Scientism vs Liberalism

In his book, “The Counter-Revolution of Science”, Hayek argued against scientism – attempts by the social sciences to ape the methods of the natural sciences by ignoring the subjectivity of economic value. I will apply these ideas to criticise of some current ideas that the government should use force to make people happier. So what was Hayek’s argument against scientism? Economics explains how a person acts by looking at his actions as being aimed at some end. For example, if you look at all of the objects that people call hammers they don’t have much in common. The reason why a blocky object made out of wood and another made out of titanium are both called hammers is that they are both used to hit things. So if we try to solve economic problems concerning hammers by looking for some physical feature that all hammers have in common to explain their value we will fail. In other words the value a person places on something is due to his subjective estimate of how well it fits his ends and not due to some fixed standard that can be objectively measured.

Now let’s suppose I offer Jack a choice between a carrot and a chocolate brownie and that Jack chooses the carrot. Then Jack prefers carrots to brownies, right? Not necessarily. If Jack thinks carrots are less healthy then brownies then he might eat carrots instead of brownies because he wants to live longer. If I offered Jack a brownie and a pill that eliminates all of the adverse health effects of eating brownies then Jack might choose the brownie. So Jack doesn’t just choose between the carrot and the brownie, he chooses between the problem-situation he ends up in after eating the carrot and the problem-situation he ends up in after eating the brownie.

Now let’s suppose that I’m really fanatical about health and to keep Jack healthy I threaten to brutally torture him to death if he chooses the brownie over the carrot. I might claim that I am just making a choice that will get Jack to take an action that he would take if he were better informed. However, I am preventing Jack from eating the brownie and so preventing him from refuting my ideas about how he would act if he knew what I know about the horrible health problems caused by brownies.

Another thought experiment: Jack decides that he doesn’t care about the health effects of brownies and eats lots of them. Toward the end of his life, lamenting his poor choices with respect to brownies, Jack might say that he wishes that he hadn’t eaten the brownies. He might even say that he wishes somebody had forced him to eat carrots instead. However, this is pure speculation. Jack had a lot of fun eating brownies and was happy and productive as a result of that. Maybe if I forced Jack to eat carrots he would be miserable and unproductive. Maybe eating brownies was the best he could do given the knowledge available not just to him but to anyone who might force him not to eat brownies.

Many anti-liberty people like to say we can measure happiness with surveys and then force people to adopt policies that will lead to more happiness [1]. For example, we should have high taxes so people can’t choose to make a lot more money because more money doesn’t make people happier until you get some ridiculously large amount that most people will never get, so without the tax people will just work harder without getting happier. What does this policy do? People are not allowed to decide they don’t want to pay taxation to their government and would prefer to buy a different bundle of services from different people. This is policy idea is scientistic tosh.

By following such policies the government would prevent people who disagree with the government’s evaluation of what their priorities ought to be from acting on that disagreement. So this theory is not testable because it prevents the only means of testing a person’s preferences: allowing him to choose a different option.

The notion that  charging people more tax will make them happier in the long run in some vague sense is pure speculation, just like the carrot/brownie speculation. Perhaps people in the happy tax society would be happier if they lived in a society in which ambitions are not squashed by the government. Or perhaps some people are lying when they say on their deathbed that they wish they had spent more time with their family because they think it will make their family happier or more kindly disposed toward them. Perhaps the government doesn’t know how to make people happy.

[1] I could just stop at this point and say that I don’t see why maximising a particular psychological state is such a big deal. I could also say that even if maximising happiness is the most important thing in the whole universe I don’t see why the government should get to dictate what counts as happiness and how people should pursue it. But let’s just take for granted that these problems have been solved for the sake of argument. It’s a ridiculous assumption, but granting it and then demolishing the anti-liberal argument just makes anti-liberal policies is a more effective criticism.

