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What Happens When The Facts Don’t Fit The Progressive Script?

The Founders’ epistemic humility and progressives’ epistemic arrogance is a lesson for all time.

From the “climate change” debate to policy disputes over early childhood intervention programs and the minimum wage, the American Left prides itself on following the facts: what they posit and describe is there for everyone’s eyes to see. When the unrepentant blind demur, Progressives can claim at least a moral right to shut down debate–after all, there is no reason to pretend that those who ignore the facts have any real standing to dispute Progressive findings.

What, then, is to be done when the facts don’t follow the Progressive script?

Consider a couple recent fact-based reports:

  • The State Department’s final report on the proposed Keystone XL pipeline concluded it would have no significant impact on greenhouse emissions, the key concern cited by Progressives in and out of the Administration.
  • The Congressional Budget Office’s analysis of President Obama’s proposal to raise the minimum wage to $10.10/hour projected that 900,000 families would move above the poverty line, but that 500,000 jobs would be lost.

How did Progressives react to the news?

Nancy Pelosi on the minimum wage report: “The C.B.O. made it absolutely clear: raising the minimum wage would lift almost one million Americans out of poverty, increase the pay of low-income workers by $31 billion and help build an economy that works for everyone.” In other words, pay no attention to the 500,000 people behind the curtain.

Susan Casey-Lefkowitz of the National Resources Defense Council on the pipeline report: “We’re taking the inclusion of that scenario as good news” – referring to the hypothetical case, considered by the State Department, where future demand for oil is too low to encourage the development of the Canadian oil fields absent the pipeline. In other words, imagine a world where the facts fit one’s pre-determined values.

Of course, Progressives have no monopoly on selective citation of favorable data (or selective non-citation of unfavorable data). But it is important to note their departures from the “reality-based community” because of the pretense of scientific objectivity so central to their (non-)ideology.

For a century, Progressives have placed great confidence in the ability of the social sciences to craft policies capable of mitigating or eliminating economic, social, and environmental problems. More than that, they have become experts in divining the course of History and dividing its Right Side from its Wrong. Thus, as Irving Kristol taught us years ago, the New Left resembles the Old [pre-Enlightenment] Right in that it “seeks to end the sovereignty over our civilization of the common man.”

James Madison had a very different understanding of the scope of human wisdom, and, consequently, popular sovereignty.

Madison’s Federalist 37 is the introductory essay to the second half of The Federalist, which amounts to a clause by clause defense of the Constitution. But was every clause equally defensible? No. Every intelligent reader could find six or eight or ten parts of the Constitution to object to, which might have left the cause of ratification to die the death of a thousand cuts. Madison rightly feared this result and so wrote Federalist 37 to put the American public on their guard against expecting too much of the Constitution–and, more importantly, being too confident in their own judgment.

His understanding of the limits of the acquisition and transmission of knowledge was simple and elegant:

Besides the obscurity arising from the complexity of objects, and the imperfection of the human faculties, the medium through which the conceptions of men are conveyed to each other adds a fresh embarrassment. The use of words is to express ideas. Perspicuity, therefore, requires not only that the ideas should be distinctly formed, but that they should be expressed by words distinctly and exclusively appropriate to them. But no language is so copious as to supply words and phrases for every complex idea, or so correct as not to include many equivocally denoting different ideas. Hence it must happen that however accurately objects may be discriminated in themselves, and however accurately the discrimination may be considered, the definition of them may be rendered inaccurate by the inaccuracy of the terms in which it is delivered. And this unavoidable inaccuracy must be greater or less, according to the complexity and novelty of the objects defined.

What Madison asked his reader to do was to consider well his own fallibility and the other inherent limits to political knowledge before reading and evaluating the Constitution. In doing so, he was only asking them to do what he had already done. Madison’s example exposes the striking contrast between the epistemic humility of the American founders and the epistemic arrogance of the hyper-oligarchs (the Old Right) and the hyper-democrats (the New Left) who came before and after them, respectively.

We know from public and private records that Madison had serious reservations about several parts of the Constitution, especially the equal weight given to the states in the senate. He feared that that unjust departure from republican principle combined with the absence of a federal veto over state legislation (included in his original draft for the Constitution) would undermine–perhaps fatally–efforts to arrest the American descent into anarchy so evident, at least to Madison, under the Articles of Confederation. Yet Madison also knew that projecting his fears forward was a hazardous business and was convinced that ratifying the Constitution held out far more hope for the cause of American liberty than the alternative.

Consider the central question he takes up in Federalist 37: the distribution of powers between the states and the national government. At first glance, this seems like an easy matter to resolve. Give the national government authority over those public matters that require concerted action and leave the rest to the states. But try to get more specific and all kinds of difficulties arise.

First, there is the possibility that no black and white distinction between state and national authority exists. Many political questions seem to pit competing principles against one another in such a way that no precise formula can be articulated for balancing, say, the benefits of a uniform national policy against the benefits of local experimentation.

Many political questions seem to pit competing principles against one another in such a way that no precise formula can be articulated for balancing, say, the benefits of a uniform national policy against the benefits of local experimentation.

But even if there were such a formula, we may very easily fail to perceive it. Suppose one manages even that. It means nothing unless you can convince a room full of fellow statesmen (who bring their own ideas and local interests with them) that you’re right. Still one thing more: you’ll have to reduce your idea to words left on a page for posterity–words, as Madison notes, that themselves can be sources of obscurity and ambiguity. Put it all together and it is hardly surprising that Madison supposed that only the help of God’s “Almighty hand” could explain the unity and wisdom actually achieved by the Constitutional Convention.

Progressives enter the political arena with much less fear and trembling. In the spirit of FDR, they think that “trying something,” so long as it can make its way through their postmodern egalitarian filter, is always just, no matter its consequences. And if the facts don’t fit, we should still submit, since a Progressive intention, not a predictable positive consequence, is the measure of political rectitude.

What else explains perhaps last week’s most striking example of Progressive moral preening? During oral arguments in the Hobby Lobby case, Justice Elena Kagan suggested that $26 million in fines and a “good luck on” email to its 13,000 employees was a small price to exact from the Christian corporation for opposing its claims of conscience to Progressive “reproductive freedom” orthodoxy. Be grateful for the mercy of the Administration’s almighty hand in allowing any departure from imperial Obamacare policy–and pray that we don’t homogenize you any further.

The American founders’ humility led them to propose less comprehensive solutions for the social and political problems of their day. But even more important, it made them tolerant of differences even on important questions and magnanimous toward those whose judgment led them to very different conclusions.

Progressive overconfidence shows itself most obviously in their serial efforts to remake American society, but most ominously in their lack of tolerance for those who endanger their deepest commitments. The measure of a man (or a movement) is not what he will plead when he is weak, but what he will do when he is strong. From powerful corporations like Hobby Lobby to all but powerless bakers in Oregon more and more have seen what happens when the Progressive mask is removed and those who asked only for toleration half a generation ago enforce an ever-narrowing conformity today.

Progressives call this progress?

David Corbin is a Professor of Politics and Matthew Parks an Assistant Professor of Politics at The King’s College, New York City. They are co-authors of “Keeping Our Republic: Principles for a Political Reformation” (2011). You can follow their work on Twitter or Facebook.

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