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Political Philosophy 

Financial guru and blogger Andrew Tobias posted a lament about a respondent named Steven who denied the accomplishments of the Obama Administration and disputed facts with his opinions. Tobias labeled Steven an idiot but Steven's denial of facts struck me as interesting and I wrote this essay.

Your friend Steven is not an idiot, that would be too simple. One of the things that bothers me most is knowing something that explains the world around you, but is ignored by other people. Understanding Steven is relatively simple if you consider he is merely flotsam in a tidal wave of change occurring in the world.

I find knowing about that change to be exciting but it remains frustrating to see it ignored by other people. I was at a dinner one time when a pompous historian quoted Santayanna “Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it“ and I rejoined “yeah, but those who do learn from history are doomed to repeat it with the agony of knowing the disaster ahead.“

Webster's dictionary defines “Rationalism: a theory that reason is in itself a source of knowledge superior to and independent of sense perceptions.” I regularly argue with a nationally known blogger who cites Rationalism as a defense against the Discovery Institute (creationism) and I try to explain to him that creationism and religious belief epitomize Rationalism.

Rationalism in the modern world means to argue logically about things that have no empirical basis in fact. Consider Supply Side economics and the Bush II administration's tax cuts. These are all well argued logical positions that simply are contrary to fact. BUT that is what the definition of Rationalism is referring to when it refers to the “superior to and independent of sense perceptions.”

Literally, by definition, Rationalism refers to logically arguing in favor of things that have no basis in reality. This is precisely what Cheney was referring to when he told Ron Suskind

“that guys like me were 'in what we call the reality-based community,' which he defined as people who 'believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.' I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. 'That's not the way the world really works anymore,' he continued. 'We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality.'”

Webster's dictionary defines “Empiricism: a theory that all knowledge originates in experience.” Galileo is usually cited as the classic example: the church authorities argued logically from doctrine (Rationalism) but Galileo tried to show them through the telescope the empirical sense perception that proved them wrong. The church authorities refused to look through the telescope because Rationalism is based on ignoring empirical facts because doctrine is considered “superior to and independent of sense perception.”

I actually prefer a more recent example: the Brown versus Board of Education decision of the United States Supreme Court. What had been the previous doctrine of the USSC was to argue based purely on reason from the law. What occurred in Brown was that the court allowed the plaintiffs to cite empirical evidence. Separate But Equal was a Rationalist defense that complied with the law even though it had no basis in fact and the Brown decision recognized that empirical facts were, in a sense, “superior to and independent of” reason.

This transformation of legal doctrine into an empirical foundation was also reflected in the change to “strict liability” where in prior law a person was liable only if the plaintiff could show the defendant was negligent, whereas under strict liability the plaintiff only had to show that the damage occurred as a consequence of the defendant. In essence it transferred liability from one of intellectual inputs to one of empirical facts.

Look around your political world and you see this underlying nearly every controversy. The Republicans always explain things in terms of allegiance to doctrines and they consider physical evidence to be completely irrelevant. Your friend Steven can completely ignore the empirical evidence you cite about President Obama because his doctrinal reasoning is “superior to and independent of” empirical fact.

Like Cheney told Suskind, Democrats are the reality-based community, but Republicans “create our own reality” which to them means merely concocting a rational explanation for their actions for which the empirical reality is irrelevant because their concoction is “superior to and independent of” empirical fact. The Republicans know this, that is why they specifically create entities that develop and promulgate concocted rational explanations for their actions.

Paul Krugman lamented this in his September column on Those Lazy Jobless:

“My guess, however, is that it's mainly about the closed information loop of the modern right. In a nation where the Republican base gets what it thinks are facts from Fox News and Rush Limbaugh, where the party's elite gets what it imagines to be policy analysis from the American Enterprise Institute or the Heritage Foundation, the right lives in its own intellectual universe, aware of neither the reality of unemployment nor what life is like for the jobless. You might think that personal experience - almost everyone has acquaintances or relatives who can't find work - would still break through, but apparently not.”

