The new issue of the New Inquiry is entitled “New World Order,” so naturally I read the whole thing the afternoon it hit my inbox. There’s an essay by Jesse Elias Spafford, who, with assists from Karl Popper and David Hume, compares the values-free empiricism of Ezra Klein and Alex Jones.
Alex Jones, values free? Empirical? Well, Spafford explains, “Conspiracism as a political movement is characterized by the de-emphasis of normative claims—the ethics endorsed by Jones are almost comically noncontroversial, amounting loosely to the ethos that ‘slavery and mass killing perpetrated by evil tyrants is bad.’” We’d agree on a course of action if only we could agree on the facts.
To dismiss Jones or embrace Klein becomes a matter of faith and subjective taste, resting on an intuitive but irrational sense of what is true. In day-to-day practice, the theoretical problems of science have little effect on how we conduct ourselves and evaluate fringe claims to truth. However, the technocratic character of contemporary political debate is causing the irrationality of science to overflow its bounds. Each political camp trots out its pet studies only to have them dismissed by rivals as flawed; evidence for mutually exclusive positions proliferates. In the face of partisan ideology, empirical claims collapse into irresolvable antinomy.
In this light, the wonks’ contribution to political discourse appears overstated. The startling rise of the wonk to political prominence has been buoyed in large part by the hope that the scientific objectivity of the technocrat might finally resolve political disagreement or at least convey some bit of truth to those reasonable enough to listen. But stubborn ideological opponents can no more be convinced by a pie chart than Alex Jones can be dissuaded from his beliefs by Ben Bernanke. And there are no grounds for thinking that they should be. If we are to make progress in the public debate, we may have to withdraw from empirical matters. Instead, our political discussions need to grapple with ideology and psychology, and with the underlying tendencies that draw people to particular ideologies. If consensus is to be forged, it will be from shared values rather than agreed-upon facts.
All this is true, though it must be said that their relative reputations make Klein by far the more dangerous of the two. Dominating Washington’s mythical center with this sort of empiricism has the effect of neutralizing discussion of other forms of social or political cooperation that take place outside his target market. That’s the real problem, for folks like Spafford and myself who would like to see a real values-based discussion, not just another patronizing op-ed telling us we’ve lost our sense of community because some people want to cut federal spending.