Mind the Gap


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Emerging from the British train system the phrase “Mind the Gap” has become a well-known safety warning, even appearing in popular media and translated into other languages. This warning was originally designed to draw attention to the space between the train and the platform for on-boarding passengers. However, this advice should be heeded by many who fail to see the much broader logical gaps when moving from observations to policy suggestions, or the positive to the normative.  Those most proneto ignore this gap, though not exclusively as no one ideology is immune from foolishness,  are progressives.

Recently two economists, Bryan Caplan and Don Boudreaux, have pondered the differences between libertarians and progressives and why they fail to form alliances, and I suspect that gap has something to do with it. Caplan suggests that market skepticism derived from a focus on greedy people becoming wealthy motivates the anti-market animus that keeps them from allying with libertarians, even when they align politically such as war, criminal justice, immigration, and occupational licensing. Boudreaux suggests that it is their underappreciation of emergent order that prevents alliances, I think both are probably correct to some degree but I there are contributing beliefs that, at best, exacerbate distrust and prevent alliances even when sharing common end goals.

The two major underlying presumptions, or beliefs, that prevent progressives from allying with the libertarians and free-marketers of the right are: first, the presumption that freedom exists at the behest of the government, and that said freedom must first be granted by government. This is well discussed in Timothy Sandefur’s fantastic book, The Permission Society, therein he details philosophical differences between the two approaches, illustrated with historical and modern examples, and how difficult it becomes to argue for freedom from the presumption that all freedom is granted by government. Such a presumption is nearly impossible to rebut and grants undue authority to government, for more on this, read his book.

The second presumption, and the focus of this piece, is that the gap between observation and policy for progressives is quite narrow. Thus, when something is observed it promptly becomes incumbent on policy makers to “do something” often at the expense of other considerations.

The gap to which I’m referring was described by philosopher David Hume who remarked that people often drifted from the “is, and is not,” to the “ought, or ought not.” Hume pondered how the drift between the “is” and the “ought” often occurred imperceptibly. What Hume is describing is the tendency to move from a positive description to normative preference and the inability to distinguish between the two, it is commonly called the “is/ought problem.” Alternatively it could be called the is/ought gap to metaphorically illustrate the necessity to support a normative argument with more than mere descriptions. In light of progressive views on facts and science it appears little is demanded to move from one to the other, often merely describing the “is” is sufficient for the “ought.”

Progressive history is a sea of such logical drift. For example, early progressive Herbert Croly suggested that a “better future would derive from the beneficent activities of expert social engineers who would bring to the service of social ideals all the technical resources which research could discover.” This ideal, that one could shape society through expert social engineers who were able to reveal scientific truth, would manifest in the early embrace of eugenics by progressives. Later writing by early progressives would extol the virtues of Nordic races over others. Even if the data was methodologically flawed by our current standards, at the time it appeared to confirm the normative biases of early progressives but now came enshrined in the trappings of science. The grotesque conclusions, such as advocacy for sterilization, reached by many progressives could have been avoided had they minded the gap between observational data and normative policy prescriptions.

Alas, today’s progressives make the same error, though they have changed their tune on race, they continue to cross the is/ought gap haphazardly. Consider the odd “March for Science” held in April of 2017, according to a website organized around the march it was designed to “defend the role of science in policy and society.” President Obama said something similar in his inauguration claiming that he’ll “restore science to its rightful place” while discussing his efforts to lower costs and improve medical care.  Climate change is another such example where the discussion quickly devolves from “climate changes is real” – an observation- to “we must implement X policy to combat climate change” – a normative “ought” statement. This becomes more apparent when skepticism or alternatives to preferred policies are voiced, which is treated as a denial of the observation. The list continues, fighting poverty often yields discussion about the necessity for welfare programs, minimum wage laws, and government services. Even in the linguistics the term “progressive” hides the gap between description and desired policy, masking the normative value of policy preferences by associating it with progress.

Of course, scientific evidence does shed useful light on complicated topics, but it is not sufficient for most policy matters. To make that assumption, and narrow that gap, is the “pretense of knowledge” and ignores important moral and ethical considerations. It also hides economic trade-offs, difficult to observe costs, and ignores alternative policy preferences. As a result, this style of argumentation, when examined, is often unable to clear that very large gap between the “is” and “ought.”

Ignoring the distance of the gap is not solely a progressive characteristic, but it is a dominant one and is likely to leave some much like Wile E. Coyote, in the air and unable to cover the distance, the consequences are often tragic. As a matter of public safety best mind the gap.

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