The End of Knowledge and Reason?

-- Posted by Neil H. Buchanan

Two months ago, while still working at my gig in Vienna, I posted some thoughts about that city's wonderful public transportation system (as well as a few comments about vegan eating in the city that invented wiener schnitzel).  At the end of that post, I noted that I would soon return to Europe for a honeymoon, with stops in London, Edinburgh, Dublin, Berlin, and Stockholm.  Anticipating that I would become obsessed with the economies and infrastructures of each of those cities, I suggested that my honeymoon would involve "[m]ore social science field work."

Well, we are back, and my prediction was only mildly true.  Under the right circumstances, even I am able to set aside my professional interests and just enjoy the moment.  Even so, I did find myself at one point confronted with an unexpected situation, which led me to think in a different way about some of the issues on which I write.  While on a tour bus in Edinburgh, the tour guide surprised me by interspersing some commentary on the Scottish Enlightenment into the more standard tourist fare.  (An example of the latter: At a statue honoring England's King George IV, we learned that IV was quite rotund, and that the children's rhyme "Georgie Porgie" is about him and a misbegotten kissing incident).

The tour guide's comments about the Enlightenment referred specifically to a commitment to expanding education beyond the privileged classes.  She noted that Oxford and Cambridge, through at least the 17th Century, limited their enrollments to members of the Church of England, and of course conducted their classes in Latin.  In Scotland at the same time, there were five universities (in a country with about one-tenth of the population of England), and Scotland was apparently the first country in which higher education was conducted in the local language.  In addition, Scottish thinkers were in the forefront of advancing universal education at the primary and secondary levels.

I assume that the tour guide was at least shading the facts to make her country look especially good.  Because Scotland is the ancestral land of Buchanans, I am all too happy to go along with that effort.  National pride aside, however, the tour guide's comments have caused me to ponder for the last several weeks just what the Enlightenment was all about, and -- much more to the point -- just how profoundly the Enlightenment's values are under assault in modern society.

Accordingly, in my Verdict column today, I argue that the modern conservative movement, especially after its full takeover of the Republican Party (purging all elements of moderation from its ranks) has shown itself to be the enemy not just of supposed Sixties hedonism, or of FDR's expansion of the federal government's role in the economy, or even of the Progressive Era's introduction of minimal economic and social regulation.  They are against the Enlightenment itself.

I specifically comment on Republicans' efforts to eliminate government limitations on private power, to narrow the franchise, and to eliminate public (and, ultimately, universal) education.  More to the point, I argue that the Age of Reason is under attack by Republicans.  I am, of course, hardly the first person to note the fact- and argument-free environment that is the modern conservative movement, with its insistence that climate change is a hoax, and its bizarre claim that creationism should be treated the same as evolution in science curricula.

Many conservatives, I suspect, would laugh off the global warming deniers and the creationists, yet still claim that they are the "people with ideas," and thus reject the notion that they are part of the attack on Reason.  The problem is that the last five years have demonstrated again and again that even the non-religious part of the conservative movement simply does not care about facts or logic.

The most obvious example is the Right's unalterable commitment to fiscal austerity.  The two key arguments in favor of austerity -- "expansionary austerity," and the supposed 90% debt threshold -- were embraced by Republicans with great fervor.  Yet when the underpinnings of both theories (papers by Alesina and Ardagna, and Reinhart and Rogoff, respectively) collapsed under academic scrutiny, not a single Republican was willing to reconsider the evidence.  Notably, the academics who create the support network for Republican policies have all fallen in line, with none of them admitting that anything has changed.  (Readers who follow Paul Krugman's blog know that Republican-committed economists are now insisting that the Fed's asset purchases are still awful, even after those economists spent five years predicting hyper-inflation that never materialized.  Now, they are simply making unintelligible arguments.)

And that is at the highest level of debate.  People with degrees from the best universities, and who teach at those very universities, are now so committed to the Republican agenda that they have abandoned reasoned argument.  If things are that bad at the top, what is it like in the trenches?  Certainly, the political leadership of the Republican Party has abandoned any pretense that they are responding to arguments.  They simply have a rotating list of lies about "Washington's spending problem" and "the inevitable debt crisis," which are impervious to evidence or logic.

At the back-bencher level, it is even more insane.  Last year, a then-freshman House Republican complained about the Census.  First, he managed to be simply incoherent: "This is a program that intrudes on people’s lives, just like the Environmental Protection Agency or the bank regulators."  Bank regulators intrude on people's lives?  Oh well, why let logic stand in the way of a talking point?  Even better, though, the congressman then said: "We’re spending $70 per person to fill this out. That’s just not cost effective, especially since in the end this is not a scientific survey. It’s a random survey."  (The reporter who wrote the article then helpfully added: "In fact, the randomness of the survey is precisely what makes the survey scientific, statistical experts say.")

This refusal to think clearly about reality is, of course, also showing up in tax discourse -- and not even solely among obvious partisans.  Earlier this week, a respected tax journal published a piece that was a parody of thought-free ranting about taxes.  A top-level partner in a major NYC law firm (who has held national positions of authority regarding tax practice) argued against a statistical study that had concluded that state taxes are not determinative of decisions by people to move into or out of a state.  How does he know they are wrong?  Whereas the study's academic author's "conclusions are apparently based on empirical studies and computer models," they are wrong, because he has "experience as a practitioner," so that "I can assure you that taxes often play a major role in these decisions."

It gets worse (or better, if you like grim humor): "There are limits on what economists' computers can do. It is impossible to do this, no matter how many computer simulations one does. ... The economists can play all the number games they want to with their computers, their calculus, and their fancy equations, but they are still living in their ivory towers."  Yes, scientists with their computers and "fancy equations" are nothing compared to what we can observe on the ground.  That is how I know that the Earth is not round, because I walk long distances every day, and I have never yet found myself upside down.

I am not, of course, arguing that every economic study is true.  I am, rather obviously, saying that one can disagree with an economist's conclusions without sounding like a buffoon.  There has long been a strain of anti-intellectualism in American life, with attacks on the ivory tower and "fancy-schmancy degrees" (although it really is a generational quirk for older people still to think that you can scare people by talking about how the bad guys use computers).  This is bizarre and indefensible.

The larger point, however, is that it used to be good sport to notice when occasionally some unknown congressman, or some random legal practitioner, would say something truly embarrassing.  Now, however, it is impossible to distinguish that kind of unreasoning silliness from what is coming out of the mouths of the leaders of the Republican Party -- and even their academic enablers.  One cannot respond with reason to those who have explicitly abandoned reason.