The Politics of Truth


Give Me That Old Time Democratic Religion

I am an American. I was born here, I grew up here. I was raised to put my faith in the American democratic religion.

From a very young age, I was taught stories about the founders, and the proper moral framework in which the Revolutionary War ought to be understood. The history that I learned in school was steeped in democratic values; it was all too easy to see American history in particular as a straight line of progress of increasing enfranchisement, abolition, women’s suffrage, and civil rights. Martin Luther King, Jr. was elevated into the same pantheon as Jefferson and Lincoln.

A citizen’s ability to participate in our national politics was depicted as both a great privilege part and parcel of being an American, and also our great responsibility.

A full exploration of this religion and its theology are well beyond either the scope of this post, or my particular expertise. But it seems to me that it is this religion, more than anything de jure, that makes America a proper group, with a true conjective existence.

Sustaining a Group

Groups are political. They require the commitment of their members to the shared set of ideas of what it means to be a member of the group.

The ideas need not be very rigid. Depending on the group, there might be a great deal of flexibility in how drastically the ideas can be revised before the group dissipates or experiences traumatic or fatal schisms. The ideas are always contestable—that is precisely what it means to say that groups are political.

The ideas get questioned, criticized, and revised continuously over the lifetime of a group. But there are certain ideas that are so central to the group’s existence that it cannot survive without them. Perhaps the Catholic church could survive if all of its members ceased to believe in God or the divinity (or historical existence) of Christ, but it seems very unlikely. Almost as unlikely is that the Catholic church would survive if all of its members ceased to recognize the authority or legitimacy of the Pope.

As Heraclitus would no doubt remind us, you’re never a member of the same group twice. What it means to be an American today is drastically different from what it meant to be an American a hundred, or two hundred years ago. Yet an important part of what sustains us as a group today is the idea that there is a continuity there. Why else would we treat the words of the Constitution as though it were a sacred text, the interpretation of which has enormous implications for our way of life?

You Can’t Handle the Politics

Those of us whose prejudices were formed largely by Enlightenment thinkers believe in the sanctity of the truth. We want the truth, the whole truth, nothing but the truth, to be revealed in public the moment it can be discovered.

The problem begins with the very naive idea of the truth that we inherited from this tradition. Karl Popper rightly criticized the notion, cherished from roughly the time of Bacon on, that truth is manifest. Truth is not something that is simply revealed, like a chair we can plainly see when we move all obstructions from view.

Truth is political.

This does not mean that truth is relative, or that there is no truth. That is not what is being asserted here.

What I am saying is that we only know together, never alone. Knowledge emerges as part of a conversation among specialists, with each specialists’ specific interpretation made intelligible only in the context of the general consensuses of the whole community. The beliefs of the naive early empiricists aside, one does not go out and simply gather data and make observations. Alone, we are ignorant. Together, we can arrive at understanding.

But because knowledge has this character, how you feel about what someone is asserting as truth will depend more on trust than on recognition. The perceived ethos, or character, of the one making the assertion, matters a great deal here. So does the character of the community that person is relying on in order to arrive at an understanding.

There’s a problem inherent to this fact of our nature. What if merely asking a particular question automatically made you less credible? And what if any group that systematically investigated that question, and other related ones, became similarly less credible as a result?

This is no abstract point. Asking “what should be done about the Jewish problem?” tells us a lot about who you are and the group you belong to. Anyone with an ounce of decency would not pay any attention to the claims made by the kind of person who would seriously ask and investigate that question, or the groups that would focus on it. The only attention that such people would draw would be defensive—it would be the attention we give to something we consider to be a threat.

Ethics and epistemology are not cleanly separable. Knowledge is, in fact, constituted by ethics and rhetoric.

Dangerous Ideas

Imagine, for a moment, that part of what makes the American system work, such as it does, is a belief that we as individuals make a difference when we vote. Here’s a simple model for why it might be so: if the vast majority of Americans did not believe this, they would stop voting, which would make it easier for small extremist groups to exercise an outsized influence on policy.

Now a modern libertarian, good child of the Enlightenment that they are, wants to assert the clear mathematical truth that no individual vote makes a difference. Especially at the national level. I have seen this happen many times, as a GMU econ alumni. I have done this many times myself.

The problem is that it’s never really clear to me what people hope to accomplish by doing this, other than being correct. Certainly the strong emotional backlash shows that there’s a cherished idea there. But other than casting ourselves in the role of unmasker of a manifest truth, what do we do when we insist upon this point?

A single vote does not sway an election, and therefore it follows…what? Other than undermining a cherished idea, which is indeed incorrect, what exactly is the larger value of the specific point?

This follows a larger pattern, in which libertarians, who are terrible at politics, are happy to simply undermine legitimacy without actually working to build something better. They aren’t alone in that; it is the great disease of our times, an impolitic politics, the group identity founded primarily on negation.

Consider Bryan Caplan’s highly regarded book, The Myth of the Rational Voter. Aside from holding voters to a standard of rationality I think excessively narrow, and having a very Enlightenment model of the truth, it is also a highly impolitic book. Caplan wants to argue that because voters are irrational, we should do less through democratic government, and more through markets. But the book does not make a strong case for markets; that he rests entirely on the idea that we should show deference to economists as experts. Instead, the book makes a strong case for elitism in general. From the moment I read the book, I was certain it would never provide effective political arsenal for liberty. It seems much more likely to serve those elitists seeking to install one of the many historical alternatives to democracy, none of them friendly to markets.

We want to believe that everything should be discussed out in the open so that we can sort out the facts. We want to avoid “chilling effects” even on the most heinous of ideas. But again, I think this is to take a naive view of the matter.

Groups will react defensively against ideas perceived as threats to the ideas currently sustaining the group’s existence. And with good reason. If we undermine the American democratic religion, I highly doubt that a libertarian (or socialist or social democrat or conservative) utopia will be the result. In my eyes, there are big pieces of our current political order, such as the fact that our military never threatens to break free of civilian leadership, that rely heavily on a broad acceptance of the democratic religion.

This does not mean that we should treat the ideas that sustain America as a group, or any other group, as beyond question. Far from it. It does mean that we should be prudent in how we go about it. We should consider what role those ideas play today, and how they might be either revised, or completely replaced, in a way that contributes to the common good rather than merely undermines the status quo.

Man is a political animal, and it’s time we started taking that seriously again.

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4 thoughts on “The Politics of Truth

  1. “[The Myth of the Rational Voter] seems much more likely to serve those elitists seeking to install one of the many historical alternatives to democracy…” I’d add as another example Jason Brennan’s argument in “The Ethics of Voting” that it is immoral for some people to vote. Brennan clearly and unequivocally states that just because some people shouldn’t vote, that doesn’t mean we should stop them from doing so. However I can see others taking that general line of argument in a different and more anti-democratic direction–for example, that people shouldn’t be allowed to vote if they fall below a certain IQ level or a certain level of economic productivity.

    1. Yeah, fellow Sweet Talker Paul Crider also mentioned Brennan. I haven’t read Brennan’s stuff, except for summaries of it. But I have similar reservations about his arguments.

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