Best Guesses, Worst Results
By David Metcalfe
May 30, 2019
Liberalism is empiricist, individualist, and democratic. Here’s a very brief explanation of why:
Liberalism Doesn’t Know Anything
Liberalism is a very complex concept. Trying to understand it in its entirety is actually, by its very nature, an impossible task. This is because liberalism is an empiricist enterprise- i.e. it is predicated on the idea that we don’t have absolute knowledge on anything, but merely make our best guess based on the current evidence we have. Because of this, liberalism is constantly adapting to fit new information. It is innately progressive.
Conservatism is its counterpart. Conservatism is much easier to understand, once one knows the worldview that espouses it. For example, evangelical Christians and conservative Muslims have, philosophically, the exact same goal: to bring God’s law to the earth. Evangelical Christians and conservative Muslims oppose things like gay marriage, abortion and transgenderism, not because social science or legal theory has made it certainly bad, but because God made it certain to them in the scriptures. Conservatism assumes a constant, unchanging standard that must be conformed to. It is pursuing a certain ideal, without the presence of more evidence necessary. It is innately idealist.
For this reason, liberalism tends to be common among agnostics, while conservatism tends to be common among religious people. But, of course, things are much too complicated to rely on that dichotomy. John Locke, the father of liberalism, was very religious. David Hume, a key founder in atheist philosophy, was very conservative. But I suppose that gets more complicated than I wish to really discuss here. What I want you to take from this first section is that liberalism rejects the idea that we absolutely know the way that people should live, the way society should be structured, and what direction society should go. Instead, it relies on making a lot of “best guesses”.
The Method of “Best Guessing”
Liberalism opposes the idea that a king or God can know what’s best for people, and instead, that people should reason what is best for themselves, and pursue happiness as they see fit. For this reason, it is very individualistic. It protects liberty for the individual through certain individual rights; these are essentially life, liberty, and property. The Founding Fathers of America were the first to take John Locke’s conception of liberalism predicated on these natural, individual rights, and turn it into a practical political system through rejecting the British monarchy in the American Revolution.
Since individuals have rights, but still exist in society, they are forced to develop collective interests. The expression of these collective interests end up being manifest in the form of democracy. Democracy allows each individual the right to choose their own government, and through that individual right, expresses a collective interest on behalf of the majority.
Democracy, for this reason, is quite in opposition to the idealist, who believes that we have knowledge of an ultimate standard for how to live and structure a society. For example, if you know that 2+2=4, would you put it up to a vote in a pre-school classroom? Of course, you would simply teach it to the students, for fear that a vote might, in their ignorance, result in the wrong answer. This is the common view of the evangelical Christian or conservative Muslim: man’s reason and evidence is flawed and will often be wrong, so it is much better to follow God’s absolute law as He has given it to us.
Democracy is assuming that the actual answer is not known, and that going with what most people want is probably going to be the best method of arriving at a good answer. It’s very optimistic towards the ability of mankind to think, gather evidence, and progress over time.
The Problems Of “Best Guessing”
The central problem of “best guessing” is, as previously mentioned, in the fact that a group of pre-schoolers may vote that 2+2=5 rather than 4, i.e. that there may actually be a correct answer that majority of the population ends up getting wrong. Of course, if the evangelical Christians and conservative Muslims are correct that God has made sex only for heterosexual marriage, then the fact that America recently voted to allow same-sex marriage is wrong, and liberalism has thus failed. That example is of the clash between supernatural idealism and liberalism, but liberalism actually can conflict with itself on the issue of human reason/evidence and democracy.
Science is essentially mankind’s best method of arriving at objective truth. It is, of course, subject to change with more evidence, as well as human error in data collection and interpretation, but it has nonetheless proven to be a practical and effective method of arriving at approximations of truth. But not everyone agrees that science is good, or on what should be considered “good” science. Vaccinations, for example, have been proven to be a safe and effective way to prevent disease to the maximum extent that science can possibly prove something. And yet, there are millions of people who believe vaccinations cause autism, or even are part of a government conspiracy to control people’s minds or whatever absurd thing. This puts a potential dent in democracy, because millions of people will vote on the issue of vaccinations thinking 2+2=5.
