Scientific Government

What would it mean to have a “scientific” government? Does it mean that you rely on the government to make scientific determinations on matters not related to governance? That would be a mistake. Science is a process that only incrementally crawls towards truth, and at given times is (later revealed to be) frequently wrong on matters of consensus opinion. Add the distortions that political incentives introduce to reasoned decision-making, and you’ll often get dogmatic pronouncements without the necessary caveats and disclosures of unknowns.

However, part of my support for Ordoliberalism is based on the idea of scientific governance in the sense of “let’s do experimental governing and see what happens.” In my previous post I alluded to governing “not always without missteps or uncertain outcomes”. What I was trying to pack into this little parenthetical was a disclaimer regarding the limits of knowledge, but also the willingness to proceed anyway with humility, tolerance for risk, and willingness to change our minds (and policies) in the future. At one time there was widespread belief that communism was a more efficient means of running an economy than the combination of free markets and rule of law that you see in Common Law jurisdictions. And some countries ran a large (and terribly horrible) experiment based on that hypothesis. The hypothesis proved to be wrong.

When I say that Ordoliberalism holds the promise of better government, I don’t mean that I (or anyone else) knows what the optimal policy mix is with a great deal of certainty (if such a thing can even be said to exist). What I mean is that we can approach governance the same way we approach chemistry or any other science. Government should be seen as a field of social science, one with discipline, humility, admission of ignorance, and the willingness to be wrong on occasion. Because government effects the real lives and property of real people, we should of course try to keep these experiments as small and local as possible, and correctly quickly when (not if) people start getting hurt.

Is this ideal achievable? I think it is, on a small scale. Getting a population of people to volunteer to be guinea pigs will always be hard, but it’s a lot easier on the scale of towns and counties than States and Federal Republics. This is one of the reasons I agree with the teachings of subsidiarity – the more laboratories of democracy we have running experiments concurrently, the more quickly we grow the public good of governing knowledge.

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