Beliefs and politics

Somewhere off in a different part of the internet, I’ve been getting stick for the following comment:

I guess what I’m trying to say is that liberals care about people too. We believe fervently in the power of individual decisions to bring about good outcomes for everyone. We see tremendous potential in human beings – potential that requires little more than freedom to express itself. We’re passionate about empowering people to run their own lives. All of these things are deeply idealistic and even quite beautiful.

Although the guy I’m arguing with is just a troll, his objection to my use of “fervently” gave me pause.

What I’d like to see is a Liberal Economist (just once) elaborate the evidential basis for their “fervent” beliefs. It is my considered observation that “fervent” anything rarely ends well for anyone.

He’s wrong, of course. Every point on the political spectrum is underpinned by a set of beliefs, more or less fervently held. And many of them are hard to disagree with, regardless of one’s own political stance – it’s just a matter of how an individual weighs them, one against the other. These things are personal, after all.

Some people believe in the power of individual choice and the importance of a guaranteed standard of living. Some believe in the power of collective action and the importance of individual freedom. Some believe that markets can’t be expected to do very much, and some believe government can’t be trusted to do very much. Some believe that people should be treated equally, and some believe in positive discrimination. Some believe in empowering people to look after themselves, and some believe in making sure everyone is looked after. Some believe in the right to privacy and some in the right to security.

None of these beliefs is indefensible. Many of them aren’t even incompatible. All of them are personal, and none of them require evidence! They’re just beliefs, that’s all – their role is to help an individual decide which way to go on hard moral questions. It’s all inside a person’s head.

The role of evidence is totally different. You don’t need evidence until you start trying to make decisions that affect the real world, such as policy recommendations. Beliefs can have some influence on policy recommendations, but evidence should have a larger role.

Making policy without evidence is a problem. Beliefs aren’t.