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(The following is a comment by David K. Williams, and my response to it, on the same Facebook thread excerpted in A Frustrated Rant On A Right-Wing Facebook Thread.)

David K. Williams said:

All of your dissembling is merely a justification for the forcible implementation of your “good ideas” (after all the studying and deliberating is done) on those that do not wish to have them implemented. That is immoral.

Individual autonomy is very dangerous, indeed. So dangerous, the statists that do all of your studying and deliberating fear it.

The “progressive” movement you describe of Woodrow Wilson and FDR (and Teddy Roosevelt, for that matter) is all about the learned intellectuals with Ph.Ds knowing what is best for everyone and implementing plans via government force. I think you and I can agree with that.

You just happen to believe in the wisdom of the intellectuals. I do not. History is not on your side.

1) We are interdependent, and live within a society which imposes formal and informal constraints on us as an inherent fact of reality. You are no less trying to “forcibly implement your good ideas” on others than I am, because you are arguing for a particular public policy regime, with particular implications. You have accepted certain institutions that are founded in force, such as the definition and protection of absolute private property rights, as somehow inherent in nature (when they simply are not, but rather are themselves a political economic artifact), and therefore are blind to the fact that their forcible imposition is no more morally pure than the forcible imposition of some other version of property rights.

Don’t get me wrong: Private property has many virtues, and I defend it as an integral aspect of a well-functioning political economy. But it is NOT a moral imperative, and it is NOT the absence of force!

Private property historically came into being through violent force by some against others, a theft perpetuated across generations through inheritance, and which has implications even today. It is no coincidence that the descendants of former slaves and the former conquered indigenous population of this country are grossly overrepresented among the impoverished of this country; it is the direct consequence of the “morally unassailable” default that you have chosen to worship. Ironically, it not only leads to greater social justice to modify that regime on the margins, it also leads to greater robustness and sustainability in the production of wealth, making it the more reasonable path by all measures.

2) My statement that both too much individual autonomy and too much collectivism are dangerous (using your word) referred to the indisputable fact that error can be found on both extremes. In one moment, you deny any commitment to absolute individual autonomy, and in the next invoke it, playing a shell game rather than making an argument. So let me address the shell you’ve currently placed your pebble under, the one that insists that individual autonomy is an absolute and unassailable good, period. By that logic, individuals would have to be granted the autonomy to murder, rape, steal, drop nuclear weapons on each other, and, in general, engage in any behavior that any individual chooses and finds him or herself able to. That would be a Hobbesian paradise of the war of all against all, and a life “nasty, brutish, and short.” No semi-rational person really believes that that’s the way we should govern ourselves.

So, individual autonomy is a value with limits, a practical reality we have spent our history exploring and defining. Justice Holmes famously said, for instance, that one’s right to free speech doesn’t extend to shouting “fire!” in a crowded theater when there is no fire, because that would be destructive mischief that we, as a society, should and must restrain. Once you recognize that individual autonomy isn’t an absolute ideal, but rather a value to be maximized in balance with other values, then if becomes completely arbitrary to argue from the position of it being an absolute ideal. The debate then becomes one regarding whether it is a value which trumps other considerations in this or that circumstance. You can weight it more or less heavily if you like, but you can’t simply circumvent the discussion of whether in this or that circumstance a commitment to individual autonomy takes priority over a commitment to our ability to function as a society and to continue our lives with some minimal degree of security and tranquility.

Yes, there are wonderful platitudes obfuscating this reality. “Those who would trade liberty for security deserve neither.” But does that mean that those who would trade the liberty of individuals to build and use nuclear weapons, or to drive around in tanks armed with the most destructive of weapons, for the security of living in a society governed by the rule of law, deserve neither? No, of course not. The challenge of drawing the line continues to exist, and your insistence that it be drawn far to one side cannot be defended by any platitude or any absolute value, because even you recognize that the line does indeed need to be drawn. You are insisting on drawing it arbitrarily at one extreme. But you have no argument other than a blind religious zeal that insists that that’s where it should be drawn, a zeal which carefully dismisses all thought and analysis as the mischief of intellectuals.

