Thursday, September 20, 2012

The Arrogance of Unwarrented Certainty

It is utter arrogance to pretend to have certain knowledge on the matter of political and economic systems.

This point is relevant to comment made to my last post on the benefits of market liberalization. In that post, I compared Africa to China. I noted that the former was the target of a great deal of liberal style aid and intervention while the latter engaged in market liberalization. Africa has seen little improvement in the past 30 years, while China has lifted hundreds of millions out of poverty - giving them better access to health care, education, and other opportunities in the process.

Mojo.rhythm pointed out the following:

I don't think it is fair to compare China and Africa. They are not exactly a ceteris paribus situation.

it s an accurate statement.

The fact is, we cannot set up sound scientific experiments for social systems.

A sound scientific system would take a group of people, randomly assign them to two different groups, each carefully constructed to isolate variables, and take objective measures of the state of each civilization over time.

This can never happen. There are not only ethical problems with this system, but the logistics themselves are prohibitive. All we can do is look at the actions people take in the real world and try to come up with a way to explain and predict the results that follow from those choices. We will never have a clean and uncontaminated set of data on which to base conclusions on political and economic systems.

One of the implications of this us that we have good reason to condemn those who pretend to unerring certainty in the conclusions they draw on which systems work and which fail. We have good reason to hold in utter contempt those who share an attitude common in today's the Tea Party movement where many members act as if they have such perfect access to THE TRUTH that they hold anybody who disagrees with them as having sinister motives and are worthy of the most vile hatred.

We have reason to condemn these people, not for being wrong (because they might not be wrong), but for their tremendous and horrendous arrogance (because they might not be right either, and they should respect that fact).

One reason for compromise on political and social matters is simply because none of us has sufficient information of good enough quality to allow us to be comfortable with our conclusions. Instead, a proper attitude to have is, "I think I am right. However, since I do not have the types of evidence that allow me to be certain, I need to respect the opinions that others draw from the information they have available. Let us work together to come to a conclusion that, with luck, catches more about what is right and removes what is wrong in all of our different views."

So, I will agree that the China vs Africa comparison I drew does not give us an uncompromising and unequivocal proof of the power of markets in all circumstances. That type of proof will never be available.

Yet, we do have the fact that market liberalization in China lifted hundreds of millions of people out of poverty. For a person truly interested in fighting poverty and providing people with better access to health care and education, this is extremely significant. Furthermore, China did not accomplish this by a system of wealth redistribution (taking from the rich and giving to the poor), but through a system of wealth creation where rich and poor both prospered.

China's economic development has even made a significant contribution to world peace. China's economy is now tied in with that of the rest of the world. A major global conflict would be economically devastating. A global China has reason to seek peace and avoid conflict that an isolationist China did not have. Consequently, if peace is your project, then this, too, has been well served by market liberalization in China.

While we cannot pretend that this proves without the possibility of error that market liberalization is the one and only true path to promoting the lives, well-being, and interests of people, we should also be careful to avoid tossing aside this evidence for no good reason - simply because it does not conform to one's prejuces regarding the types of systems one prefers.

And let us not adopt the horrendously arrogant attitude of those who are so certain they are right that they refuse to listen to or compromise with others who disagree.

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