Empiricism and political debates

TAS hero Ross Douthat makes the point that the preference for small government or Europe-style welfare states will not be settled by empirical research, because they depend as much on one’s philosophical beliefs as on hard data:

And as long as [American and European societies remain broadly stable and prosperous], where you come out on the debates over whether we should prefer the continent’s sturdier safety nets to America’s lower unemployment and higher growth rates (or the continent’s more equible provision of health care to America’s lead in health-care innovation, or what-have-you) will ultimately boil down to values as much as it will to what the numbers say.

Obviously, Ross is right that such broad debates cannot be solved with facts and figures alone, and that they do boil down to values. But I also think Ross may be discounting the way that a series of tactical victories can lead to a strategic victory. Smaller debates than “Do we want to be Sweden or Hong Kong?” can and are decided mostly by facts and in turn, these debates influence the broader debate.

Look at tax policy. As proponents of President Obama’s tax increases keep repeating, their goal is only to go back to the level of taxation of the prosperous 1990s. No one is suggesting going back to top rates of more than 70% that were once considered commonsensical both by Eisenhower Republicans and LBJ Democrats. This is not because of Republican obstructionism or robber barons showering Congress with money, but simply because the debate about the destructive impact of confiscatory top income tax rates has been settled in fact, both by economic research and by reforms of the 1980s in the US, Great Britain and elsewhere.

Similarly, the few protectionist provisions tucked into stimulus legislation come nowhere near overturning the broadly pro-free trade consensus that has been painstakingly built over the past 20 years. This is in large part because the evidence in favor of free trade is so overwhelming that opponents of free trade can only fight at the margins, with things like buy american provisions and obstructing CAFTA. (Of course, if the Obama Administration’s protectionist moves degenerate into an international trade war I’ll look like a fool, but by then I’ll be too busy stocking up on canned goods and ammunition to care.)

And these tactical victories have succeeded in shifting the parameters of the broader discussion of economic matters much to the right (or in a more pro-market direction, if you prefer) than where it was, say, 40 years ago, both in the US and in Europe. And this shift has a lot to do with values, but it also has a lot to do with how so many of the smaller debates within this very large debate have been empirically settled in a pro-market direction.

And this is true despite the financial meltdown. The crisis has shifted the center on economic debates much to the left, but that place is still much to the right of where the center was 40 years ago.

As Ross himself is fond of pointing out, and rightly so, in debates on issues like embryonic stem-cell research, it is actually conservatives who have the best grasp of the actual science. The debate on the personhood of the unborn may never be settled in fact (or, depending on your point of view, is self-evidently settled as a matter of fact), but the smaller debates within this broad meaning-of-life discussion may (perhaps only in 20 years time) be settled in fact and, in turn, alter the direction of the broader debate.

At least, it’s worth counting on.