Monday, February 4, 2013

James Buchanan on Whether There is a "True Good Sociesty"

I am continuing to read works by James Buchanan. An article he published in Ethics in 1967 entitled, "Politics and Science: Reflections on Knight's Critique of Polanyi" is of relevance today. It deals with methodological issues about how science is done and whether the same approach can be made to the study of the political arena.  Polanyi's book was Science, Faith and Society and Polanyi argues for a somewhat realist approach to science--there is an underlying truth we are trying to discover.  In this, Polanyi was not a post-modern philosopher.  Polanyi evidently thought there could be a similar approch in the social sciences.  With this, Frank Knight, one of Buchanan's teachers I believe, was less confident.

Polanyi argued for a free and decentralized approach for science, and argued that the discoveries, challenges, and free discussion would ultimately lead to an idea of being closer to the truth. Hopefully, this is how science works.  But what about the political arena.  Buchanan writes, "If politics is not aimed at the discovery of 'truth' in any sense comparable to science, agreement among individuals cannot be expected to emerge as a result of free and open discussion. Enlightenment does not necessarily produce unanimity....Poltics becomes the proces through which divergent interests are compromised."

Buchanan then discusses whether there is one "good society." If there is, if there is a "truth" about the good society to discover, then there is no guarantee that free and open discussion will be the route there. If there is not a truth to discover but some believe there is and they have found it, it is likely they will seek to impose their view of truth and all others. Intolerance may be the result.  Buchanan then writes, "This attitude of intolerance seems especially to characterize the modern American left-liberal who dominates the academic setting and to whom there must always exist a set of prevailing 'truths,' politically determined, and from which open dissent becomes, somehow, 'immoral.'"

Does Paul Krugman come to mind?

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