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Contentions

Testing Political Theories Against Reality

Last night, while reading Journals, a book consisting of the previously private reflections of the historian Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., I came across this March 7, 1981 entry:

I guess I was wrong about the Reagan crowd. They turned out to be considerably more doctrinaire than I expected them to be. In domestic policy they seem really to believe that reducing the budget and cutting taxes will produce prosperity without inflation. The more likely effect, it seems to me, of cutting taxes for the rich and social programs for the poor is to rekindle social tensions. Still I think Reagan should have the chance to play his hand. If his policy succeeds, it will be a miracle, but a pleasant one; if it fails, then we will at least have got free-market therapy out of our system, and then can move on to something else.

In fact, Reagan’s policies produced precisely the opposite of what Schlesinger predicted. It was the powerful antidote to stagflation. During Reagan’s  presidency, the economy grew at a blistering rate. Unemployment, inflation, and interest rates all dropped. The social tensions Schlesinger predicted did not come to pass. And as a result, Reagan was re-elected in a landslide.

Now Schlesinger had this much right: there is something quite useful in testing various theories against reality. In this instance, the economic program President Reagan wanted is the one (more or less) he got, over the fierce objections of liberals and many Democrats. As a result, they predicted social trauma and economic calamity. What we got instead was the inverse. And yet Schlesinger never revised his views in light of his test results. What this suggests is that Schlesinger wasn’t able to re-interpret his political/philosophical worldview based on empirical evidence.

The irony in all this is that Schlesinger — who worked for President Kennedy and later wrote a paean to him — respected JFK for his detached, non-ideological mind. “When he was told something,” Schlesinger said of Kennedy in A Thousand Days, “he wanted to know what he could do about it. He was pragmatic in the sense that he tested the meaning of a proposition by its consequences.”

So what does one do when consequences eviscerate the meaning of a proposition? A few people re-examine the proposition. Most people attempt to distort the consequences in order to continue to affirm the proposition.

I don’t mean to suggest Schlesinger is a unique or even a particularly unusual example of ideological rigidity. That is something many of us struggle with, to one extent or another. It’s part of the human condition to search for facts that reinforce our philosophical precepts. Those precepts aren’t easily uprooted, nor should they be. They are, after all, the products of our experience, our subconscious mind and hopefully of some reflection.

Nor do I mean to suggest every political ideology is equally wrong or equally disassociated from reality. I’m a conservative, not a progressive, because I believe conservatism much more closely conforms to human nature and basic truths.

My point is simply this: The challenge we all face – but especially those of us who make our living in the world of politics and public affairs – is to ensure our view of the world takes into account evidence and maintains intellectual integrity. The essential feature of philosophy is the search for truth, for knowledge of the whole. And even if none of us can fully apprehend these things, we need to be careful not to place our defense of a political philosophy above the quest for truth or keep it sealed off from facts and data, including inconvenient facts and data. Because if we aren’t careful, we can end up like Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. — well-educated but, on political matters at least, intellectually sclerotic and unwise.

 



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