All Commentary
Friday, May 18, 2007

Political Science

[I]t would be quite illogical to believe that a scientist may without inconsistency subscribe to any value-position whatsoever….

That provocative sentence is found in an article by Belgian liberal legal scholar Frank Van Dun, published in Reason Papers in 1986 under the title Economics and the Limits of Value-Free Science (pdf). What does Van Dun mean and how is it relevant to economic and political freedom? To take the second question first, it is relevant because libertarians are sometimes accused of putting the rabbit in the hat; that is, loading their terms so that the concept freedom contains all that they like and the concept coercion contains all that they dislike. For such critics, this reduces libertarianism to tautological triviality. Someone else may have different notions of freedom and coercion and therefore different — but equally valid — political judgments about what is and is not morally permissible. This case against libertarianism (an example is here) can be disconcerting when first encountered.

Van Dun's paper provides what appears to be a solid answer. Let's have a look.

Preliminarily, when he talks about scientists, he means any truth seeker. In this context there is nothing special about science narrowly conceived. Second, when he insists that facts and values cannot be strictly separated, he has no wish to challenge the Austrian economists' notion of value-free science (Wertfreiheit). To be sure, scientists should not reject a proposition merely or primarily on the ground that its truth would be very inconvenient or subversive from the point of view of the proponents of some metaphysical, religious, social political, economic, or racial doctrine, he writes. Thus an opponent of the free market should, in principle, be able to acknowledge that a price set by law below market-clearing level will create shortages. It would perhaps be better to drop the term Wertfreiheit altogether, and to speak only of 'freedom from prejudice,' Van Dun writes.

Before getting on to the main event, I should make clear to whom Van Dun is responding. His target is the influential Max Weber, who held that, in Van Dun's words, all value judgments are ultimately and irredeemably and necessarily irrational, merely subjective prejudices. But this value-nihilism (again, Van Dun's term) proves too much. For [a]s Weber himself pointed out, it is not even permissible for a scientist to say that the search for knowledge and truth, the life of reason and decision based on knowledge, is objectively good, or that science is a worthwhile vocation — or even that it may be possible one day to discover the truth or validity of these judgments.

No seeker of knowledge would want to fall into that trap, for how is one to establish the value of one's conclusions — how is one to claim that people ought to accept them as true — if one cannot insist on the value of the intellectual activity that produced them? If believing in the value of science is irrational, he writes, then so is believing in the facts of science. He elaborates:

There can be no facts without values. A scientific fact (factum) is something we have made in accordance with the art of critical judgment — it is an interpretation that derives its value entirely from the process by which we arrive at it. If science has no more value (speaking objectively) than the fancy of a court-astrologist or the wit of the columnist of the year, then the facts as presented by the sciences cannot and should not be taken more seriously than the facts as presented by prejudice…. [Emphasis added.]

Thus is one path to showing the intimate relationship between fact and value — morality and truth-seeking — illuminated. (There may be more than one path.)

A Science of Ethics

This all culminates in Van Dun's thesis: There is no a priori reason why there could not be normative principles that can be asserted with as much reason as any finding of scientific fact. …If it were not for the fact that we ought to be reasonable, it would not be unreasonable to deny that anything ought to be believed because it is 'a fact.' That we ought to be reasonable is the most fundamental the most indubitable fact of all — the fact without which nothing else can be a fact.

We ought to be reasonable. That proposition is deceptively simple because it's so powerful. How can one deny it or argue for the contrary proposition? Thought, language, and argument are tools of reason. We can assert, bluntly, that we ought not to be reasonable, Van Dun writes. But if we do we should not add insult to injury by spelling out the 'reasons' why we ought to accept that position. We cannot reasonably deny that we ought to be reasonable.

Therefore, he continues, there can be a science of ethics and therefore also an ethics of science that is quite objective if it conforms to the normative fact as discussed by the science of ethics.

