Notes From Babel

Forgetting How to Be Certain

with 2 comments

I tried to make sense of Erik Kain’s piece on his inability to find certainty in anything about our system of government, and thus his embrace of uncertainty, but I just couldn’t get it.  After giving it one more shot, however, I think I figured it out.  It was this paragraph he quoted from Jim Manzi that made it come together for me:

Bill Buckley famously said that he “would rather by governed by the first 2,000 names in the Boston telephone directory than by the Harvard faculty.” So would I. But I would rather fly in an airplane with wings designed by one competent aeronautical engineer than one with wings designed by a committee of the first 20,000 names of non-engineers in the Boston phonebook. The value of actual expertise in a technical field like wing design outweighs the advantages offered by incorporating multiple points of view.

Something about this made me realize:  I don’t want “small” government because government is inefficient or incompetent or corrupt—though it often is all those things.  Likewise, I don’t prefer markets because they always produce better outcomes, or they are always fair—though they often are.  Government ought to stay locked in its cage not because we are “certain” it would run amok if loosed upon society, or because we are “uncertain” whether it might work some grand good for humanity.  No:  It ought to stay within its prescribed limits because we are certain that our freedom, our livelihoods, and our communities are good things worth being preserved against governmental encroachment.

The paragraph above reflects this principle.  We should prefer to be governed by 2,000 strangers chosen at random over Harvard faculty because Harvard faculty are invariably cleverer at wriggling out of constitutional constraints on governmental power and chiseling away at our liberty.

This chiseling away seems to be a foregone conclusion these days—probably why I struggled so hard to get the point of Kain’s piece.  Thus, the emphasis is never about whether government will intervene, only how effective it might be.  The quote from Manzi goes on:

The essential Progressive belief that [Ezra Klein] expresses in undiluted form is that crafting public policy through legislation is a topic for which, in simplified terms, the benefits of expertise outweigh the benefits of popular contention. Stated more cautiously, this would be the belief that the institutional rules of the game should be more heavily tilted toward expert opinion on many important topics than they are in the U.S. today.

This would be a lot more compelling if the elites didn’t have such a terrible track record of producing social interventions that work.

The contention in bold is troubling when we consider the enlargement of the counter-majoritarian branch of our federal government, i.e., the courts, through their Progressivist non-interpretivist view of the constitution.  If the courts presume to pass judgment on every detail of life formerly properly reserved to the legislature, this is enough of a blow to democracy.  But if the view takes hold that our legislatures, too, ought to subvert the popular will in favor of a give-‘em-what’s-good-for-‘em aristocracy, then where does there remain any quality of democracy in our system of government?  We would be left merely to elect the tyrant of our choice.

This is why I think the whole dichotomy between certainty and doubt is wrongheaded, because it is looking for certainty in the wrong place.  “How can we be certain we are improving the human condition as much as possible?”  “How can we be certain we are regulating freedom in the right amounts?”  “How can we be certain we are liberating enough people from suffering the consequences of their actions?”  All this technocratic legal experimentation takes its toll on the certainties we set out with in the first place:  a shared reverence for liberty, and a shared set of moral and cultural values.  This is not to say there is not substantial room for doubt in the continual process of enacting laws that are thought most meet and convenient for the general good.  But by straining our considerable modern intelligence on questions of legal and social and engineering, we ignore those sure truths that matter.  And then write long essays lamenting we have nothing to be certain of.


Written by Tim Kowal

November 17, 2010 at 12:36 am

2 Responses

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  1. I’m not sure I asked any of those questions in the last paragraph, actually. But it’s interesting that this is how you should cast the doubt/certainty dichotomy in your actual post on the matter.

    E.D. Kain

    November 17, 2010 at 6:56 am

  2. No, not those questions. Do they mischaracterize the question?

    Perhaps I can frame the debate a different way. The political philosophy of conservatives says that government does not exist for the purpose of making society nice. If we reject that fundamental premise about government, then we are left with lots of quandaries in social and legal engineering about how best to make society nice. As I understand it, this is the place you find yourself puzzling over whether we can have any certainty.

    Tim Kowal

    November 17, 2010 at 7:37 am

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