Monday, April 19, 2010

More on Epistemic Closure and Ideological Mirages

Last week I asked how people like Julian Sanchez, Matthew Yglesias and Noah Millman could be so certain that the conservative movement is more closed-minded than its liberal counterpart. That strikes me as an unlikely proposition on its face: first, because it’s not obviously intelligible; and second because, insofar as it is intelligible, it seems unlikely to be true.

What could it mean to say that conservatives are less open-minded than liberals? Each of those ideological communities contains people who are variously intelligent and intellectually scrupulous. So it’s always going to be easy to find a conservative who’s more open-minded and rational than most liberals, and a liberal who’s more open-minded and rational than most conservatives. It only makes sense to compare the open-mindedness of conservatives and liberals if we’re talking about the way they deliberate as a group. It’s not immediately clear how to make such a comparison fairly. In any event, that’s a task that the people deploring conservative closed-mindedness give no indication of having undertaken.

This much, however, is clear: in a society like ours, where people consult a plurality of reputable traditions having inconsistent political implications, you can’t infer that your opponents are irrational just because you think they’re wrong about pressing issues of political morality and public policy. On the face of things, it seems unlikely that open-mindedness would be concentrated on one side of any durable ideological divide. That’s why I speculated in the earlier post that the most probable explanation of the currency of beliefs about conservative closed-mindedness has less to do with people making warranted judgments to that effect than their having surrendered to psychological and social pressures encouraging them to jump from the fact of disagreement on big issues to the unwarranted conclusion that the other side is being irrational.

Let’s try to put a toe in these deep waters by putting the contest between liberalism and conservatism in a little historical perspective. The ideological war between them has continued in substantially its present form for at least thirty years, since conservatives took firm control of the Republican Party in 1980 when Reagan became the party’s presidential nominee. So it’s reasonable to ask: relative to the baseline year of 1980, which, if either, side has been winning? That’s a pertinent question for present purposes because, if any ideological victories have occurred, it’s hard to say that the side that has won most of them has been deliberating less rationally than the other side.

As you might expect, however, ideological victories are slippery things that aren’t easily identified in terms that don’t merely confirm the ideological presuppositions of the person doing the identifying. We have a perfectly straightforward idea about what counts as “winning” an argument between persons: one wins when the other either concedes defeat or betrays a pertinent change of heart through his conduct. Yet a victory/defeat is hard to spot even in these relatively simple circumstances because the parties are apt to spin the facts out of pride and wishful thinking, the winner so that she can claim victory prematurely, the loser so that he can avoid having to concede defeat.

Victories/defeats among ideological communities are even harder to detect because, encompassing many minds, they never speak with a single voice. In general, one side can credibly claim an ideological victory only when its reasoning arguably becomes the other side’s conventional wisdom. Victories/defeats are evidenced mostly by what members of the losing community don’t say, by their reluctance out of conviction or ideological etiquette to voice an opinion that was once treated by their comrades as a badge of ideological rectitude, but is now embarrassingly passé.  When we've spotted a genuine ideological victory, we've found one issue as to which the winning side’s superior rationality is no mirage because it’s just as visible from the loser’s standpoint as it is from the winner’s.

There’s no point trying to be any more precise. Ideological victories aren’t the kind of events with a beginning, middle and end demarcated by bright lines. That doesn’t make them any less real than a “heap” of corn. If we started piling kernels of corn atop each other one at a time, we’d eventually reach a point where everyone would agree that we had a heap. But that doesn’t mean that reasonable people could ever agree on which additional kernel turned the mere pile into a genuine heap, and thus on whether many actual piles qualify as heaps.

Ideological victories/defeats exhibit the same indeterminacy, compounded by the further complication that the people identifying them need to rely on the evidence presented by their own variable, and often self-serving, thoughts. Occasionally an ideological victory/defeat is indisputable, like the defeat suffered by Marxist-Leninism in the 1990s. Usually, however, their occurrence is inherently contestable. So identifying victories unequivocally enough to satisfy both liberals and conservatives isn’t going to be easy.

Recognizing that ideological victories often exist only in the myopic eyes of liberal and conservative beholders, I propose this expedient. Let’s compile two lists of issues, entitled “Advantage Conservatives” and “Advantage Liberals” respectively. To qualify for either list, the issue must enable one side or the other to lodge a prima facie claim to an ideological victory since the beginning of the Reagan presidency by identifying intellectual concessions from prominent figures on the other side. I submit that the Advantage Conservative list includes at least four items:

(1) Welfare Reform: it was bitterly opposed by liberals in the 1990s but is now widely regarded as a successful policy by liberals and conservatives alike;

(2) Marginal Tax Rates: Before Ronald Reagan made tax reductions the cornerstone of conservative domestic policy in 1981, marginal income tax rates for the highest earners stood at 70 percent (down from 90 percent during the Eisenhower administration) and stout-hearted liberals still insisted we were an under-taxed society. Try finding a reputable liberal who favors marginal tax rates above, say, 50 percent now.

(3) The Cold War: By the time Reagan died in 2004, Ted Kennedy, once among Reagan’s most dedicated foreign policy opponents, honored him as “the president who won the cold war.” It’s hard to interpret Kennedy’s resoundingly counterfactual claim made at the Reagan Library in 2007, that “the cold war had been waged as a bipartisan enterprise by Republican and Democratic Congresses and administrations from the first moment to the last,” as anything other than a backhanded concession that Reagan conservatives had been right about how to wage the cold war, and liberals wrong, between 1980 and the fall of the Soviet Union.

(4) Constitutional Interpretation: When liberals spoke of a liberal Supreme Court Justice, we used to mean someone like William Brennan or Thurgood Marshall.  Now we mean a champion of judicial modesty like John Paul Stevens.

I’m happy to concede that there’s plenty of room for reasonable disagreement over whether each of these items represents a genuine ideological victory. You can always find diehard liberals who’ve never reconciled themselves to the conservative policies I’ve identified. And it’s possible to argue that some of the ideas I’ve characterized as winners lack a genuinely conservative provenance. But we needn’t be detained by such objections.

That’s clear when you take a look at the Advantage Liberals list. . . . .   I can’t think of anything to put on it either. The last liberal ideological victories I can think of occurred sometime before the end of the Ford administration when the Republican presidents embraced part of the liberal policy agenda by supporting environmental policies like the Clean Air Act and labor policies like the Occupational Health and Safety Act and when once-controversial liberal constitutional principles like “one person, one vote,” or the “exclusionary rule” became a settled part of constitutional law. Liberals have won the odd political victory in the ensuing years, like the passage of ObamaCare, but those haven't been anything like ideological victories given the continued opposition of movement conservatives.  It’s a sad fact of my whole political life that, if liberals have been out-deliberating conservatives, they’ve done it with the stealth of an accomplished cat burglar who walks off with the loot without leaving behind any probative evidence.

Does liberalism’s thirty-year history of ideological retreat before movement conservatism show that today’s conservatives are more rational than today’s liberals? No. The psychological and social forces undermining objective deliberation in any ideological community are always formidable and conservatives enjoy no special immunity from their rationality-inhibiting effects. So we should never underestimate the capacity of conservatives to go off the deep end.

But the pertinent history does suggest that liberals’ exorbitant investment in the idea of their superior rationality is fool’s gold that glitters to no one else.  It might be a good idea, if only for the sake of appearances, for them to dial down the talk about conservative "loopiness" until they've chalked up an ideological victory of their own.

No comments: