Friday, June 17, 2011

The Epistemology of Hockey and Small Government

“Knowledge requires justification” says Gary Gutting in today’s Philosopher’s Stone (NYT June 17, 2011). He picks on the eminently feeble Harold Camping and his prediction that the Rapture would occur on May 21, 2011. Well, it didn’t . . . and how could anyone have known such a thing anyway? Knowledge requires a persuasive account of why we know what we think we know. It requires more than strong belief, like those hockey fans that upended Vancouver the other night who surely “knew” the Canucks were going to win, or some poor shmoe who just “knows” he’s going to win the lottery. There’s no shortage of foolish beliefs strongly held, and finding people to ridicule for this is a target rich environment. Just ask Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, or a Boston Bruin fan.

Yet many foolish beliefs have a strong grip on our imagination, and, of course, ridicule is more easily heaped on ideas in decline than on ideas in the ascendancy. Take the widely held belief that lowering taxes and cutting government spending is what’s needed to grow the economy. This idea has been in the ascendancy for thirty years. Liberals have struggled in vain to point out that this article of Republican faith lacks a rationally persuasive account of why it’s true. It’s contrary to the evidence. Yet, the belief has been curiously respectable and immune to ridicule, despite the best efforts of brave souls like Reich and Krugman to point out the emperor has no clothes. When will we know then, that we have these ideas on the run? It’s when we once again hear commentary like Thurman Arnold’s in The Folklore of Capitalism (1937). This from the last time we had this belief on the run:

It was bad form for men to become dependent on government organization; but it was a good thing for employees to become completely dependent on industrial organization, which was supposed to foster initiative and independence down to the lowest worker . . . [W]hen the government wasted, it was wasting the taxpayer’s money. When a railroad, or public utility, wasted it was wasting its own money—which, of course, every free individual has a right to do unless you are willing to change your “system of government” and adopt “Socialism.” Of course, the great industrial organizations collected the money they spent from the same public from which the government collected. However, in the case of a public utility, or textile concern, or a building corporation, the collection was voluntary, since men could go without clothes, light or houses . . . . When the government collected, the collection was an involuntary tax, which in the long run fell upon the poor, because of the great principle that it is unjust to tax the righ any more than you happen to be taxing them at the time, and that the rich will refuse to hire the poor if taxed unjustly.

Now there is putting a belief not supported by a persuasive account of why it's true in its place!