Bonus Quotation of the Day…

by Don Boudreaux on July 16, 2016

in History, Hubris and humility, Man of System

… is from page xi of Princeton University economist Thomas C. Leonard’s eye-opening 2016 book, Illiberal Reformers:

The progressives combined their extravagant faith in science and the state with an outsized confidence in their own expertise as a reliable, even necessary, guide to the public good.  They were so sure of their own expertise as a necessary guide to the public good, so convinced of the righteousness of their crusade to redeem America, that they rarely considered the unintended consequences of ambitious but untried reforms.  Even more so, they failed to confront the reality that the experts – no less than the partisans, bosses, and industrialists they aimed to unseat – could have interests and biases of their own.

Leonard here describes American “Progressives” of the late-19th and early-20th centuries.  But this passage also perfectly describes, without changing a single word, American “Progressives” of the early 21st century.  Fancying themselves to be ‘scientific,’ “Progressives” now as then, have a wholly unscientific understanding of politics and of the state.  That understanding, because it is unscientific, is romantic in the worst way: it is dreamily, often stupidly, unrealistic.  (Not liking the obvious implications of public-choice analysis, “Progressives” unscientifically dismiss public-choice – usually without having read much, if any, of it – as “ideological.”  How unscientifically convenient [not to mention unintended evidence that “Progressives” don’t know the contents of public-choice scholarship].)

Likewise, “Progressives,” now as then, unscientifically – and mistakenly – assume that the ordering and the relative weights of the goals to which public policy should aim to achieve are clear and uncontested (at least by those whose preferences ‘should’ count) and, hence, that the only question is how best to achieve those goals.  Put differently, “Progressives,” now as then, unscientifically assume that the only question is one of means and not one of ends.  The reason for this unscientific assumption, I believe, is that “Progressives” unthinkingly (that is, unscientifically) assume that the particular ends that they happen to fancy are indisputably the ‘proper’ ends to which every well-informed and well-meaning person in society would agree.

It is only by assuming, quite without warrant, that one of the most difficult of all social problems has been solved – namely, that there has been reached a clear determination of the ordering of the particular ends that the state should pursue – that “Progressives” can proceed so blithely to talk about “scientific solutions” to this or that social “problem.”  Such “Progressive” presumptuousness and ignorance is dangerous.  Even if there is only one best way to bake a pumpkin pie – and even if that one best way is best determined politically – it might well be (indeed it likely is) the case not only that many people don’t want pumpkin pie for desert, but also that many people don’t want desert at all.


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