And this is ok when it’s a minority of people; but stupidity is not always relegated to a small group. In the case of climate change, for instance, the science, as best as can be understood currently, is that the earth’s climate is changing rapidly due to human pollution, and will cause devastating effects if not remedied. However, a very high number of Americans do not believe in human-caused climate change, and thus have elected a President and government establishment that does not believe in it. This means that the American government, and the businesses it allows to operate without proper environmental regulations, will act as though 2+2=5.
A group of pre-schoolers believing that 2+2=5 will not necessarily have terrible effects; at least not right away. Lies, misinformation and ignorance may have immediate effects, but often times, it is a gradual process. The propaganda spread by the Nazis- that Jews had caused Germany to lose the first World War- took over a decade before the holocaust occurred. The ignorance of innate racial inequality took a while before it resulted in the systematic slavery of the African people. Today, believing that climate change is a hoax started by the Chinese does not have any immediate damage, but its effects will be horrific in time, nonetheless.
Climate change is only one example of many. There are large groups of people who misunderstand the value of the free market welfare state, and believe in a purely capitalist, socially darwinist state. There are groups of people who believe that humans are not all equal, and demonizing entire groups- such as Mexicans and Muslims- is a good thing to do. The list goes on, but essentially, democracy gives reign to any large, unified group of people, regardless of whether they are consistent with scientific fact, economic sustainability, or basic morality.
The attempted remedy is in a constitutional democracy, i.e. a republic. While this forces the government and its citizens to operate based on individual rights to life, liberty and property, it does little to interpret the application of these in specific circumstances, and fails to progress with increased knowledge. For example, the second amendment states that guns are a right to all citizens. The context of guns at the time was extremely different than it is today. If the Founding Fathers saw guns being used in massive amounts as a way for troubled young black men to shoot each other, troubled young white men to shoot school children, and people to commit suicide, they would likely reconsider their stance, as any rational person would.
A constitution, as a stable, stagnant declaration of the way things ought to be, is inherently contradictory to the progressive nature of liberalism. But liberalism relies on the concept of individual rights as a justification for itself, and therefore it has to remain foundational. While the ambiguity of the constitution does allow for progression, it also causes a great deal of struggle in interpretation. The lack of education, good reason, and good morality among the American people greatly exacerbates the magnitude of this problem.
For an individual or group who think they have life basically figured out, liberalism is not appealing. Liberalism is inherently anti-dogmatic, based instead on reason and evidence. But since evidence is a dynamic enterprise, and reason is subject to the limits of the human mind and the efficacy of discourse in opposing perspectives, reason and evidence lead to a great deal of uncertainty. But decisions must still be made, so liberalism takes a “best guess” by taking a vote.
Taking a vote is optimistic that the majority of people are going to be right about a given issue. This is not always the case, and many times, public opinion goes against what is scientifically proven and ethically good.
These problems are significant, but are not necessarily reasons to do away with liberalism. Amazingly, people have actually gotten a lot of things right, and liberal societies have performed exceptionally well to meet the physical and mental needs of its citizens, routinely rating near the top on all happiness factors.
Liberalism is merely the best system that can currently be thought of by imperfect humans trying to facilitate a society full of imperfect humans. If there was a silver bullet answer to all of humanity’s problems, such as the Bible for the evangelical Christians or the Quran for conservative Muslims, perhaps liberalism could be done away with. But, of course, Biblical and Quranic interpretation suffer the same ills as any other interpretation: they are read and understood by imperfect humans. More so, there is no reliable, universal standard for placing one religious group above all others, and as such, freedom of religion becomes vital, and is only preserved through the application of a secular state.
It should be the goal of every person to wish to contribute to the well being of others and bring about political systems that achieve such things. The way to go about this will change with new technology, new information, new cultural dynamics, etc. Liberalism’s facilitation of progression based on these kinds of changes causes many internal struggles, but in the larger picture, is vital to bringing about the best of human knowledge and good morality. Whether America can persevere through these struggles remains to be seen, but the optimism the Founding Fathers had was that no matter what difficulties America would go through, that government of the people, by the people, and for the people would not perish from the earth. Human knowledge and good morality will continue making their best guesses, and we have to hope we get it right; our lives depend on it.