Re: Confidence: A Basic Politics Puzzle

Lee Daniel Crocker (
Tue, 18 Feb 1997 15:24:48 -0800 (PST)

> On topics such as physics or computers, most people are willing, even
> anxious to admit that they don't know very much, and they are willing
> to defer to a surprizing degree to people who specialize in such topics.

Physicists and programmers can readily point to simple, repeatable
experiments that conclusively demonstrate their principles. Someone
who didn't want to believe that electricity comes in discrete chunks
needs only to set up Millikan's oil-drop apparatus and see for himself.
A program either produces correct output or it does not. It is not
subject to interpretation or outside influence.

Political "truths" are not on such solid ground. Certainly, some
things can be tested, such as computer simulations of economic models.
Even then, the models must make some assumptions about human behavior,
which is notoriously not amenable to precise simulation. One can
also look to some degree at historical data, but even that is subject
to thousands of overlapping factors, human whims, and historical lies.
Finally, political ideas often rest on normative foundations, so
people with different norms will not agree, regardless of how much
deduction one does from them.

That's why I may appear, in your words, "confident"; perhaps even
dogmatic. It's not that I am unwilling to be convinced otherwise,
it's just that doing so is extraordinarily more difficult than in
clearer fields like physics.

I am quite willing to defer to your years of education in describing
how existing governments function, or what the results of certain
changes might be, and even what the historical record of governance
tells us about human nature. But all that doesn't change my free
will, or my free choice to rise above my nature and form a society
by completely different rules. To move me, you must appeal to my
moral philosophy directly--you must convince me that my moral choices
will result in something even worse than the bloody tyrannies I have
seen every other philosophy degrade to.

> I see this behavior on this list as well. Why? Why so few
> qualifiers and "I don't know"s on political topics?
> Yes, of course part of what brings us together is an interest in
> anarcho-capitalist type political institutions. But why are so many
> of you so damn confident that you know how such things would actually
> function, or which minute variation would actually be best?
> Social systems are perhaps the most complex systems we know, and for
> which our ignornance should be the most vivid. Why is this so hard to
> admit?

I don't have a problem admitting that I don't know how any particular
A-C system would operate in real life, and I am quite willing to admit
that there are gaps like intellectual property and land covenants and
child care that aren't all neatly tied up in a working package. But
still, none of that changes the moral foundations, which, in the end,
are a matter of choice. One can reason /from/ them--one can reason
that certain moral codes are likely to produce certain results, and
that if those results are undesirable, one should change the normative
axioms. But one cannot reason /toward/ a moral choice. In the end,
the desirability of means and ends is a value, a free choice.

Individual liberty and responsibility are axiomatic values for me.
I believe they will result in a system that minimizes coercive force,
which is also an axiomatic value. Arguments can be made that I am
wrong, that my axioms will lead to results other than what I expect,
but to prove that to me is much more difficult than just pointing me
to an oil-drop experiment. We can't just set up two planets and
watch for a millennium.

Lee Daniel Crocker <>