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10 Responses to Scientism vs Liberalism

  1. Matt says:

    Toward the end of his life, lamenting his poor choices with respect to brownies, Jack might say that he wishes that he hadn’t eaten the brownies. He might even say that he wishes somebody had forced him to eat carrots instead. However, this is pure speculation.

    Okay, it’s just speculation. It’s a conjecture. But what if he’s right? Are you potentially excluding that possibility? Moreover, isn’t it possible there are some people who really would prefer to have someone else manage their lives for them? Are at least part of their lives?

  2. Alan Forrester says:

    So how are you going to test this speculation? By hypothesis, you can’t undo the damage because if you could he wouldn’t be dying. So he can’t live his life over with a different policy. And if you’re saying you won’t allow such tests, that’s an anti-rational policy.

    As for outsourcing some of your decisions, we all do that. If I buy carrots I don’t decide where the carrots are grown: I outsource that decision. However, I do this voluntarily. So there is a test for whether I would prefer to make a different decision: offer me carrots where I get to make more of the decisions about where they’re grown and see if I buy them. Forcing people to make specific decisions prevents such tests.

  3. Matt says:

    So how are you going to test this speculation?

    How am I not allowing a particular claim to be tested? In fact, conceivably we could take this instance as a test of a claim. For example, “if you eat unhealthy food, you will regret it.” In the example given, the person regretted his actions. So the claim has now passed a successful test.

    Perhaps the problem is you are not clear if a universal claim is being made or a specific statement about one man’s happiness. What is the claim here that would be useful to test? What claim is being made?

    And this claim is a response to what problem?

  4. Alan Forrester says:

    The claim is that it is a bad idea to force people to do what’s “good for them” – that is, what the government thinks is good for them. As an example of an anti-liberal policy – you will be better off if the government forces you to eat healthy food. This is a dubious claim for a number of reasons including the fact that not all of the costs associated with diet are health costs. If Jack eats carrots all the time but really wants brownies he may be unhappy: that’s a cost in and of itself and may lead to him being less happy and productive in other ways. The problem with the end of life claim is that the person concerned is just speculating and that speculation isn’t susceptible to any kind of test for two reasons. (1) You can’t rerun his whole life to see if, in the light of his current knowledge, he would choose differently. (2) Even if you could that doesn’t imply anything about whether he would have been better of the first time round if you forced him to eat healthy because he didn’t have that knowledge the first time round. and so his subjective valuation of the different options available didn’t use that knowledge. You might say you don’t care about those subjective valuations, but then it’s unclear what kind of value you’re talking about and whether it makes sense or is useful.

    Now you might say that we should take the end of life evaluation as having priority over the evaluations of brownies Jack makes throughout his life, but that would be an argument from authority.

    Also, it’s irrelevant to whether Jack should be forced to eat healthy because for all you know if he eats unhealthily he will die saying: “You know, if I had my life to live over again I would eat more brownies. I didn’t have enough chocolatey goodness in my life.”

  5. Matt says:

    The claim is that it is a bad idea to force people to do what’s “good for them”

    Generally, speaking this sounds okay to me. I don’t have any particular criticism of this claim. There are issues of parenting we’ve discussed elsewhere, but let’s leave that aside for now.

    – that is, what the government thinks is good for them. As an example of an anti-liberal policy – you will be better off  if the government forces you to eat healthy food.

    “you will be better off” … talking about how one will be better off not in regards to something specific (like health or some other tangible goal) but overall is an extremely difficult problem. You introduce into the discussion, basically, what is the meaning of life? It’s very easy for the problem to become one of definitions.

    If you are discussing a single problem, like health, I can easily imagine a situation where, indeed a person could be made healthier via coercion. Not only this, I can imagine a lot of people who would like this. I say “imagine” but actually I think there are some good examples of this. Some people relish the idea of being put into a boot camp of sorts, where they are coerced to do what’s good for them. Some people value army training and so on.