However, Krugman states this without any apparent recognition that this reflects a standard philosophy that is described precisely this way in Webster's dictionary. I'm not trying to convince you of some exotic theory, just read the damn dictionary.

It's not like I'm quoting some obtuse philosopher, such as Ayn Rand, these are fundamental garden variety basic philosophies. In fact, one political party says that believing in a fictional doctrine by an obtuse philosopher (Ayn Rand) is “superior to and independent of” reality. They fundamentally establish fiction as superior to fact.

What I am saying is rather simple: the Republican Party represents the philosophy of Rationalism while the Democratic Party represents the philosophy of Empiricism.

I see this over and over without those involved recognizing what is occurring. Consider economist Mark Thoma writing during 2012 in the Financial Times:

“Even when the econometric models do give clear answers, those answers are often ignored in the public debate over these issues. This is due, in large part, to economists who are willing to ignore clear empirical evidence in order to sow confusion and promote ideological goals, and the culture within the profession that does little to penalize such behavior.”
He doesn't explain that “to ignore clear empirical evidence” is precisely what it means to be a Republican/Rationalist.

Paul Krugman wrote in 2011 (The War on Demand) about Keynesian theory

“It's kind of shocking if you think about it. Here we have a huge, hard-won intellectual achievement, one that accounts very well for the world we actually see, and yet it's being thrown away because it doesn't go along with ideological preconceptions. Once that sort of thing starts, where does it stop? The next thing you know, the theory of evolution will get the same treatment. Oh, wait.”
In other words, Krugman observes knowledge “that accounts very well for the world we actually see” being ignored “because it doesn't go along with ideological preconceptions” but seems completely baffled by this. It shouldn't be baffling, it perfectly describes the philosophical difference between the two political parties.

People regularly seem baffled by the ability of the Republican Tea Party faction to make statements like “keep the government out of my Medicare” and other rhetoric completely divorced from reality, yet the philosophical leader of the Republican party has already publicly stated that “the reality-based community” is not the way the Republican Party functions.

The Republican “closed information loop” that Krugman describes simply represents the doctrinal distribution of the concocted Rationalist reality and each Republican presidential candidate will solemnly declare allegiance to fictional doctrine as proof of their ability to ignore empirical fact based reality in order to establish their bona fides. Why else do you think it is so important among them to salute Ayn Rand?

That represents what it means, by definition, to be a Republican/Rationalist: the ability to establish doctrine as “superior to and independent of” reality. Indeed, the more obvious your ability to ignore reality the greater your Republican bona fides. It isn't “misinformation” to them, as you described it, it is their fundamental philosophical paradigm.

The Brown versus Board of Education was considered a radical transformation of the legal paradigm in America and one that is still lamented by Republican judges such as Scalia.

But, if you look at the fundamental transformation of particle physics at the beginning of the 20th Century with Quantum Mechanics, even today there is NO rational explanation of how Quantum Mechanics works but physicists explain that it closely matches empirical fact so they use it.

In other words, Empiricism means that knowledge which corresponds closely with the real world is “superior to and independent of” any reasoning if it provides a better basis for action than rational thought. As a consequence, even if Obamacare lacks a rational basis it would still be desirable if it provides a better basis for action than any other.

The entire world is now entering an era of “do what works“ rather than fight over doctrines that have no basis in reality. Both Empiricism and Rationalism are fundamentally based on reasoning, but Empiricism says “do what works” even if you don't completely understand why, while Rationalism means “do what doctrinal authority tells you even if it doesn't correspond with reality.”

In fact with the Republican presidential candidates it means “do what doctrinal authority tells you especially if it doesn't correspond with reality.” Meanwhile, YOU insist on trying to argue facts with Republicans when their entire existence depends on ignoring facts as their philosophical basis.

 


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