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Skepticism and Politics

Article

Barry Fagin

Volume 21.3, May / June 1997

For skeptics who want to be politically active, some options are more attractive than others.

What is the connection between skepticism and politics? What are the appropriate politics for a skeptic? Does being skeptical automatically dictate one’s political outlook, or are there alternative points of view consistent with skepticism?

I ask these questions because I think skeptics have not devoted enough attention to them. This is hardly surprising, considering our nature. As skeptics, we are accustomed to deliberation, evaluation of evidence, and the insistence upon extraordinary evidence in support of extraordinary claims. These traits are not important to the political process, which instead rewards appeals to emotion and the successful manipulation of human passion. It is no wonder we are uncomfortable in the political world. It represents everything we reject in our search for understanding.

And yet, we are faced with inescapable evidence of the importance of politics. Like it or not, many aspects of our lives are affected and will continue to be affected by the political process. Simple self-interest, therefore, suggests that skeptics should address political issues. Perhaps more importantly, skeptics have a great deal to offer their fellow citizens. The visibility afforded to the political process could provide a useful platform for rational inquiry so conspicuously missing from modern debate.

This article will explore the connection between skepticism and politics. I begin with a discussion of the testability of political claims. I then discuss a well known view of the distinction between politics and morality and its relevance to the skeptic. I next examine the defining institutions of politics, developments in the social sciences that could affect the politics of a skeptic, and issues that skeptics find especially troublesome. I conclude with some of the political options for skeptics, along with a choice that is, in my judgement, unacceptable.

The Importance of Testability

To a skeptic, the testability of a claim is its most important feature. Unfortunately, the testability of political hypotheses is extremely low, due to the difficulty of controlled experimentation. One wonders if the term “political science” in fact has any meaning at all.

Suppose, for example, we wish to evaluate the effectiveness of income redistribution in reducing poverty. We cannot create two identical societies, giving one a placebo income tax and the other a real one, administered in double-blind fashion. The political process affects all members of a given community; there are no disinterested observers to evaluate the outcome.

We must instead live with the imperfect alternative of cities, counties, states, and nations as poorly conducted experiments in social organization. Although these experiments lack controls, counterfactuals, and take long periods of time before they produce measurable results, they are the skeptic’s best source of factual information on political issues.

Thus a skeptic should be familiar with history, politics, and economics, despite their lack of strong predictive value as social sciences. A skeptic should know how human beings have tried to organize themselves socially. When a skeptic makes a claim about the feasibility of some political outcome, she should be familiar with similar examples from history. When a skeptic challenges a political claim, he should ask for those same examples in support of the position. The more extraordinary the claim, the more credible the examples must be.

Skepticism and Morality

Many political claims, of course, are not falsifiable at all:

These are not empirical claims, but moral ones: statements indicating deeply felt values of the speaker. They serve as axioms of a belief system1. The adherence to moral values is not incompatible with skepticism, although a skeptic’s moral axioms may be more amenable to change over time than most given her mental habits of constant questioning and re-evaluation. What can we say, though, about the relationship between a skeptic’s moral values and her politics?

Skepticism and Government

The key insight, I believe, is that while politics and morality are related, they are not identical. All political actions should be moral, but the converse does not hold. There is a large regime of action which includes morality but which, in a just society, excludes politics. This view is essentially that of classical liberalism, which views human beings as agents with rights that governments are established to secure, not as means to be used to a given end. Such a view recognizes the right of the individual to make moral decisions without state interference, so long as the rights of others are respected.

Politics is socially sanctioned force: political solutions to problems are all about forcing people into a course of action. This provides a way to distinguish moral statements from political ones. If the statements above are made in a political context, they are more appropriately interpreted as:

A perspective that recognizes this distinction between politics and morality may permit skeptics to engage people with different moral values on political questions, despite seemingly insurmountable differences of opinion.

Skeptics themselves, in fact, may hold widely differing moral values. If they are to successfully reconcile their politics and their skepticism, however, then they should apply the same techniques of critical inquiry toward the institutions of politics that they apply to all other institutions. The institution of government and the use of coercion as a social tool, the two central characteristics of politics, should be examined critically. In my judgment, economic theory, the evidence of history, and simple daily experience suggest that government is a very poor tool for solving social problems. If this view is correct, then it has profound implications for the politics of skepticism.

