Appreciating empiricism would be a good start

Updated
 

For the Republican Party establishment, the only meaningful lesson to be learned from 2012 is rhetorical. Sure, polls show Americans rejecting the GOP line on every major issue, but, the argument goes, that’s only because the party has failed to come up with persuasive sales pitches. Republicans believe they have a rhetorical problem, not a policy problem.

But just outside the establishment, there’s a fair amount of discussion among Republican pundits, strategists, and thinkers about their party’s systemic challenges and what the GOP should do about them. It’s led to some thoughtful critiques from the likes of Ramesh Ponnuru, Kathleen Parker, Michael Gerson and Peter Wehner about how to “save” the Republican Party.

But it was this item from Bloomberg’s Josh Barro, a self-identified “reluctant” Republican, that really got me thinking.

I don’t want a Republican Party that’s just like the Democratic Party, even though some people on both the right and the left see that as the upshot of Republican critiques like mine.

Political parties should differ on normative questions. They ought to strive for agreement on positive questions – questions such as, what policies cause gross domestic product and median incomes to rise, how unemployment insurance affects the unemployment rate, or how global temperatures are changing. Currently, Republicans make a lot more errors on these kinds of questions than Democrats.

Correcting errors on positive questions should cause conservatives to revisit some of their top policies…. Conservatives say tight money and lower top tax rates would enrich middle-class families. But that’s wrong, and if they figured that out, they might stop supporting tight money and lower top tax rates.

And that, right there, that very last sentence, helps shine a light on what I believe plagues the Republican Party more than anything else: they’ve abandoned empiricism, leading to a governing philosophy that puts ideological goals over pragmatic ones.

Barro presents a claim that seems self-evidently true: partisans and ideologues should be prepared to correct their errors. In this case, he points to monetary policy: Republicans are simply and demonstrably incorrect, “and if they figured that out,” they’d adopt different policies.

But therein lies the rub. They really wouldn’t.

Long-time readers may recall that I’ve been kicking around this thesis for many years (maybe I’ll write a book about it someday), because I think the asymmetry between the two major competing governing philosophies helps drive so much of contemporary debates.

At a surface level, it seems some commentators see a landscape in which the left prefers a bigger government and the right prefers a smaller one. This is overly simplistic, of course, and it also happens to be wrong – for most liberals, the size of government isn’t especially important at all. What matters are progressive policy goals – whether those goals are reached through more or less government intervention is irrelevant.

As I’ve argued many times, for the left, political objectives relate to policy ends. We want to expand access to quality health care. We want to make investments to create jobs. We want to lower carbon emissions to combat global warming. We want to see the civil rights and civil liberties of Americans be protected. We want to reform the lending process for student loans so more young people can afford to go to college. There are competing ways to get to where progressives want to go, but the focus is on the policy achievement.

And with that in mind, the left invests most of its energy in pushing for policies that would lead to the desired results. Would an energy policy lead to fewer emissions? If yes, we want more of that. Would an economic policy lower unemployment and produce broad prosperity? If yes, sign us up.

For the right, it’s backwards – the ideological goal is the achievement. Remember this Jon Chait piece from 2005?

Liberals only support larger government if they have some reason to believe that it will lead to material improvement in people’s lives. Conservatives also want material improvement in people’s lives, of course, but proving that their policies can produce such an outcome is a luxury, not a necessity.

The contrast between economic liberalism and economic conservatism, then, ultimately lies not only in different values or preferences but in different epistemologies. Liberalism is a more deeply pragmatic governing philosophy – more open to change, more receptive to empiricism, and ultimately better at producing policies that improve the human condition – than conservatism…. [I]f you have no particular a priori preference about the size of government and care only about tangible outcomes, then liberalism’s aversion to dogma makes it superior as a practical governing philosophy.

Conservatives tend to prefer a different approach that decreases the role of government, not to achieve specific ends, but because decreasing the role of government is the specific end.

This, of course, affects nearly every debate in Washington. When it comes to job creation, for example, the task for Democrats is pretty straightforward: let’s do more of what’s been the most effective, and less of what’s been the least effective. Again, it’s about pragmatism and results based on evidence.

For Republicans, it doesn’t work quite that way – they have ideological ideals that outweigh evidence. GOP leaders could be shown incontrovertible proof that the most effective methods of creating jobs and improving the economy are aid to states, infrastructure investment, unemployment insurance, and food stamps, and they’d still refuse. Why? Because their ideology dictates the response.

The left starts with a policy goal (more people with access to medical care, more students with access to college, less pollution, more jobs, less financial market instability) and crafts proposals to try to complete the task. The right starts with an ideological goal (smaller government, more privatization, more deregulation) and works backwards.

For Barro, if Republicans “figured out” that their mistaken policy assumptions were, in fact, mistaken policy assumptions, they’d change direction. I wish that were true, but all available evidence points in the exact opposite direction.

Thesis

Appreciating empiricism would be a good start

Updated