Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Quote of the day

From Julian Sanchez:

I was having a conversation with a couple friends the other night about our own ideological trajectories, and I mentioned how my attitude had shifted toward a semi-famous essay by Robert Nozick called “The Zig-Zag of Politics.” This is the one where Nozick was seen as renouncing his youthful libertarian views—though when I interviewed him in 2001, he claimed that reports of his apostasy had been much exaggerated. I used to think this was a befuddling instance of a thinker who’d made some brilliant and original arguments for the libertarian position backing away from it for some pretty poor reasons. I still think that about some of the arguments floated there: Expressing our symbolic concern for the poor is all well and good, but it is a poor justification if the means of doing so are both ineffective and otherwise morally questionable.

But one of the central ideas there—and a theme in much of his later work—was that no deductive moral or political system could embed as much wisdom as the process of deliberation and reform over time. I wrote about this a couple years back when I said, somewhat anachronistically, that Nozick viewed philosophy as a Wiki. I’m certainly the last one out there to idealize or romanticize the democratic process: It’s a field on which ignorant armies clash by night, afflicted with all the problems so familiar to public choice theorists. I suppose one way to put it is that I’ve become more of a Bayesian about politics: I cannot help but notice that lots of folks who are as smart or smarter than I have rather radically different views about what sort of polity is best, and I cannot quite bring myself to conclude that they’re simply watching shadows dance on the cave walls, while I have glimpsed the Forms. And so I don’t, these days, much find myself thinking about the specific contours of libertopia. Instead, I tend to find myself thinking in terms like: “Well, let’s push in this direction and see how it works.” You have to be careful there too, of course, since depending on the details, a government-market hybrid (say) will just give you the disadvantages of both. (See: Healthcare System, United States.) But I think this is the direction you end up pushed in if you take Hayek’s warnings about “constructivist rationalism” sufficiently seriously. On this model, libertarianism isn’t so much a final picture of a just society as a specific sort of toolkit for working on Neurath’s ship.