This morning I awakened to an e-mail from one Ernst Wheeler who is “sad” that students at GMU Econ are taught by someone like me who “bases [his] policy decisions on too much ideology, at the exclusion of science and empirics.” Here’s part of my reply to Mr. Wheeler:
If ‘data-driven science’ were to show that the unemployment effects a minimum-wage hike of X% are “small,” or that a minimum-wage hike of X% causes the aggregate current monetary income of some arbitrarily defined group of ‘poor workers’ to rise – and if such findings are taken to supply ethical justification for a policy of using force to restrict the range of hourly wage rates over which people are free to bargain – does science counsel us to end our prohibition of people privately using force to achieve the same results?
Suppose I were to grab my shotgun and walk to my neighbor’s home during the summer and, pointing my loaded weapon at his face, demand that he raise the wages that he pays to the workers who are mowing his lawn. Would you withhold judgment on the acceptability of my act until “data-driven science” offers evidence, judged by you to be adequate, of the effects of my actions on the wages paid to my neighbor’s employees? If this scientific investigation convinced you that my threat of violence resulted in higher wages for my neighbor’s lawn-care workers, would you applaud my actions as “progressive,” scientific, and humane? And would you ridicule and dismiss as an “unscientific, dogmatic ideologue” another neighbor who, upon witnessing my interference in the affairs of my neighbor and his workers, declared my interference to be immoral and unacceptable regardless of the consequences that it produced on the wages of my neighbor’s workers?
Now suppose that I, flush with the success of my well-intentioned effort to help poor workers, expand the scope of my magnanimity. I hire (at good wages!) several neighborhood teens. After fashioning impressive looking badges for them to wear on their chests, I arm each of them with a .44 magnum and several rounds of ammunition. I instruct them to fan out across town to do for other low-paid workers what I’ve just done for my neighbor’s lawn-care workers. My deputies do as I instruct. A few days later I make another hire: a first-rate econometrician to study and quantify scientifically the effects of my magnanimity on the wages and employment levels around town. The econometrician’s report soon reveals that several workers got higher hourly wages while only a small handful lost jobs. Moreover, the aggregate income of the group of workers who my econometrician and I decided to classify as the ‘relevant’ group of workers is found to rise.
Do you, Mr. Wheeler, think that my actions are ethically justified by science? I suspect not. But, given your view of science and its relationship to the use of force by some people against other people, I wonder why not. What scientific, “data-driven” basis have you to conclude that I should cease and desist from my magnanimous efforts to raise the wages of low-skilled workers? None, as far as I can tell.
Of course, in reality I am not allowed to take such actions as I describe above. Do you believe that it is wrong to summarily prohibit me today from undertaking such actions? After all, there is no empirical study that quantifies the costs and benefits of me taking such actions. How can it be that we “as a society” so unscientifically – indeed (gasp!), ideologically – prohibit actions such as these without as much as a shred of empirical data to justify the prohibition? We “as a society” merely presume that such uses of force are counterproductive and harmful. How unscientific of us!
It won’t do to assert that ‘government is different’ from me acting unilaterally upon my neighbors. It won’t do to declare that government, at least in democracies such as the United States, carries out the will of all the people who are subject to its commands. Such a response is inadequate for a number of reasons, not least of which – especially from your “data-driven” perspective – is the fact that the conviction that the actions of democratic governments are at some level always the results of voluntary agreement among all citizens is itself a conclusion drawn from ideology and not from “the facts.” You merely presume that today’s institutions of political and governmental decision-making reflect – or cause to be reflected – the preferences and demands of The People (or at least of The Voters). Public-choice scholarship – a branch of genuine economic and political science – offers many scientific, data-supported reasons to conclude quite the opposite, namely, that democratic governments are little more than officious interveners, such as I am in the above example, only operating on a large scale.
You might be able to make a coherent argument – in your case, one that is “data driven” and “scientific” – for why government alone ‘should’ possess the legitimacy to initiate force. Indeed, much of political philosophy is devoted to the enterprise of exploring or explaining such alleged legitimacy. But with precious few exceptions, most people who insist on the legitimacy of government – most people who fancy themselves as making sound, objective, science-based arguments for a state powerful enough to perform the sort of ‘science-based’ feats of social engineering that tickle your fancy – dogmatically and unscientifically ignore the science of public choice.
In conclusion, Mr. Wheeler, you are no more scientific, and no less ideological, than I am. You just are blind to the ways in which you are (to use your word, although it is one that I reject in this context) “unscientific.”