    This is a dubious claim for a number of reasons including the fact that not all of the costs associated with diet are health costs. If Jack eats carrots all the time but really wants brownies he may be unhappy: that’s a cost in and of itself and may lead to him being less happy and productive in other ways. The problem with the end of life claim is that the person concerned is just speculating and that speculation isn’t susceptible to any kind of test for two reasons. (1) You can’t rerun his whole life to see if, in the light of his current knowledge, he would choose differently. (2) Even if you could that doesn’t imply anything about whether he would have been better of the first time round if you forced him to eat healthy because he didn’t have that knowledge the first time round. and so his subjective valuation of the different options available didn’t use that knowledge. You might say you don’t care about those subjective valuations, but then it’s unclear what kind of value you’re talking about and whether it makes sense or is useful.

    Well, I think we can discuss these things. And not only that, that discussing them is useful. However, I agree it’s an area where we don’t know well what constitutes a test and what doesn’t. But I don’t see this as a useful argument against the use of force in order to help people.

    In terms of cost, you could argue, there is not an effective means of measuring this cost, therefore, we can’t make decisions regarding this cost. A counterclaim would be to offer such a means. Does such a means exist? I don’t know of any, but I don’t want to rule any out *a priori*.

    Actually, money is useful in a free society, as it gives us a manner to objectify subjective values. (We’re sort of *forced* to, when we enter into an exchange.) That is, money, private property, and the free market solve a lot of really useful problems — one of these is measuring costs. It might be useful to look at what these problems are, and then criticize alternative solutions. We *do* want to assign costs as best we can … the free market provides a means to do this. So not allowing the free market to operate, how can we find values for things?

    It’s interesting to me that people often want something they consider immoral to be made illegal regardless of the *cost*. However, if the person were faced with having to *pay* for this (via some free market mechanism), they might very well decide the literal cost wasn’t worth it. (Just being speculative, imagine a society where law enforcement is performed by companies like insurance companies. Can you imagine how expensive premiums would be for trying to outlaw abortion or marijuana?)

    I guess if we attempt to use *force* to try and *help* another person, one big issue is we’re fallible and could be wrong. But I’m not clear if that’s a good enough reason to rule out all *force*. Say there was a close friend or family member who had drunk too much and were clearly inebriated and incapable of driving. But they had their keys and insisted they were going to drive home. Perhaps they’d be safe; we don’t know the outcome. But I think most would feel that using force to stop the person was appropriate. So delivering an argument that rules out all *force* a priori is quite difficult, I think.

    Now you might say that we should take the end of life evaluation as having priority over the evaluations of brownies Jack makes throughout his life, but that would be an argument from authority.

    I don’t know; it looks to me that you’re looking for a way *a priori* knock out all arguments against *force* in order to help someone. However, I think we have to respond to these arguments as they arise and in the contexts they arise in.

    Even in a society without government in the traditional sense, I think there would still be institutions for enforcing laws. These institutions would apply force where needed, but not necessarily to *help* people, I suppose.

  6. Alan Forrester says:

    If you are discussing a single problem, like health, I can easily imagine a situation where, indeed a person could be made healthier via coercion. Not only this, I can imagine a lot of people who would like this. I say “imagine” but actually I think there are some good examples of this. Some people relish the idea of being put into a boot camp of sorts, where they are coerced to do what’s good for them. Some people value army training and so on.

    I don’t have a problem with this. If you want to go to boot camp, then go for it. What I do have a problem with is the notion that you shouldn’t be allowed to leave, or that you forced to sponsor boot camp.

    “you will be better off” … talking about how one will be better off not in regards to something specific (like health or some other tangible goal) but overall is an extremely difficult problem. You introduce into the discussion, basically, what is the meaning of life? It’s very easy for the problem to become one of definitions.

    I don’t really discuss that in the post: I do say that you can’t show that health is all there is to it. What I do discuss is means of discovering more about it. My proposal is that the appropriate way of discovering more about it is to have consentual interactions.

