Wednesday, 30 January 2013

Should We Believe in Anything?

The Balanced Budget Amendment: Clarifying the Arguments
Thurman Wesley Arnold (1891 – 1969) is perhaps best remembered as a trust-buster of FDR. He was also a lucid advocate and theorist of the presuppositions of the New Deal. In his The Folklore of Capitalism of 1937 he ventured to observe a change of mental temperament over the preceding generation:
‘Thirty years ago medical men were still fighting for principle, just as political men are fighting it today. There was homeopathic and allopathic schools of medicine. The thinking man was supposed to choose  between two schools in hiring a physician. Today the public is no longer asked to choose between conflicting medical principles. Medicine has been taken over by men of skill rather than men of principle’.
In 1967 Daniel Villey (1910-1968), a mid-20th c French classical liberal, lamented the same change in his A la Recherche d'une Doctrine Economique:
‘Until a recent period ... economists were men of doctrine. One did not distinguish among them so much as today by means of the techniques they use, or even by the particular field they had chosen to specialise in  – but according to their doctrines... He was an agrarian or an industrialiser. Or a liberal, or a socialist, or a corporatist, or a cooperationist, or a dirigiste. In the eyes of ... the public, economics had as its end a great contest, continually reborn, in which the partisans of laissez-faire  confronted those of intervention. It was no less in other disciplines. Was he classic or romantic? Monarchist or republican, conservative or progressive, nationalist or cosmopolitan? Times have changed. As for economists, who today cares to carry the label socialist or liberal? Our day disdains, deprecates , condemns doctrine.’
Thus the shift that was a cause for chagrin to Villey was a cause for deep satisfaction to Arnold. The two authors, then, provide an eloquent statement of perfectly contrary positions on the value of doctrine.
Arnold’s position is rooted in that coalition of egalitarianism and technocracy that was so nourishing of Dewyite pragmatism and American ‘institutionalism’, and so manifest in the New Deal.     
To Arnold the great defect of ‘principles’ – the stuff of ‘doctrine’ – was epistemological. They offend that untrammeled empiricism which can be the only source of knowledge in human affairs.And principles - being abstractions - do not respect that  intimate union of politics, economics, law anthropology etc that will characterise any given social phenomenon. Arnold's case against principles this far is a familiar one. And arguable. For the 'mind of principles' believes they have absorbed the lessons Experience has to teach, and sees no call to return to her class room each and every day. And the 'mind of principles' Experience cannot teach why and how the machine works: it must be taken to pieces in the imagination.