Skepticism and Public Choice Theory

Readers who have long maintained a belief in the effectiveness of politics as a means to achieving social ends should be aware of recent developments in the social sciences. The theory of public choice, in particular, warrants careful study. Public choice theory, developed by the economist James Buchanan, generates testable predictions about the behavior of political institutions. These predictions are supported through empirical observation, suggesting that every skeptic should have at least a working knowledge of them. For his work in the development of public choice theory, James Buchanan received the 1986 Nobel Prize in Economics.

Briefly, public choice theory applies the economic principles to the public sector that were, in prior scholarship, applied only to the private sector. Earlier methods of economic analysis assumed that while human self-interest was dominant in private affairs, public affairs were different. When private actions led to “market failure", public institutions were assumed to be able to correct it due to superior knowledge, motivation, or other attributes. In other words, governments were assumed to be “above” self-interest and thus more effective in solving social problems.

Public choice theory suggests that this assumption is not correct. Self-interest is dominant in all human affairs, both public and private. This means that, when addressing a political solution to a possible incidence of market failure, the possibility of political failure must also be considered. Political failure is simply the situation that occurs when the political solution does not work, has negative unintended consequences, and/or creates worse situations than the problem it was intended to solve. Research in public choice theory suggests that political failure is both much more likely and much more difficult to correct than market failure.

Readers who are interested in learning more about public choice theory are referred to Buchanan’s original work (Buchanan 1964) and a summary of the supporting evidence 20 years later (Buchanan 1984). Copies of these books belong on every skeptic’s bookshelf.

Difficult Issues for Skeptics

If skepticism about government is warranted, then the skeptic is placed in a difficult position on issues where science and public policy overlap. On the one hand, our commitment to the highest principles of objective inquiry and our understanding of the manifest contributions of science suggest we should support governmental activity in science education, increased federal funding for scientific research, the banning of medicines not proven safe and effective, and so forth. On the other hand, skepticism about government tells us that these policies as implemented in practice are likely to have unintended consequences, precisely because government is involved (Martino 1992), (Fagin 1993).

One cannot help being outraged, for example, at the modern tragedy of faith healing so eloquently described by James Randi in his book The Faith Healers (Randi 1987). The venality, corruption, and baseness of its practitioners seem to be exceeded only by the gullibility of its followers. And yet, those who are skeptical should ask how effective political approaches might be. Should faith healers be taxed, since they're not a “legitimate” religion? If so, who would decide religious legitimacy? Should faith healers be prosecuted for fraud, even if their victims continue to believe? If so, how would such prosecutions be undertaken? How would a Department for the Investigation of Faith Healing actually behave in practice? How effective has coercive action been historically in coming between desperate, deluded people and something they want to believe in? The answers to these questions, it seems to me, put skeptics in the position of reluctant laissez-faire. Although we may abhor faith healing, and want to see faith healers out of business, we should recognize that the institutions of politics are ill- suited to deal with this issue.

A similar, but more controversial example of the dilemma skeptics face in the public arena occurred in these pages (Barrett 1995) and in succeeding letters to the editor (Lantz 1995), concerning the role of the FDA in the regulation of medical practice. On the one hand, skeptics understand that science is the best way to find out how the world works. People who choose to avail themselves of medical techniques that have not been substantiated scientifically are, at best, wasting their money and at worst endangering their lives.

And yet, skeptics should ask if a ban on unproved medications and unconventional medical practices truly represents an improvement. Public choice theory suggests, and the evidence shows, that agencies like the FDA act to increase their budgets and regulatory authority far beyond that which was originally intended. They tend to err on the side of caution, trading lives saved by banning unproved products for lives lost due to delays in new device and drug approval. The right way to make such a tradeoff is far from obvious (Higgs 1994a and 1994b). There are also serious difficulties in treating “safety” as an objective concept. To a bureaucrat, safety can only be shown by a multi-year drug study using careful controls and rigorous scientific standards. To a young man dying of AIDS, the safety of a drug means something quite different.