    Following my discussion of why we can’t assess the usefulness of coercive policies you write: they don’t allow us to take opportunity costs of not having particular choices into account, you write:

    Well, I think we can discuss these things. And not only that, that discussing them is useful. However, I agree it’s an area where we don’t know well what constitutes a test and what doesn’t. But I don’t see this as a useful argument against the use of force in order to help people.

    I think we do have a fair amount of knowledge about how to tell is somebody consents to something and that a lot of that knowledge is embodied in parts of contract law. Randy Barnett has some interesting stuff on contract law.

    http://www.randybarnett.com/publications.shtml#contracts

    Also, if we don’t have useful ways of measuring the cost of choices other than whether people consent to them, I don’t see why that’s not a powerful argument against anyone who claims that they want to benefit people through coercion. If they can’t measure the benefit they’re producing then they can’t tell if their policy does any good.

    I guess if we attempt to use *force* to try and *help* another person, one big issue is we’re fallible and could be wrong. But I’m not clear if that’s a good enough reason to rule out all *force*. Say there was a close friend or family member who had drunk too much and were clearly inebriated and incapable of driving. But they had their keys and insisted they were going to drive home. Perhaps they’d be safe; we don’t know the outcome. But I think most would feel that using force to stop the person was appropriate. So delivering an argument that rules out all *force* a priori is quite difficult, I think.

    I’d take the keys away from him, but I wouldn’t say it’s for his good. If he gets behind the wheel of a car while drunk he may end up damaging property or hurting people. If he gets behind the wheel he negligently places people in danger without their consent. You might say a person negligently places himself in danger by eating badly, but that’s not true. If you have provided your best arguments and he still wants to eat badly then he consents to taking that risk.

    Even in a society without government in the traditional sense, I think there would still be institutions for enforcing laws. These institutions would apply force where needed, but not necessarily to *help* people, I suppose.

    I agree with this. Such institutions are necessary to be able to undertake consentual interactions. Consent isn’t required to create institutions to enable consentual interactions because in their absence having such interactions is extremely difficult. See Randy Barnett’s book “The Structure of Liberty”.

  7. Matt says:

    I think your making a lot of interesting arguments. I don’t want to comment on everything except for this:

    I think we do have a fair amount of knowledge about how to tell is somebody consents to something and that a lot of that knowledge is embodied in parts of contract law.

    Here you’re addressing a problem, what can reasonably be seen as consent? And you are suggesting we can learn a lot about this by looking at how the problem has been resolved in contract law. That sounds very agreeable to me. The reason is because we have a lot of case history, which can be referred to and used to test various claims we make.

    I’m a little repelled by claims that might suggest, say, a fast food chain’s hamburgers are addictive, and as a result of eating them, I wanted to eat more and more until I became fat and ended up with various medical conditions. But people do seem to make claims like this at times. So the issue then becomes not only consent, but self-responsibility. I think.

    People can use arguments like mental illness and so on to avoid taking responsibility for their actions. This leads to the argument that others can help us if they coerce us to do well.

    However, why is one person’s judgement deemed okay (not affected by addiction or prejudice or whatever) and another’s as not? Who gets to make these decisions? Here, positivism might attempt some type of answer as it offers some potential means of obtaining objectivity (in the non-Popperian sense). However, we can argue positivism is not viable using arguments like the one’s Popper offers. So if positivism is knocked from its perch, then we’re back to where we were … who gets to make these decisions?

    So Popper ideas certainly push one in the direction of classical liberalism, I think. Thomas Szasz is another person who addresses these issues really well.

    In this sense, I do think there might be some merit to what you are saying. I’m not really sure. I still don’t really understand the issue with costs, but will spend some time thinking about it.

  8. Peter Jones says:

    Alan,

    Many anti-liberty people like to say we can measure happiness with surveys and then force people to adopt policies that will lead to more happiness

    People who disagree with libertarianism are generally not anti freedom. There is no particular need to survey people to find out what they want, since they say so
    every time there is an election.

    The claim is that it is a bad idea to force people to do what’s “good for them” – that is, what the government thinks is good for them. As an example of an anti-liberal policy – you will be better off if the government forces you to eat healthy food.

