Thursday, April 07, 2005

Poly Sci at Pete's

Following up on my post last night on policy, I have been engaged in a small but fun talk with Peter at his blog, Before Dawn. We've been discussing how liberty and justice are resolved in political theory. The comment thread is here. I don't have time tonight to really get into it, but I point readers to another blogger I have a high regard for. Francis Poretto is a small 'l' libertarian and a Catholic, and I view myself in the same lens. Last night he, like David Brooks' piece that I linked to last night, wrote about the tensions between the libertarian and traditionally conservative wings of conservative thought in the U.S. He is also optimistic that through ongoing dialogue and policy tinkering, things can be worked out:
We reached our current degree of consensus in part because of the failure of New Deal / Great Society social experimentation, ably chronicled and analyzed by Thomas Sowell and others, but also in part because we dislike men who speak with forked tongues. Strangely, whatever principles they might claim, the forked-tongued types always work to increase State power and intrusiveness. So the revulsion against the political class has naturally rebounded to the favor of limited government and individual freedom. In other words, while the ideological conversation has gone on between libertarian-conservatives and social conservatives, self-nominated conservative politicians have been fueling the libertarian point of view by their behavior in office. As previously noted, there are many lively conversations taking place over "carve-outs": exceptions to the general rule that individual freedom should prevail over other political considerations. Drug abuse has been the most persistent point of contention. Abortion and its regulation has been another. The degree of indulgence that should be shown to public charges is a third. But disagreement over these subjects is not evidence that libertarians and social conservatives are about to end their alliance. Rather, it's an attempt to reach compromises -- hopefully enduring ones -- that will serve all ends: individual liberty, social cohesion, national sovereignty and security, and the maintenance of a just peace.
In that post he brings up a longer post he did earlier, where he talks in much more detail about where and how traditional conservatives and libertarians have difficulty and why. It is also a worthwhile read. In that post, Poretto writes:
Milton Friedman, one of the century’s greatest minds, wrote in his seminal book Capitalism And Freedom: “Freedom is a tenable objective for responsible individuals only. We do not believe in freedom for children or madmen.” How true! “Pure” libertarianism has wounded itself badly by attempting to deny this obvious requirement of life: the irresponsible must be protected and restrained until they become responsible, so that they will be safe from others, and others will be safe from them. Madmen who were granted the rights of the sane nearly made New York City unendurable. If the “children’s rights” lobby ever got its way, children would die in numbers to defy the imagination, and the American family would vanish.
Who is responsible and who gets to judge? What criteria will they use? I think the question of criteria is too easily overlooked. This is where we get hoodwinked by interest groups peddling their wants under the guise of 'social science.' Too much of what passes for social science has little to do with the real thing. As I mentioned in the comment thread at Pete's, I find the political theory about about the 'state of nature' to be an example of just what I mean. The idea is hubris typical of the sort we see in too much Enlightenment thinking. It is too vague, grand and sweeping to be put to any kind of test, yet to make it real science it needs to be verified. Small scale social science is better, but still has far more variables to weigh and account for than anything in physics. There is no control group to compare results against, even if we could do testing. I think we ought to be wary about the social contract school. We are not living in the Enlightenment. We are moderns and we ought to be able to look at what the Enlightenment offers with a critical eye. After all, it has given us some of the best things we have, and also some of the worst. Our topic is more of an Art than a science, and the material we work with is both theory and substance. The substance is history. Once we realize how valuable history is, we see that it too is subject to pressure from groups who would benefit from bending it a certain way. I think working with the subect as an Art makes it easier to tell when we are being lead, since history is tranparently a human narrative. The whole point of using and abusing social science is to obscure the role of the human narrator.

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