to U.S. politics seems to me equally nonexplanatory--indeed, ideological. Like the Frankfurters (and Caplan), Edelman simply couldn't understand why everyone didn't agree with him--his own (Marxist) views were so self-evidently true!--that he reduced the views of those with whom he disagrees to dark drives.

I have always rejected Marxist methodology; Edelman combines the same materialistic reductionism to which I object with a psychologistic reductionism to which I also object. I'm not saying that people never act for (a) emotional or (b) self-interested reasons, but I'm saying that people also have (c) "cultural" or ideational reasons (based on their processing of the information stream to which they have been exposed) for thinking that they are doing what is appropriate. Whether a given person or movement or society is primarily motivated by (a), (b), or (c) is an empirical question, and Edelman's work is just as devoid of evidence that it's (a) + (b) as Marxist work is devoid of evidence that it's (b) alone (and Caplan's work is devoid of evidence that it's (a) alone).

You can see that I think there's a family resemblance between all forms of reductionism, so I have such huge problems with public choice theory. I believe that our default option should be to take people at their word and try to figure out why they might sincerely believe things that we would uncharitably find "insane." Otherwise we have no ability to test our own beliefs by comparing the arguments for them to the actual arguments that stand behind other beliefs, once these are treated respectfully rather than explained away.


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CATEGORIES: Political Economy



COMMENTS (7 to date)
Jayson Virissimo writes:
I believe that our default option should be to take people at their word and try to figure out why they might sincerely believe things that we would uncharitably find "insane."

What about when their revealed preference contradicts their stated preference? Isn't that the point at which public choice theorists start relying on "reductionism"?

Lee Kelly writes:

I suspect Bryan's answer would be that people select, perhaps unconsciously, their ways of "processing of the information stream to which they have been exposed" for emotional or self-interested reasons. It's a very Hansonian view of the world. Of course, explaining why people believe this or that does not address the idea itself. I suppose Bryan would agree that we should address the ideas apart from who believes them or why.

It is too optimistic view of mankind that everyone's believes are motivated by a desire for truth, and it would seem to fly in the face of the evolutionary process that spawned us.

jsalvati writes:

I'd just like to point out that the word 'reductionism' already has some specific meanings, so you should at least add a modifier if you're going to use it like that. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Reductionism

Evan writes:

I agree that it's somewhat patronizing to always try to find emotional underpinnings for people's views, but just because it's patronizing doesn't mean it's wrong.

I agree that in debate we should generally try to engage our opponents on the intellectual level and not try to psychoanalyze them. But sometimes the only way to convince someone is to get past the arguments they are using to defend their beliefs and find the real reason they hold them. Otherwise they won't change their mind, because all they'll hear is "your rationalizations have been proven wrong, make up new ones." Eric S. Raymond illustrates how to do this right when blogging about a gun control debate he had.

Fabulous; an extension of the ethanol rip-off. We don't need to deconstruct anything when it comes to spending authorized by Congress. The motives of members of Congress aren't important.

What's important is that Congress doesn't have to look spending trade offs in the face; Congress has no effective budget constraint. Until Congress has an effective budget constraint, we will continue to get spending on ethanol rip-offs and worse.

How many dollars do you think Congress would vote to spend on ethanol subsidy if each of those dollars had to reduce spending on Social Security benefits or unemployment benefits, regardless of motives?

lxm writes:

I followed the link to the Krugman, but I am not sure who is being reductionist here.

According to Krugman, the Republicans have written their report expressly prohibiting the use of " “deregulation,” “shadow banking,” “interconnection,” and, yes, “Wall Street.”" If that's true, you should have a significant issue with the Republicans on the committee. I mean talk about putting blinders on!

But, no, you probably have a problem with Krugman because it's his words you quote.

Maybe you should join Fox News.

GU writes:

It makes sense to initially respect the stated reasons that intellectuals posit for their views instead of looking for underlying motives. Intellectuals are somewhat constrained by logical argument and empirical verification. Sure, I think Paul Krugman is full of it a lot of the time, but he often tries to make coherent, logical arguments based on empirical fact.

But I don't see how that insight undermines public choice, which tries to explain the actions of government actors. Politicians are not hemmed in by logic or reality. They usually use rhetoric, not logic in their "arguments" and often deliver flat-out lies to the public. The structural problems of the legislative process are well-known (e.g. logrolling), and evidence of politicians bowing to rent-seeking is bountiful. Once I see politicians spouting coherent principles and then voting in a principled manner rather than clinging to their posts by any means necessary, I'll start taking political action at face value.

What is the bottom line difference between "cognitive factors" and "emotional factors" anyway? If voters and politicians are too dumb to realize what the good policies are, it seems like the we'll have similar results to the world in which they are merely too irrational to support good policies.

And to defend Caplan, he offers evidence for his claims—Friedman is the one who's being "facile" here.

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