    But what if people vote for policies that nudge or force them into
    certain behaviours?…after all, they do all the time. You seem
    to be assuming that people either want to do something or don’t.
    But most smokers (eg) want to give up, and support smoking bans
    and taxes on cigarettes. Why should’t people use the governments
    they elect to prop up the weakness of their willpower?

    For example, we should have high taxes so people can’t choose to make a lot more money because more money doesn’t make people happier until you get some ridiculously large amount that most people will never get, so without the tax people will just work harder without getting happier.

    You didn’t give a source for that argument. There is reason to believe
    that more equal societies are better at achieving things almost everyone
    wants, such as low crime, better health, etc.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Spirit_Level:_Why_More_Equal_Societies_Almost_Always_Do_Better

    What does this policy do? People are not allowed to decide they don’t want to pay taxation to their government and would prefer to buy a different bundle of services from different people.

    People ARE allowed to decide how much tax they want to pay IN DEMOCRACIES
    because they can vote between tax-and-spend and don’t-tax-and-cut parties.
    Libertarian parties exist, but do not get more than 1% of the vote anywhere.
    Maybe people can see that (eg) having a low crime rate in the first place is preferable to having the spare resources to turn your home into a fortress.

    There is a huge difference between “scientific socialism”, where there
    is a one party state, and democracy.

    This is policy idea is scientistic tosh.

    So governments should just ignore evidence about how to achieve their goals?

  9. Alan Forrester says:

    Peter Jones wrote:

    “People who disagree with libertarianism are generally not anti freedom.”

    They are opposed to the freedom to voluntarily fund certain goods and services currently provided by the gov’t. You point out that people can vote in elections. Okay, I vote in an election and even if the party I support gets elected I’m stuck with them for four years or so even if their performance is abysmal.

    “But what if people vote for policies that nudge or force them into
    certain behaviours?…after all, they do all the time. You seem
    to be assuming that people either want to do something or don’t.
    But most smokers (eg) want to give up, and support smoking bans
    and taxes on cigarettes. Why should’t people use the governments
    they elect to prop up the weakness of their willpower?”

    When a man smokes he does so because some part of him, i.e. – some set of thoughts or habits or whatever, wants to smoke. The solution to that problem is to change so that no part of him wants to smoke. Having somebody force him to stop smoking is bad for him, because he never understands his error, and is bad for the person who forces him to stop smoking because the minder could be creating new knowledge for himself instead of bullying people.

    “There is reason to believe that more equal societies are better at achieving things almost everyone wants, such as low crime, better health, etc.”

    If people want the exact mix of policies and outcomes provided by those gov’ts then the governments don’t have to threaten people with jail for not paying their taxes to the particular group who happens to be in power at the moment.

    “Libertarian parties exist, but do not get more than 1% of the vote anywhere.”

    This is true. Even if we had good libertarian political candidates, and I think we don’t, they wouldn’t win. Doesn’t mean the current system is the best we could have, just that people have bad political ideas.

    “Maybe people can see that (eg) having a low crime rate in the first place is preferable to having the spare resources to turn your home into a fortress.”

    Why not pay some specialised group of people to protect your house by voluntary subscription instead of taxation?

    “There is a huge difference between “scientific socialism”, where there
    is a one party state, and democracy.”

    This is true. People in liberal Western democracies have more freedom than people at any other time and place in history.

    “So governments should just ignore evidence about how to achieve their goals?”

    No, they should take advantage of evidence they don’t currently use: whether people consent to their policies without waiting four years before letting them defund policies they don’t support.

  10. Peter Jones says:

    Peter Jones wrote:

    “People who disagree with libertarianism are generally not anti freedom.”

    “They are opposed to the freedom to voluntarily fund certain goods and services currently provided by the gov’t. ”

    Which could mean any number of thing:, they are in favour of people living in their society
    free from worrying about sarving to death or dying of preventable diseases. Or they are
    in favour of freedom, but more in favour of certain kinds of equality. Or they
    think their freedom will be impinged by private militias. etc.

