Will Wilkinson, whom Jane Galt refers to as sickeningly brilliant, attempted a rebuttal of Jonathan Chait’s Fact Finders. He failed. Chait’s article wasn’t exactly a marvel of intelligent discourse, and I’m not going to defend its conclusions, but it was still far better than Wilkinson’s response. Let’s see what’s wrong with the latter.

Jonathan Chait’s article, “Fact Finders,” in the new TNR is one of the most obnoxiously blinkered pieces of self-serving political magazine writing in recent memory. I’m just flabbergasted by the stupidity of this thing.

Mere tone-setting. Do you see anything in there that resembles a fact, or even a reasoned criticism? If you do, have your eyes checked, because it’s not there.

Chait’s claim is that liberals by and large are empiricists, willing to go where the evidence takes them, while conservatives (loosely and irresponsibly identified with free-market types) are dogmatists who will unaccountably but doggedly cling to principle even after being brought low by data.

Not a particularly bad paraphrase, though a little self-serving in the way it presents a stronger and more absolutist contrast than Chait did. Only a whiff of straw, instead of the whole strawman I’ve come to expect from the antisocialists.

The claim is almost self-refuting.

I love self-referential statements. Don’t you?

Liberalism is not a list. It’s just not. And it is not a list that has incoherence as a natural byproduct of being a list that rejects ideological certainty. Green, Hobhouse, Dewey, Rawls, et al did not see themselves as championing incoherent lists of things people might happen to want. They championed a particular conception of the relationship between the citizen and the state based on what they took to be compelling general normative principles.

…which naturally lead to lists of more concrete policies and actions which would shape the real world according to those principles. As soon as we try to apply any principle, instead of just leaving it on the shelf to admire, we end up with a list. Conservatives, libertarians, and so on have their lists too, which anybody can look up in a manifesto or party platform. Rawls et al might not have championed the list itself, but they did not preclude its existence either. In fact, their works are full of examples which could be items on such a list. The fact that people express their interpretation of a principle as a list of consequences is not a failing; it’s a sign that people have actually made the connection between principle and reality. By and large, it’s a good thing.

If God came down and told conservatives that free-markets and smaller government aren’t the best way to get the things on the list kept in the offices of the New Republic (“And I know,” God said, “for it is I who made Nature’s Laws”) and the conservatives said, “Oh, that’s OK God, we’ve got a different list in the offices of Americans for Tax Reform, but then you knew that,” that’s not a failure of empiricism.

Actually it is, and there’s something a bit slippery about Wilkinson’s criticism. When we mention God we think of faith, so we interpret belief in what God says as a matter of faith. Wilinson is trying to make us think that those who disagree with God are the champions of empiricism. However, this God in Chait’s example is a God whose existence has presumably been validated as empirical fact, not a matter of faith. If this God tells us something different than what we already believe, it sets two sets of empirical observations against one another, not empiricism against faith. The correct thing to do when such a contradiction occurs is to attempt a resolution, all within an empirical framework. Accepting either conclusion without making such an attempt would indeed be a failure of empiricism (or, more correctly, of the scientific method) as Chait claims.

is Michael Kinsley Jonathan Chait’s main source of economic theorizing? I swear that just two weeks ago I heard the 2004 Nobel winner say that a system of social security personal accounts would have a monumental effect on the supply of labor, and thus on growth, and national wealth. So what’s an empiricist to do? Throw in one’s lot with Michael Kinsley or Edward Prescott?

This is an ad hominem attack with a red herring. How messy. Kinsley’s beliefs on social security are not relevant to this discussion, and bringing them up is a low attempt to paint Chait as inconsistent (when in fact he might be able to explain the apparent contradiction if given the chance) and thus discredit him instead of the argument he’s making.

In short, what Wilkinson is attempting is not really a reasoned rebuttal but a kind of sneering character assassination. By foregoing the opportunity to enter any empirical debate about the sources of people’s beliefs, he demonstrates exactly the kind of anti-empirical attitude among conservatives that he claims doesn’t exist. His claims of self-refutation are themselves self-refuting.