Friday, June 17, 2011

Losing Touch with Reality

Fareed Zakaria thinks conservatives are losing touch with reality:
“We need conservative ideas to modernize the U.S. economy and reform American government. But what we have instead are policies that don't reform but just cut and starve government — a strategy that pays little attention to history or best practices from around the world and is based instead on a theory. It turns out that conservatives are the woolly-headed professors after all.”
A little of this sort of thing goes a long way with me whether it’s being said by liberals about conservatives or by conservatives about liberals. I run out of patience entirely when it comes from someone like Zakaria who has made a career of looking down his nose at mere ideologues while he pretends to Olympian objectivity.

To see why you only need a passing acquaintance with how ideologies work. Modern American “conservatism” and “liberalism” are complicated intellectual systems that encompass not only a complex of ethical commitments, but a more or less articulated political theory about how the political economy should work, and a general empirical theory of how the political economy does work. The union of the ethical commitments and empirical theories usually invites charges of wishful thinking from ideological opponents. Any liberal will tell you that it’s awfully convenient for conservatives that, by their lights, cutting taxes and reducing the size of government in the name of promoting liberty and social justice also happens to be a recipe for general prosperity. But no more convenient than it is for liberals to believe that redistributing income from better-off to worse-off people who are more likely to spend it, not only promotes social justice but offers us the only way out of our present economic predicament. In each case, what ideologues perceive as “facts” is importantly a function of their ethical and theoretical commitments, and their perception of wishful thinking on the other side is a matter of testing the other side’s theories against their "facts."

If you pretend to academic sophistication, you might explain it all in the language of epistemology by saying that all putative “facts” are “theory-laden” in the sense that our perception of them is importantly a function of our theoretical commitments. For present purposes, saying it has two important implications: first, that “being in touch with reality” must be a matter of how one’s theories and perceptions work together to form an intellectually defensible world view; and second, that being the case, it doesn’t make much sense to say that any one ideology is “detached from reality” unless you’re comparing it to some other similarly complex ideological union between theory and perception. It makes sense to ask whether conservatives or liberals are more detached from reality. But simply saying “conservatives are detached from reality” is like saying “Bob is heavier.”

Zakaria’s doing something like that and pretending that his simple-mindedness is a mark of intellectual sophistication.

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