"we carry death out of the village"

Month: November, 2011

A public choice analysis of public choice analysis

Although liberalism makes a big deal about having eliminated prejudice, this isn’t really the case. Not only in the sense that older prejudices are still here, but also in that liberalism adds some of its own; against conservatives, against the past–against anybody who isn’t already a liberal, basically.

That’s because it’s almost impossible for people not to form some common ideas about the world as such, and so, despite its protests, liberalism privileges particular values, just like all the other belief systems.

What’s different about liberalism is that if it’s not rational, it has to go. This gives it a claim to objectivity, but also a kind of inhuman, cyborg quality.

Looked at rationally, people in the middle of society should vote left or liberal and not conservative, because their interests are better served by the liberal-left. And since rationality is the highest standard of knowledge, this is a definitive judgement—i.e., it’s not wishy-washy subjective knowledge, it’s a fact, the kind of thing academics can sign-off against. All of which makes the behaviour of the people in the middle seem bizarre and inexplicable. Don’t they get it? They must be stupid or vindictive or something.

But the desirability of rationalism and rule by experts is itself a subjective judgement; it can’t be gotten from logic or verified by controlled experiment. Even though, rationally speaking, people may be better off under liberalism according to some metric; they may still prefer to live in a more traditional society, with shared values and norms.

In the past, homosexuality was a criminal offence (although the actual number of people who went to jail is not large). But the fact that homosexuality was criminalised is not the whole story of society’s views of homosexuality. In the past, there was a common view about morality, and homosexuality was thought to lie outside it. There was a collective opinion about the wrongness of homosexuality.

From the perspective of modern liberalism, this collective opinion looks arbitrary, judgemental and unnecessary—which, of course, it is. So, we did away with it, or tried to. Lots of other things looked arbitrary, judgemental and unnecessary, so we did away with them too. Now everyone can say for themselves what’s right and wrong, and nobody’s individual preferences are any better than anyone else’s.

But it just so happens that shared values, norms, understandings, affiliations, ideas about right and wrong, the good and the true, are what makes people a community, and not just an aggregate of consumption units sharing only a commitment to self-definition and a post-code. So we ended up abolishing our society altogether, because it didn’t make rational sense. Woops. On the other hand, who would complain? Only a Nazi or a Daily Mail reader, and we can ignore them. Plus, we’ve got all this nice shit and we can do whatever we want with it. We win!

The Disease

Mathematics is like an addiction, or a disease; you can never truly shake it off, even if you want to.

–I. Stewart