The Case for Freedom

This brings us to political theory and the objective case for freedom. The bridge from what is stated above to politics is the fact that science — truth-seeking — is a social process. If truth-seeking is to be productive individuals can't do it entirely alone. The truth seeker needs others to check him, for it is too easy to slip into complacency without realizing it. As Van Dun puts it, There is no way an individual can break out of the prison of 'the evident,' no way he can even identify, let alone begin to question, his prejudices, unless he has come to understand that what is evident to him may not be evident to another and that his point of view is not the only one. Science is a dialogical undertaking: it requires that we make public what we think and try to refute what we believe we ought not to accept, and try to prove what we believe we ought to believe — it requires that we give our reasons…. A dialogue is an argumentative, not a persuasive, not a rhetorical exchange: the aim of participation is to understand others in order to make one oneself understood in order to allow others the opportunity to indicate just why their understanding of one's point of view does or does not appear to them sufficient reason to share it. Van Dun stresses that the object is not to arrive at a binding collective decision.

Such an outlook suggests an ethics of dialogue, a set of dialogical rights, that a truth seeker is logically committed to by virtue of her search for knowledge. It is a code to allow others to question one's most sincere convictions … to refrain from using rewards or punishments — promises or threats — as means for securing the agreement of others…. But most of all: to respect the dialogical rights of others — their right to speak or not to speak, to listen or not to listen, to use their own judgment.

This, for Van Dun, is what it means to fulfill one's obligation to be reasonable — to respect rational nature, both in oneself and in others. Being reasonable, then, means observing the moral boundary around each person. This requirement of respect for the rational autonomy of every participant turns dialogue into the primary political institution for preventing prejudice from establishing itself as an impregnable barrier against free and independent thought, and so for making science possible.

Any truth seeker, then, in logic must uphold the ethical and political value judgments that make science possible. To not do so is to forfeit one's claim to truth-seeking and to being able to justify one's assertions.

This has serious implications at the social and political level because a scientifically or philosophically defensible political system must be one in which science and philosophy can come into their own — not just as elitist and esoteric pursuits subject to special rules which set them apart from the rest of society, but as ethical ideals that pervade all human activities.

In other words, a truth seeker cannot advocate any political system that imposes limits on peaceful action and thought — that is, which sanctions the initiation of force — without implicitly contradicting herself.

Fine, the critic might say, but how does this establish rights for anyone but scientists and philosophers?

Production is Intellectual

Van Dun anticipates this objection: [T]he requirement of reasonableness applies across-the-board to every human endeavor. It applies to action no less than speech. Human action always rests upon and involves judgment. Scientific or theoretical knowledge is not essentially or qualitatively different from 'ordinary' or practical knowledge. He quotes Ludwig von Mises in this regard: Production is not something physical, material, and external; it is a spiritual and intellectual phenomenon.

Thus everyone, by virtue of his or her reason, is entitled to dialogical rights, that is, the right be left free to one's peaceful pursuits. There is, then, Van Dun writes, a glaring inconsistency in the views of those who defend 'free speech' and 'the free market of ideas' but attack freedom of action and the free market in goods and services.

Respecting reason entails respecting persons. But respecting persons requires more than respecting their bodies. In pursuit of their projects in a world of finitude and scarcity, people need to convert objects into means to their ends, thereby endowing those things with significance. They cannot pursue projects or respect others' pursuits if they cannot know what objects they may use. In order to respect others as rational agents we must know the distinction between 'mine' and 'thine,' Van Dun writes. …If we are to respect the person we ought to respect what is his, otherwise we would deny him the right to act on his own judgment, and thereby destroy the dialogical relationship.

One implication of this is to demolish an argument sometimes made by opponents of private property. It is said that a holder of land aggresses against others by excluding them from use of that land; thus, nonaggression implies collective ownership. But this is wrong. The first to mix his labor with an unowned parcel has 1) transformed a mere thing into a means to a human end and 2) aggressed against no one in the process. If someone else comes along and interferes, he is the aggressor by failing to respect the homesteader. This is not a matter of arbitrary definition. It is a fact — for if the first person to transform the parcel has no rights to it, how can the second person? A right to the parcel can't have been required merely by being born. (This is not to say that there can't be illegitimate land titles, such as those allocated feudally by the state.)

The appeal of Van Dun's argument should be clear. Any statist intellectual will eagerly claim the mantle of truth seeker. But the argument shows that the statist cannot maintain his truth-seeker credentials while also advocating government interference with any individual's peaceful pursuits. The rug has been yanked out from under the statist's feet.

  • Sheldon Richman is the former editor of The Freeman and a contributor to The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics. He is the author of Separating School and State: How to Liberate America's Families and thousands of articles.