"If you want freedom…" Q&A: The False Dichotomy: Rationality vs. Electability

January 15, 2008 by  

First quoting my house metaphor, G writes:

This only makes the homeowner question why a group of roofers that are trying to be foundation workers, keep on roofing.Should the roofers give up roofing or should they just exist to repeatedly knock on the homeowners door to point out that there’s a leak here and a shingle missing there without ever getting the homeowner to hire them??

I take G to be implying that a politician will not get elected if he does not base his advocacy of freedom solely upon matters of political philosophy (e.g., “rights”, “freedoms”, capitalism, etc.), and if he does not refrain from advocating positions on metaphysics (i.e., the facts of reality), epistemology (i.e., the means of identifying facts and falsehoods) and ethics (i.e., right vs. wrong).

Debating the metaphor is fraught with possible mis-communications and the likelihood of arguments based on silly non-essentials but I introduced the metaphor, so I respond as follows:

The most popular home renovation shows feature people who, for example, are asked to come to a house to put in a walk-in closet, but who end up advising the owner that the foundation must be repaired before such a closet can be built or expected not to collapse. Nothing requires a renovator to limit himself to fixing rooves. It would be unconscionable to put in a closet that the renovator knows will collapse without first explaining that to the customer, and identifying what must be done to prevent the collapse.

Let us leave the metaphor, and deal with a sample issue in government. When someone complains that he lacks freedom to manufacture, sell or purchase an incandescent bulb, you will not help him by saying: “Well, what you need is some rights”. Instead, as a politician, you need to point out that the ban on incandescents is the logical consequence of a belief in man-made global warming, and that the belief is not founded on the facts of reality but upon the popularity of the belief. You need to recommend a cure, not a band-aid: that government should not act on beliefs for which there is no rational foundation. Promising a “right to light-bulb choice”, or promising “free markets” is like promising to fix haemophilia with a band-aid. The right answer, from an honest politician, is: “The belief that humans are causing catastrophic global warming is false until we discover a rational foundation for that belief and, until we do, the government ought not to ban incandescent bulbs”.

Such statements do not move a politician out of the realm of politics and cast him solely as a philosopher: rather, such statements disclose that the politician is knowledgeable. People do not regard a politician as not-a-politician simply because he promises never to act on irrational beliefs (such as man-made catastrophic global warming).

If the essential problem is political, the politician should say so. If it is moral, he should say so. If it is epistemological, he should say so. If it is metaphysical, he should say so. And, having identified the problem and its nature, he is in a position to justify his position on whether and how the government should respond.

If the renovator does not get hired to build the closet that will collapse, and the homeowner hires a cheat who neglects to tell the homeowner about the inevitable collapse of the closet (or who lies), the homeowner will get exactly what he bargained for, and the renovator can come back to offer his services to rebuild the house, armed with an “I told you so”. Similarly, if the advocate of reason is not elected because he mentioned things that people would prefer not to know – e.g., that consensus is no means of discovering knowledge – he can come back to the unemployed, candle-bearing victims of enviro-irrationalism, armed with an “I told you so” and a promise never to make laws for which there is no rational justification.


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