As I look back on my last entry, and on a recent flurry of comments, I realize how I’ve been diverted from my objectives of how I wanted to transition this web site. It will take some time, but I will be working on getting forums set up where people can post anonymously, thus removing whatever obligation I might have felt for somehow addressing anonymous comments left on this main page. Yet I do hope to encourage empiricism on the forums page, and I promised that this entry would provide tips for how to persuade an empiricist.
One might accuse me of hypocritically playing the scholar by the way I seemingly gush over John Stuart Mill’s description of liberty in my book, Systems out of Balance. One might think I hold him in the same reverence that the Cato Institute idolizes Milton Friedman, or the Mises Institute idolizes Ludwig von Mises. Yet I also criticize Mill in the book for his paternalism towards particular races, not a typical manifestation of idol worship that you might find from libertarian think tanks. I also triangulated his views on liberty with other experiences, as an empiricist would be inclined to do.
Before I read On Liberty I already had read The Wisdom of Crowds by James Surowiecki. Surowiecki’s work was embedded more in economics than politics, I do not know if he is aware of how closely his thesis resembles Mill’s, but his presentation included very convincing empirical evidence that could be applied concurrently to the ingredients for either collecting wisdom or nurturing liberty. Surowiecki’s work may not have attracted my attention to begin with, had I not done my own research into wisdom, based on experiential learning in a setting where natural rights thrived. Ultimately, my homage to Mill is based on my own extensive experiences in distinguishing between liberties founded on natural rights from those that only can be provided by an indulgent government. This is the essence of empiricism, the primacy of experience over belief or “infallible axioms” as the foundation of knowledge.
I mentioned once on The Middle Class Forum that I watched a presentation on Milton Friedman by Edward Glaeser, a laissez faire economist who does occasional work for The Heritage Foundation, though this particular presentation was at another think tank, The American Enterprise Institute. Two oft-quoted gems came up. Here is one of them:
“A democracy cannot exist as a permanent form of government. It can only exist until the voters discover that they can vote themselves largesse from the public treasury. From that moment on, the majority always votes for the candidates promising the most benefits from the public treasury with the result that a democracy always collapses over loose fiscal policy, always followed by a dictatorship.”
Where is the empirical evidence to support this statement? I would not accept something even stated by Einstein (or Mill), just as Einstein himself did not automatically accept Newtonian mechanics (and Newton may have been an even greater genius than Einstein), without the empirical evidence in support. That is the most obvious requirement to persuade empiricists. For example, most dictatorships that have been imposed over the last century resulted at least in part by some form of foreign intervention (often ours), which would make Friedman’s rather dogmatic proclamation tough to prove even if true. Furthermore, the longest lasting “governments” that ever existed were democracies indeed, the type of grassroots democracy practiced by early foragers and agrarians that lasted thousands of years for some of the cultures not discovered until the twentieth century. There evidently exists an imprecision of meaning here that is typical of pronouncements such as Friedman’s.
Proving Friedman’s thesis would have to be more clear on the terms being used, an important requirement for persuading an empiricist. Neither Friedman, nor the Cato Institute, nor their “libertarian” disciples have a very discriminating view of liberty. There is a difference in a liberty that corresponds to a natural right from one that corresponds to a government indulgence, and the latter can be used to subjugate the former.
Democracy can vary on a continuum of paternalistic top-down to consensual or federated grassroots forms. The latter would focus on natural rights such as independent thought, the former on government indulgences such as property. Our democracy is paternalistic, and has grown increasingly so since about 1798. There have been occasional corrections, such as overturning the Alien and Sedition Acts or limiting the number of presidential terms, but on the balance we have a more entrenched form of top-down party democracy now than we ever had. To persuade me of Friedman’s claim I would be most interested in the empirical evidence from the grassroots or federated democracies, which would not include ours. Those democracies do exist over the course of history and prehistory; I suggest “libertarians” in general do some further research in this matter to get a better feel for both liberty and democracy.
The other gem that came up at that AEI presentation was Friedman’s four categories of spending. Rather than list them here I refer you to how they were used for a discussion topic at the Library of Economics and Liberty, an interest group with the typical “free market libertarian” agenda. Please do visit that link and scroll down to glance at the discussion. There is indeed some discussion, not everyone shares the same opinion, but they all accept Friedman’s categories of spending uncritically. Consequently, all the opinions are of a deductive nature, cherry-picking a factoid or a reason here and there to reinforce fixed beliefs, without an empirical understanding for why Friedman’s categories of spending should reveal humans to be so naturally selfish. I find particularly amusing the post from the person who would worship Friedman as a god. Scholasticism at its finest!
I feel like the person needing to point out that the emperor has no clothes on. There has been no empirical evidence offered, by Friedman or his disciples, that these four categories of selfish spending are natural human responses. They would not be my responses, nor the responses of most middle class people I have experienced in my neighborhood. They would not be the response of the nomadic groups of backpackers I studied. One survey of such revealed that, out of five self-esteem constructs, family and social self-esteem increased the most. That is the kind of enhancement you will get when you snatch someone out of American culture and into nomadic culture.
You would not find empirical verification for the selfish instincts among the altruistic foragers or agrarians that lived in small social bands. Of course, this is according to cultural anthropologists who actually have experienced these early cultures; for “libertarians” such experiences do not weigh heavily against the unexperienced beliefs of an idol like Friedman. I do not doubt that Friedman’s categories of spending are culturally induced responses now to be typically expected, but that implies problems with the top-down structuring of social systems, not problems of human nature or the middle class.
Obviously, an empiricist has to rely on the experiences of others, but there are standards of validity and reliability to apply. I find the Statistical Abstracts and the NIPA tables to be more valid and reliable than many alternatives for relating the economic experiences of this country. Certainly they are more valid and reliable than data compiled by almost every think tank with an agenda, as deductive and scholarly as some of those entries may be. Think tanks can, at times, conduct highly objective research with the appearance of validity and reliability as found in the NIPA tables. However, objectivity does not translate automatically to experiential or experimental validity/reliability. This is a finer point of empiricism that escapes such scholars as Milton Friedman.
Think tanks and their blogs have a specific agenda: to reinforce a particular dogma they were created to support. This does not mean that everything that comes out of them is wrong. It does mean that everything they deduce from fixed beliefs is suspect. They are like the university system that existed before the Enlightenment. They may trap the unsuspecting into thinking they are empirical, but invariably their arguments take the form of the discussion I linked for Friedman’s categories of spending. There are folks who cherry-pick their way through think tank sponsored books, articles, reports and blogs, deducing which tidbits of information fit their fixed beliefs better than the alternatives, then echoing these tidbits in a manner to make corporate media proud.
This is something I would like to change with the forums to be offered here. I’ll give up my quixotic quest to remove anonymity on the forum pages, but I hope it does not regress into the think tank style of discussion. To encourage empiricism, from those that either want to support or refute my own views, here is a guide for persuading other empiricists:
Be precise in your meaning of terms.
Address what is natural or normative in regards to your claims.
Present empirical evidence of greater validity and/or reliability than previously available to the empiricist you wish to convince.
Triangulate your empirical evidence with other empirical evidence when possible.
Use inductive reasoning guided by the evidence, rather than deduce the meaning of evidence according to permanently held beliefs.
Now back to our regular transitional programming here on The Middle Class Forum.