Reality-challenged

This neat piece from Steve Benen reminded me of this longer, but wonderful piece from Jonathan Chait in 2005 on epistemic closure and the remarkable lack of interest, from the right, in evidence-based government.

The New Republic piece is full of quoteable moments, and well worth reading in full;

The only way to deem the U.S. system the “best” is if you substitute ideological criteria for pragmatic criteria. Our health care system is indeed the best at minimizing the role of government. France, on the other hand, produces better measurable health outcomes at a vastly lower cost. Yet conservatives would consider the notion that France has a better health care system than the United States to be self-evidently false.

Part of this difference reflects the cultural predilections of the last two presidents–Bush is the instinctive anti-intellectual who likes to go with his gut, and Clinton is the former Rhodes scholar who relished academic debates. But it also reflects the natural tendencies of conservatism and liberalism.

Clearly, after the 112th Congress and the theatrics of the 2012 Republican primary, Chait’s theme has been much explored since. The rise of the Murdoch-influenced ‘conservative’ press, and its influence on creating an extraordinarily lucrative rage market for Limbaugh, Beck and company; the disturbing elevation of Paul Ryan and his numberless economics; Sarah Palin; and the radicalising effect of two cycles of TEA-Party politics in the House and in State Houses across the country have all washed the GOP further from their old moorings on the shores of reality. Here’s J. Bernstein in 2011:

No, the difference between the parties is how well party dogma is aligned with reality. Budget reality: Republicans are required to believe in balancing budgets by cutting taxes. Political reality: while both parties have their share of relatively unpopular issue positions, Republicans have far more of these, are farther from the median voter on them, and have less leeway to downplay unpopular stances. And reality reality: Republicans are required to be skeptical of evolution, to deny climate change, pretend missile defense works, and otherwise ignore real-world evidence. […] a lot of GOP policy positions [are] “conservative” in the sense of being aligned with what Rush or Beck says, but not in the sense of being aligned with ideological conservatism.

Which got me thinking about the UK. There are certainly ideological factions in parliament. British government has certainly been divorced from any great emphasis on evidentiary policy for quite some time. But in the same way that the GOP has become an echo-chamber of dog-whistles and plutocratic catechisms, rather than becoming an ideologically conservative policy actor, the UK scene is ignoring evidence not so much for reasons of ideology as for reasons of faith and habit.

One cannot overestimate the power of habit in British politics; which is mostly a Sir. Humphrey-ish artefact of the professional civil service. It is amplified in the echo chambers of the tabloid press. The Sun, the Mail and their ilk exist, like Limbaugh and the departed Breitbart, to serve a market in fear and rage. Several, in fact; for example, the under-educated working class rage is mostly in the Sun, the educated middle-class rage is mostly in the Mail. Humans are habit-forming and change resistant, older humans are more so, and thus change can be easily presented in a manner which will induce fear and rage in a lucrative and electorally effective demographic.

A standard trick in that industry is to juxtapose the emotional power of nostalgia and its associated paucity of accurate recollection against the immediate power of ignorance and confirmation bias. Add “When Ah were a lad…” to “They are not our kind of people…”, mix well and bake until your circulation goes up. That has led to the popular impression that paedophilia is more common than in the 50s and 60s (it’s really not); that crime is up (it isn’t); that kids today are more violent than their grandparents were (they’re considerably less so), and so on.

Then we come to faith. Both major parties have significant and strident minority membership from the wing-nut end of socially conservative Christianity, but that’s not really one of the core articles of faith which have been so damaging. Both major parties also have a religious faith in the free market fundamentalism of the Great Moderation. Both have been captured by financial vested interests. Both have nailed their trousers to the mast on Austerian fantasies and will find it very difficult to climb down.

Both major parties are instinctively authoritarian, and with the triumph of the Orange Book faction of the Liberal Democrats, they’re not much better. Both major parties (since the New Labour course change) are reflexively, rather than in any real sense ideologically, right of centre. Once again, the Liberal Democrats aren’t much better. It should be noted that this matters relatively little as the Coalition may prove to have done more damage to the LibDems than 1983 did.

That British government is no longer moored to evidentiary standards of reality is visible in a number of very high profile incidents. The Dodgy Dossier, for one. The Nutt Sack affair. Public-Private Partnerships. Faith schools. The entire Broken Britain narrative, which I have ranted about before. Ridiculous rhetoric on immigration. And in probably the most egregious example currently going, George Osbourne’s economic policies.

Both major parties, and to a lesser extent the LibDems front bench, are heavily invested in sacred cows. That’s not a good way to run a country.

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February 2013
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Per Argument Ad Astra

Politics, history, economics and rampant speculation from a victim of the Great Recession, currently at large in the West Midlands.

"When the regulation, therefore, is in favour of the workmen, it is always just and equitable; but it is sometimes otherwise when in favour of the masters."
                -- Adam Smith


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