Arnold's case against principles extend to normative ones. Such principles infringe the root and branch utilitarianism that appears to be Arnold’s sole guide to action. Making things worse, normative principles commonly contradict one another, and so only add to the difficulty of implementing ‘practical’ solutions. The upshot was that the 'method of principles' corners radicals in a struggle for an impossible Utopia, paralyses conservatives with Ideology (in Mannheim’s sense), and leaves economists and lawyers ‘preaching’ rather than giving ‘practical advice’.
In Arnold’s telling, socially useful ends are secured only by those who reject ideals and principles. He proposes to illustrate this by reference to Jewish money lenders who usefully subverted the ban of medieval canons on lending at interest. A second of Arnold’s example is the propagation of quinine: the medical faculty at Sorbonne proscribed its use in 1638, ostensibly on account of its inconsistency with Galenic doctrine, and its effective introduction to France had to await the activities of the ‘quack’ Robert Talbot in 1680.
Arnold’s supreme illustration of the utility of scorning all ideals and principles is the 20th c US urban ‘political machine’. This exists, he says 'because people ... do not wish the government to be practical’.  The upshot is that ‘thrifty, moral communities have a tendency to remain in the backwoods while a city like Chicago astonishes us with both its civic improvement and its political corruption.’ 
In summary, ‘the great achievements in human organisation have been accomplished by unscrupulous men who have violated most of the principles we cherish’, and Arnold commends ‘opportunistic action ... based not upon learning but upon political expediency’
Our Arnoldian journey concludes, therefore, in a Mandevillian universe of moral paradox  ....the vision of the beautiful infrastructure built upon the base foundation...  the praise of the political fixer ...: all this is reminiscent of the Enlightenment immoralist.  
If immorality and dishonesty are some compensation for  principles, would it  be not still better if principles were to disappear altogether? Arnold deems this an idle query. Humankind is addicted to principles; partly because of a (regrettable) attachment  to ‘rational thinking’, and even more because  ‘almost all human conduct is symbolic’; ie it is not purely instrumental to material, utilitarian goals. ‘Society is generally more interested in ... watching itself go by in a whole series of different uniforms than it is in practical objectives’. But while  there is no hope that this will alter, we may still hope for the advent of doctrines that give confidence and morale to a community, and ‘provide a faith which permit men to do practical and humanitarian things’. Doctrine, then, is potentially a useful myth, or in Arnold’s favoured comparison, ‘religion’; and we should judge any doctrine not by its ‘truth’ or ‘falsehood’ (Arnold’s sneer quotes) but by its utility.
As Arnold’s technocracy undergirds his repudiation of doctrine, soVilley’s liberalism sustains his affirmation of doctrine.
To Villey the point doctrine is to articulate a perspective on the human world. Doctrine, therefore, is not a denial of the ‘intermingling’ of so many different factors in social world (economic, legal, political ...) but a inevitable response to that complexity.
And as the choice of perspective is personal, doctrine is essentially personal. How could one separate Nietzscheanism from Neitzsche, asks Villey? One could ask the same of Marx or Hayek.  Or Samuelson.That ‘personal’ characteristic  is precious attribute of doctrine; our choice  of doctrine is an expression of our freedom; and like all such expressions, it is an expression of ourselves; it helps thou ‘know thyself’; it fulfils us.
Villey vision of doctrine, then, is an essentially artistic one. Doctrine is closer to literature than either the sciences or religion. Unlike both science and religion it essentially personal, even private, rather than collective. Unlike both science and religion, doctrine is characterised by a relativism that hovers between objectivity and subjectivity.  Many different doctrinal perspectives, says Villey, are equally true. They do not merely each contain a part of truth, each is a part of truth.  The term ‘perspective’ is usefully illustrative of Villey's meaning here. Taken literally, any vista is surely as valid as any another, as each is equally the outcome of the observer and the observed.
This relativism of doctrine is concomitant with its essential union with values. Doctrine, says Villey, is  ‘to secure the unity of mind and heart’. So if the output of science is prediction and control’ the output of doctrine is valuation.  If science begins in curiosity and ends in solutions, doctrine begins perplexity and ends in counsel. This counsel is what Arnold dismisses as ‘preaching’, but it is the ultimate end of doctrine.What Arnold completely misses, then, is the forks in the road of life; of the necessity to nominate one alternative over the other. To Arnold it seems there is only one road; and it has a  good direction, and a bad; and we can only wish for some power to move us along that good direction. But life, obviously, is not like that. Perhaps a medical treatment has the risk of severe side effects; even death. Do you take it? Perhaps the patient is a ward of yours (a child, a senile parent); do you administer it?  The answer cannot be found in any ‘technique of human organisation’, or skill, that Arnold so prizes. The answer lies in doctrine.

Will an adjudication, then, award all  to Villey? I do not think so. The relativism of Villey's notion of doctrine quavers precariously on the edge of subjectivism. All perspectives are equally valid, suggestsVilley, and the literal visual usage of the term is corroborating. But, to pursue that usage, are not some vistas more comprehending than others? And if  it is replied that doctrine cannot reach a perfectly general outlook, but must remain in some measure personal, where lies the cognitive value of that personal aspect? Perspectives express our selves, suggest Villey. But if they only express our selves, are they anything more than 'personal style'? There is surely more 'news' in doctrine than that. But news of what? News of ourselves. Philosophers - in Villey's account-  have sought to understand the world, but have only succeeded in understanding of themselves. 

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