Monday, December 14, 2009

Skepticism: The Cornerstone of Democracy

That's right. The fundamental foundation of a successful democracy is an open-minded skepticism. Things like individual liberty and civil rights are not the building blocks of democracy. They exist in a successful democratic society because conditions in a successful democracy allow them to exist, but they are dependent on society continuing to create the necessary conditions.

John Locke, the recognized pioneer of classical liberal thought, was also the first of the British empiricists. Prior to the empiricists, philosophy and science were based on strict logical thought. It was assumed by many that logic was entirely reliable and that logical theory did not have to be challenged. While some of the flaws in the Socratic Method and Aristotleian Dialectic were already obvious and the Rennaissance had led to a flower of scientific experimentation and humanism.

All of this led to intense reaction from conservatives in many quarters. Martin Luther rejected the corruption of the Roman Catholic Church of his day, but he also rejected the humanism of the Renaissance and preached a stricter morality and a philosophy based on faith rather than reason. John Calvin went even further, coming very close to rejecting reason as altogether worthless and leaving a legacy of anti-intellectualism that lingers to this day. The Reformation undid much of the progress of the Renaissance in many of the countries where it took root and the Counter-Reformation that followed entirely repudiated the Catholic humanism of the age of Da Vinci and Galileo. Thus those inclined toward piety tended away from intellectualism regardless of their religion. Those who did embrace intellectualism clung to the dialectics of Aristotle.

Locke, and the empirical thinkers who followed him, rejected the idea that a logical theory was a correct theory. They correctly understood the lesson of Galileo: logic does not equal truth and no theory can be considered sound unless it has been thoroughly tested and the actual results observed in the real world. That's the scientific method, philosophically stated.

There's a reason we call this era 'the Enlightenment.'

Thus, in order to prove that our ideas are true, we must doubt them. Absolute faith in our beliefs is dangerous. By allowing logic or religion to dictate a belief system and failing to test our own beliefs we set ourselves up for grievous intellectual error and the disillusion that accompanies it. It is even worse when we ignore the results of real world testing of our beliefs and insist that the logic behind them makes them true regardless of empiric experience. Skepticism and flexibility of thought, coupled with an ability to observe and accept the actual function of our ideas in the world, thus become the only surety of reliable knowledge.

A recurring theme among conservatives and libertarians is distrust of government. I don't believe that this, of itself, is a bad thing. I believe skepticism of government is very important. Absolute faith in the righteousness of one's government leads to experiences like the Japanese internment, the Red Scare of the '50s, the Vietnam War, and the scandals of the Nixon and Reagan administrations. Forgetting these lessons led to the experiences of 8 years under George W. Bush and a Republican Party whose fundamental line of attack is to present their own blunders, corruption, and incompetence as absolute proof of their theses about government.

Of course we should not place blind, unearned trust in government.

Nor, however, should we be blindly and unthinkingly afraid of government and allow that fear to override the empirical facts. Reflexing, unthinking, and close-minded fear is not skepticism. It is paranoia. One of the fundamental truths of paranoia is that paranoids frequently manufacture their own nightmares so skillfully as to make them real through their attempts to resist or escape them. Like the man said, they find themselves living in lonely worlds they populate with enemies.

Skepticism requires that we able to see the facts as they are rather than as we want or fear them to be. We must accept empirical reality and work with it rather than attempt to reshape the world in the image of our own beliefs no matter how logical we are sure those beliefs may be.

I've noted in the past that I began my political life as a fiscally conservative Republican, slightly more socially conservative than my moderate-to-liberal parents. Time, experience, and observation have drastically changed my views and ideas. I have been noticing that recent events and debates have continued to have an effect on my views and ideas. Changes have occurred at an easily observable pace. No doubt this will moderate as conditions change, but I fully expect my views to continue to change as I continue to experience the world and see them tested.

This may be arrogance or elitism on my part, but I believe this self-awareness and skepticism is key to the democratic process. Empirical testing can be the only test of political theory and ideas that do not survive the test of the real world must change. Laissez faire has repeatedly failed empirical testing. It failed during the Gilded Age, when a handful of men amassed massive amounts of wealth while reducing their fellow man to poverty and economic peonage. It failed in the 1929 and in 2008, when economic disasters were directly caused by the corruption and speculation of investors entirely unfettered (from without or within) by common sense or enlightened self-interest. In 1929 this happened because a monied, capitalist aristocracy could not wrap their brains around the idea that nothing lasts forever. In 2008 it happened because the financial industry believed that credit was equal to infinite, free capital.

It is incumbent upon our society to learn from such mistakes and correct them rather than (as we have for many years now) repeat the same old mistakes in new forms. This requires government intervention in certain areas of the economy, as most of us have already learned and understand. Conservatives are correct to say that eventually we will have to pay the bill. That's the whole point. One always has to pay the bill in the end and forgetting that very fact is the fundamental economic mistake we have seen repeated ad nauseam throughout history. Yes, at some point in the future our taxes will go up. That's how life works. Tax cuts can't last forever either. Conditions change, and policies must change with them.

When we believe in something so absolutely that we do not even consider the alternative, we are writing our own doom on the walls ourselves. Experimentation, experience, and trial and error are the only way to be as sure as possible of our knowledge. Even then conditions may change.

This is only common sense. Unfortunately, in today's political climate, common sense is very radical indeed.


Leslie Parsley said...

Am dropping this off wherever I can.

This is Lieberman's email address.

Tell him what you think. Post on your blog and in comments on other blogs. Ask others to do likewise. We may not have money but we can get numbers.

Leslie Parsley said...

Hew, two posts and neither of them have anything to do with your post. Am tring to get thie correction out.

Email him and tell him what you think.

The Eclectic Geek said...

I appreciate the correct email, so it's all good. :)

The Eclectic Geek said...

I don't know if this will amuse you or not, Leslie...

I sent the faux-Lieberman quote you liked so much to Lieberman in my email. In slightly modified form. :)

Mike Hatcher said...

Haven't found the time to comment, but I've been reading your stuff. I like your posts, even when I hate them I like them. :)

Mike Hatcher said...

Slightly fitting your last post, but more based on previous comments. You have used the phrase: I believe in government efficency, or something like, it doesn't matter if government is big or small, less concerned about its level of strength or weakness, but its level of efficency. What, in your experience, trial, testing, or history leads you to believe that government can be efficient? As I pondered what I want government to be able to do, efficency is low on the priority list. If there is a legal case to settle in court, I'm more concerned about the government being fair and just and less concerned about how many cases they can settle in the shortest amount of time. In fighting an enemy, of course I'm not thrilled if the Army is paying $600 for toilet seats, but I'm really more concerned that they crush the enemy than if they did the best possible shopping for material prices. In short, efficiency is nice, but I don't really expect efficency from government, I'm not really sure it is possible for them to be efficent. Let the government have the power to regulate private business a keep the abusive rich in check, but let them not run any business, be it banks, car companies, or health care. Any chance you saw the article in USA Today last week about the ratio of government employees that make 100k or more? Sorry I don't have a link, but good grief, you really want more government agencies created?

Leslie Parsley said...

Uhhh,which quote was that?

Leslie Parsley said...

Like the Gary Hart quote. I liked him when I lived in Colorado but I sure was mad when he acted stupid. We lost a good man.

PirateFriedman said...

Would be nice if people could be skeptical of democracy itself. Then maybe we could get rid of it.