The way out of these dilemmas, it seems to me, is provided by the distinction between politics and morality. Even though we as skeptics understand that science is the best way of discovering truth about the physical world, others do not understand this, or at least find discovering truth about the physical world peripheral to other concerns. So long as their actions do not harm others, we must regrettably permit others to act on these beliefs, simply because coercion is unlikely to improve the situation. We can hope to persuade voluntarily, through personal example and through vigorous articulation of why science and critical thinking are important, but skepticism about the defining institutions of politics demands that we not use force against people who believe in faith healing, laetrile, and channeling.

The Politics of a Skeptic

What does this mean for skeptics who wish to affiliate politically? What kind of political activism is most appropriate for skeptics? These issues are especially difficult today, since the application of a critical perspective to the institution of government distinguishes the politics of a skeptic from both liberalism and conservatism.

Liberals hold an almost religious belief in the effectiveness of government as a social tool. They tend to regard human society as inherently beset with problems, problems that government is called on to fix. When challenged on the evidence of the effectiveness of government, many retreat to a moral belief in the legitimacy of government as an institution for achieving “social justice". If evidence suggests that present policies are ineffective, then the answer is believed to be “reform", better accountability from government officials, or similar panaceas. The response to the confirmation of the predictions of public choice theory is an appeal for less self-interest, a call for more legislation, or (perhaps not surprisingly) demands for still greater political involvement. A willingness to question the effectiveness of government as a solver of social problems is not characteristic of modern liberalism. It is therefore difficult to reconcile with the politics of skepticism.

But neither is conservatism a friend of critical inquiry. Conservatives maintain an unwillingness to examine assumptions about the effectiveness of government as an inculcator of virtue and a cultivator of values. Their support of drug prohibition and the regulation of pornography on the internet2, for example, despite the massive failures of the former and the sheer impossibility of the latter, can in my judgement only be explained by an ignorance of the predictions of public choice theory and a belief that the effectiveness of such policies is at best peripheral to their desirability. Such a perspective also seems difficult to reconcile with skepticism.

Conclusions

It seems to me that skeptics who wish to be politically active have a limited number of choices. They can affiliate with the growing libertarian movement, which has a historically informed view as to the limited sphere of action within which government can effectively operate, and accepts public choice theory as the one most compatible with existing evidence. This is what I have done. Another possibility is to work with the Democratic Party, using reason and historical evidence to show that government is not an effective tool for improving the lives of the poor in any meaningful sense. Still a third possibility is to work with the Republican Party, suggesting that the same factors that limit the effectiveness of government in managing the economy limit its effectiveness in personal affairs as well. This is the approach adopted by the Republican Liberty Caucus.

But renouncing politics altogether is a luxury that skeptics cannot afford. When faced with the de facto increase in the politicization of American life, even in the face of a newly elected Congress that claims to champion limited government, skeptics cannot afford to sit on the sidelines. If we remain aloof, then by our silence we will have contributed to a world where people believe that they can have things without paying for them, that compelling charity is compassion, and that banning vice is virtue. Now, more than ever, American politics needs reason and clear thinking. If we do not provide it, who will?

References

Notes

  1. I use the term “axiom” casually here, since belief systems in modern politics are seldom consistent.
  2. I am referring here to the Communications Decency Act, signed into law on February 8th as part of the Telecommunications Reform Act of 1996. On July 29th, in a thoughtful and articulate decision, a U.S. District Court in Philadelphia found the CDA unconstitutional. The case will be heard by the Supreme Court this March. Interested readers are invited to visit rmii.com for further information.
  3. For an analysis of the civil liberties challenges and enforcement problems of the Communications Decency Act, see (Corn-Revere 1995).

Barry Fagin

Barry Fagin is professor of computer science at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs. The views represented here are his alone. He is an ACLU National Civil Liberties Award Recipient and a syndicated newspaper columnist who writes frequently about skepticism and critical thinking. In 2012, he was named the Colorado Professor of the Year by the Council for the Advancement and Support of Education. Readers can contact Dr. Fagin at barry@faginfamily.net.