Academic journal article Policy Review

Age of the Empirical

Academic journal article Policy Review

Age of the Empirical

Article excerpt

PUNDITS AND POLITICIANS alike complain that virulent partisanship and the excessive power of special interests distort modern democracy. As result, it is difficult to elicit the consensus for policies that will promote the public interest. These are not new problems. In the early 1800s, for instance, Federalists and Democratic Republicans clashed sharply and vituperatively, disagreeing on such fundamental issues as whether creating a Bank of the United States was wise. Consensus periods of politics in American history have been few and far between.

But our future politics is more likely to forge consensus than that of the past, because we are on the cusp of a golden age of social science empiricism that will help bring a greater measure of agreement on the consequences of public policy. The richer stream of information generated by empirical discoveries will provide an anchor for good public policy against partisan storms and special-interest disturbances, making it harder for the political process to be manipulated by narrow interests.

Many great social scientists have understood that people are ultimately persuaded more by facts than by abstract theories. That is the reason that Adam Smith filled The Wealth of Nations with a wealth of factual observations to demonstrate the power of his ideas. It remains the case that if supporters of a policy can demonstrate that it leads to greater prosperity, the political battle is often half-won. It is true that facts alone cannot generate values, and thus no empirical evidence by itself can logically mandate support for a specific social policy. Smith's contemporary, the philosopher David Hume, himself made this clear with his famous "is-ought distinction." But politically, most people within modern industrial society adhere to a rather narrow range of values, at least in the economic realm. They favor more prosperity, better education and health care, and other such goods that make for a flourishing life. As to these issues, what is debated is which political program will in fact broadly deliver these goods.

Empiricism has particular power in the United States, where a spirit of pragmatism limits the plausible boundaries of political debate. Republicans try to show that tax cuts will stimulate economic growth, while Democrats argue that the resulting deficits will impede it. Republicans argue that, in the long run, such tax cuts will raise the incomes of all. Democrats tend to disagree. Such consequential arguments are key to persuading the vast middle of American politics. For instance, if the facts show that school choice improves test scores overall, it is unlikely that vague moral claims, like unfairness to teachers, will stop advocates of school choice from making substantial political gains.

Fortunately, we are at the dawn of the greatest age of empiricism the world has ever known. The driving force in the rise of empiricism is the accelerating power of information technology, often referred to as Moore's law. Moore's law--originated by Gordon Moore, one of the founders of Intel--is the now well-established rule that the number of transistors packed onto an integrated circuit doubles every 18 months. As a result, computer speed and memory have been doubling at approximately the same rates. Such exponential growth will persist for at least another 15 years. Many observers believe that new paradigms will continue the acceleration of computer power in the decades after silicon chip technology is exhausted.

The fruits of Moore's law will be not only ever fancier gadgets, but also an ever more informed policy calculus. The accelerating power of computers addresses what has always been the Achilles' heel of empiricism--its need for enormous amounts of data and huge calculating capacity. Pythagoras famously said "the world is built on the power of numbers." That is the slogan of empiricists as well, but processing these numbers requires huge computer power. …

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