    “You point out that people can vote in elections.”

    You say that as though it is trivial…although people are dying for democratic rights as we speak….

    ” Okay, I vote in an election and even if the party I support gets elected I’m stuck with them for four years or so even if their performance is abysmal.”

    Are you complaining about the fact that other people have a voice as well, or about the fact that elections are so infrequent? As far as the latter goes, it is noticeable that just over 50% of the population can actually be bothered
    to vote every four or five years (although I notice that everybody has plenty of energy for moaning inbetween times).
    Politicians want more frequent elections, but the most would probably respond with even greater apathy (moaning excepted).

    “But what if people vote for policies that nudge or force them into
    certain behaviours?…after all, they do all the time. You seem
    to be assuming that people either want to do something or don’t.
    But most smokers (eg) want to give up, and support smoking bans
    and taxes on cigarettes. Why should’t people use the governments
    they elect to prop up the weakness of their willpower?”

    “When a man smokes he does so because some part of him, i.e. – some set of thoughts or habits or whatever, wants to smoke.”

    Yep

    “The solution to that problem is to change so that no part of him wants to smoke.”

    yep

    “Having somebody force…”

    Whoah!!! In what sense is it force for smoking to be discouraged?… Especially if the smoker agrees with the
    discouragement!

    ” him to stop smoking is bad for him, because he never understands his error, ”

    But he does. All smokers know intellectually that smoking is bad for them. Their habits, emotions, or whatever, override
    their mind. You seem to think that in a perfect world, we would just persuade everyone to see the error of their
    ways intellectually. But that pressumes rationality rules over habit and emotion in the first place. THat
    is not our world, not our crooked timber. It is easy enough to to arrive at utoptia when you have allowed yourself a head start.

    “and is bad for the person who forces him to stop smoking because the minder could be creating new knowledge for himself instead of bullying people”

    Incuding people who want to be bullied. If someone says to you “I’m trying to quit, if you see me with a fag, snatch it out of my mouth”, would you refuse?

    “There is reason to believe that more equal societies are better at achieving things almost everyone wants, such as low crime, better health, etc.”

    “If people want the exact mix of policies and outcomes provided by those gov’ts then the governments don’t have to threaten people with jail for not paying their taxes to the particular group who happens to be in power at the moment.”

    If 100% of people want those policies AND CAN ACT ON THOSE WANTS, there is no need for threat. Neither condition
    is true, of course. Most people want to obey the law, but the minority will not comply voluntarily.
    Nobody wants to drive dangerously, but the majority find that they need all sorts of nags, reminders, inducements
    and punishments to act on their own wants.

    “Libertarian parties exist, but do not get more than 1% of the vote anywhere.”

    “This is true. Even if we had good libertarian political candidates, and I think we don’t,”

    Hmmm. Why is that?

    “they wouldn’t win. Doesn’t mean the current system is the best we could have, just that people have bad political ideas.”

    Well, you can’t force them to have better ones, so what can you do?

    “Maybe people can see that (eg) having a low crime rate in the first place is preferable to having the spare resources to turn your home into a fortress.”

    “Why not pay some specialised group of people to protect your house by voluntary subscription instead of taxation?”

    a) we had that about 200-300 years ago and it evolved into public policing because of economies of scale,etc

    b) Why not pay some group of people to *rob* other people? Seems more profitable, and who’s going to stop
    me? The govenment you just disbanded? Some further private army?

    “There is a huge difference between “scientific socialism”, where there
    is a one party state, and democracy.”

    “This is true. People in liberal Western democracies have more freedom than people at any other time and place in history.”

    If it ain’t broke…

    “So governments should just ignore evidence about how to achieve their goals?”

    “No, they should take advantage of evidence they don’t currently use: whether people consent to their policies without waiting four years before letting them defund policies they don’t support”

    What….you mean read the papers and so on?

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