3) What I advocate isn’t some pre-packaged idea that you can refer to and dismiss, but rather the notion that we should ALL strive to exercise reason and universal goodwill to the best of our ability, and to govern OURSELVES by recourse to disciplined and procedurally sound reason and goodwill to the best of our ability. Just as in all human endeavors, we do benefit from a division of labors, but it is a division of labors within the context of a democracy, in which competing interests and competing views have ample opportunity to make their case, and to advocate for their position. Ph.D.s shouldn’t have any final word, though neither should their particular expertises be thrown overboard for fear that the inclusion of expertise in our national discourse is somehow antidemocratic.

We do indeed need to include professional understandings of complex phenomena in our public policy formation, because there are in fact a multitude of complex physical, economic, geological, hydrological, and generally systemic phenomena implicated in our shared existence. The anti-intellectualism of insisting that all specialized knowledge is anathema to human welfare if ever employed in our endeavor of self-governance is so patently absurd, I marvel that anyone can continue to argue it.

4) History isn’t on my side in asserting that the product of intellectual endeavors can and does serve our collective interests? Really? Our modern, industrial, science-based, technological economy is something that most people would prefer to toss aside in favor of a pre-industrial, pre-modern existence? So, at least in some spheres of our shared existence, you would agree that intellectual endeavors have borne fruit, no?

The question is whether that general truth (that intellectual endeavors contribute to our collective welfare) applies to our self-governance. The historical evidence, despite your selective insistence to the contrary, strongly demonstrates that it does. The post-WWII economic boom, experienced only by those nations that had put in place a modern, research-oriented, procedurally heavy, scientifically enriched (complete with advisory panels to deal with all aspects of our existence) administrative infrastructure, proves me wrong? You are conveniently selective in your review of human history, serving not well-reasoned and well-evidenced conclusions, but rather only a blind ideology.

Your conclusion that “history proves me wrong” is based on selecting those instances in which some intellectual doctrine has been implemented, and has been a failure, while neglecting to include any examination of those instances in which anti-intellectual doctrines have been implemented and have been failures, or those instances in which intellectual doctrines have been implemented and have been successes (including the intellectual doctrines at the heart of the U.S. Constitution, which drew heavily on Enlightenment era intellectual thought).

You are correct that intellectualism is no guarantee of success, but wrong that its inclusion, on average, leads to inferior results than its exclusion. Even the most spectacular of failed intellectual doctrines -Marxism- was not the only intellectual doctrine, or even the dominant economic doctrine, of its day (which means that competing intellectual doctrines, when and where they were implemented, led to far superior outcomes). And it is just one example of failure, cited in a vacuum. By the same logic, one could argue that human flight is impossible, because some attempts at it have failed, or that surgery is always fatal, because I can cite examples of when it has been fatal. It is such an absurd logical fallacy that, again, the marvel is that you are able to rely on it so heavily.

Furthermore, the anti-intellectualism that you espouse has a far worse track record than the intellectualism that I espouse. Though Marxism started out as an intellectual doctrine, once implemented in service to totalitarianism, it too became anti-intellectual in its orientation, persecuting intellectuals who, en masse, were active in opposing the totalitarianism in its name. In all of the totalitarian societies you cite -Soviet Russia, Nazi German, Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge, Islamic Fundamentalist states- the governments have shared with you your anti-intellectual bias, and have persecuted rather than deferred to intellectuals in service to it.

No, we are not freed from the challenge of life on Earth by deference to intellectuals. But we would be wise to increase the efficacy of our participation in those endeavors by ever-greater inclusion of intellectual discipline, emulating our Founding Fathers and the spectacular success they achieved. Given a choice between haphazard, relatively unexamined popular assumptions, and carefully arrived at, procedurally disciplined, sensibly tentative understandings, while the former can be right and the latter wrong in any given instance, on average the latter will outperform the former. Greater good is produced in the long run, wiser decisions arrived at, by all of us paying close attention to those procedurally disciplined understandings, and forming our own understandings with a certain degree of respect for the disciplines that have proven themselves most effective at reducing error and increasing accuracy. Again, the notion that wiser conclusions are formed by avoiding such methodologies flies in the face of our historical experience, rather than being proven by it, to an extent that borders on insanity.

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