Max R. P. Grossmann

Max R. P. Grossmann

Free yourself from discoursive desiderata

Posted: 2024-04-18 · Last updated: 2024-04-18

One of the most important things to understand about constitutional rules is that, at their best, they pretend that trade-offs don't exist. This is very much a feature, not a bug. The framers of any constitution consciously placed their judgment above ours.

It is beyond the point to argue that with just the right kind of ex post facto law we could catch another obvious murderer. Similary, it is pointless to complain about the double jeopardy rule. Yes, many bad people walk free. Our ancestors had no qualms about prohibiting us from trying them for a second time. They accepted this clash of values.

That the framers removed certain ideas from consideration was an act of tremendous power. More fundamentally, they were not ashamed to face the charge of imposing their own judgment. They saw the arguments against the rule prohibiting ex post facto laws and double jeopardy and said: “Yup. Cool story about these bad results. Anyways, here the rule still comes.” They stood up for their values.

The temptation to conform to others' expectations is always great. Here are two examples. First, remember COVID? Many classical liberals and libertarians opposed lockdowns and “vax mandates.” Now that the data are in, classically liberal authors claim in various outlets that (not only is liberalism morally preferable but) actually lockdowns destroyed lives and caused more deaths! Sweden handled the pandemic so well!

I do not buy these analyses. Mind you: I have no position on the effects of lockdowns or “vax mandates.” They may have helped. Or they may have hurt. The question is irrelevant to me. I oppose lockdowns and “vax mandates” out of my freely chosen principles of liberty and personal responsibility. My position is independent of facts. It is not possible to fact-check me. All you can do is disagree with me. And that's fine.

Authors engaging in this sort of analysis try to navigate the COVID discourse in this manner: (1) I ascribe to COVID fighters the goal to “improve public health.” (2) Let me pretend that I believe that health is important. (3) See, health was actually damaged by COVID measures, so according to COVID fighters' own target, their preferred policies failed. BAZINGA!

Would these authors start to support lockdowns if they were shown ironclad evidence that they were beneficial? I highly doubt that. I highly doubt even that they would publish their paper in that case. And that's a big problem. Because then it's not really about science (i.e., truth, interpersonal verifiability), is it?

Here is another example of classical liberals missing the mark: Marx and friends proposed socialism and they claimed it would be much better for workers. Subsequently, Mises and Hayek proved that socialism could not work because only markets allow calculation and the efficient distribution of resources. See the three-step? (1) I ascribe to socialists the goal to improve efficiency. (2) Given this presumed goal, let me analyze different market-governmental structures. (3) Wow, efficiency is actually decreased by socialism, so according to socialists' own goal, socialism actually cannot work. BAZINGA! But efficiency was never the goal of socialism. The goal was hatred, envy and totale Vernichtung of class enemies based on the tremendous idiocy and ignorance of socialist authors.

Neither COVID fighters nor socialists ever made their true goals clear. (I do believe that COVID fighters really tried to help with “public health,” though I suspect the median voter got in the way with that.) And classical liberals also don't make their goals clear anymore. We are stuck in an equilibrium where authors with unknown ideologies knock down the arguments of other authors about whom they know little, but assume much. The proof that presumed goals are damaged by a proposed policy can at most force opponents of one's position to clarify their goals; whether by speech or action. But even in the very best case where the others are forced to reveal the normative foundations on which their policy prescriptions rest, all that can be demonstrated by this exercise is that normative foundations are indeed different among people. We are back at square 1. True; socialism is irreconcilable with liberal principles. And socialism is not an efficient policy. But efficiency is not the criterion used by the proponents of socialism. The only people who can care about this argument is the sliver of people who are flirting with socialism, but who actually care about efficiency.

This sliver of people is tiny. Similarly, how many COVID fighters truly care about “public health?” I don't know. I do know, however, that you will be able to find credible studies claiming both that lockdowns helped and that lockdowns hurt. Perhaps lockdowns helped some people and hurt others. What is clear is that policymakers are free to choose their own outcome variables and their own scientists to make the points at which they arrived not through science, but through a priori reasoning based on their personal mental models and ideologies. Exceptions are possible.

This dispute cannot be resolved by facts. It is, at heart, a dispute about the fundamental values that should guide governance. This dispute is not furthered by accepting others' desiderata. It is clear why people, and especially classical liberals, do it: If presumed goals are equal to true goals, a demonstration of harmfulness of a policy induces a ranking that disfavors that policy. This “dominance” is intellectually appealing as it seemingly requires no own normative stance of the investigator. But because true goals are often difficult to identify, such arguments are in fact strawmen.

That which changes your ranking of policies demonstrates your principles. If you stick to socialism despite the works by Mises and Hayek, efficiency clearly was not your principle. But I cannot pretend that I know how to change your ranking of policies. (I also have no time for funny little games.)

The discoursive trick to assume others' goals and demonstrate their incongruence with a proposed policy is not just highly irrelevant, but deeply dishonest. First, authors writing in policy-relevant areas should never hide their personal agendas. Second, authors who engage in this trick always implicitly or explicitly compare the proposed policy against some counterfactual policy. But that counterfactual is just taken as given, as if it were exogenously created, when it was in fact endogenously selected by the author. Its foundations remain unexamined; its relationship to other relevant outcomes must be guessed by the reader. The exercise of knocking down policy upon the application of presumed principles does not further the market of ideas because it is difficult to accurately understand others' preferences and actual alternatives are never explicitly argued for and examined.

If we are to learn from the framers of our constitution, we should accept the normative nature of much governance. We need not be ashamed of standing up for our values. It seems to me that many classical liberals are pusillanimous about stating their true goals. Why are they unable to just say that they value freedom over public health? There is nothing shameful about that. It appears to me that they believe their viewpoints would fail the market test. Perhaps, but they could still move the Overton window. Thus, reframe the conversation in terms of what is important to you. Provide alternatives for those escaping ideological traps. That can only be done by rejecting the normative positions of our opponents and substituting our own for them. And feeling no shame about that. It's fine to have different principles.