06 February 2019

Democracy vs.Truth?

A new book by University of Pennsylvania professor Sophia Rosenfeld, Democracy and Truth, describes what reviewer David A. Bell describes as an "epistemological fault line that has existed in modern democratic regimes since their founding." The fault line divides citizens into categories we can define roughly as technocrats and -- sigh -- populists over the issue of, in Bell's paraphrase, "Who has the authority, in a democracy, to determine what counts as truth?" On one side are arrogant elitists, would-be Platonic guardians and well-meaning experts whose expertise threatens to harden into privilege. On the other we find the advocates of "common sense," including Thomas Paine himself, who distrust abstract concepts and suspect expertise of obfuscation. Bell caricatures this view as, at worst, "a suspicion of and contempt for expertise in general, a dismissal of complexity and abstraction," but the description rings false. My suspicion is that few people are consistently one thing or the other on "epistemological" questions. The "populist" who is skeptical about man-made climate change in defiance of scientific expertise, for instance, might at the same time appeal to expertise on economic questions, believing businessmen the uniquely qualified experts. If right-wingers are inconsistent, leftists are most likely equally so, especially when they weigh the demography of expertise in their judgments. While Bell especially seems convinced that the left is more committed to truth than the right -- he applauds Rosenfeld's absolution of leftist postmodernism from blame for today's "post-truth" environment -- the real issue here is less how to detect lies but the implications of facts in political debates.

Not all political questions are decided by facts. Political decisions are often value judgments made on the assumption that the "common good," for instance, is neither an objective fact nor a revealed truth but whatever a consensus decides it is. In liberal democracies ideas of the common good are shaped by desires as well as necessities. Inevitably such ideas resist appeals for change determined by necessity if they come at too great a cost according to some hedonic calculus that prioritizes freedom above other goods. Political judgments in democracies are often moral judgments that have relatively little to do with facts. The real debate over global warming, for instance, isn't "Is it happening?" but "What are we going to do about it?" While some people will try to reject undesirable options by denying the circumstances that force the issue, their opposition is founded more on moral or ideological objections to certain options (i.e. "more government control") than on an absolute denial of the circumstances. If that example seems to betray bias on my part, other examples can be cited in which the right or the populists claim to have facts on their side, e.g. border security, while the left takes the stance of denial. The main point here is that stigmatizing or suppressing liars alone won't automatically convert all citizens into rational actors when democracy doesn't  require them to be.

If citizens in a democracy claim a right to an opinion on anything that affects them some inevitably will vote on the basis of neither fact nor ideological principle, but on the basis of "I don't like it." In the western world, we insist on an absolute right to "not like it" in spite of everything. Social media has exacerbated this only to the extent that it has created new areas where that right can be asserted and enforced against all comers. That such dislike doesn't have to justify itself with fact or reason is a problem predating our modern troubles, and neither the  "enhanced rules and regulations for communication" advocated by Rosenfeld nor Bell's proposal to "restrain the economic power of the companies that profit most directly from populist attacks on epistemological authority" promises to get to the heart of that problem. At a certain stage of democracy, perhaps nothing can.

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