Stacking the Deck (Updated)

Nate Silver, proprietor of FiveThirtyEight, has an excellent post distinguishing between two different kinds of progressivism, what he calls “rational progressivism” and “radical progressivism”. Here’s how he distinguishes between them:

As you can see Nate’s stacked the deck by the way he’s distinguished between the two. Are his “rational progressives” really more rational or are they merely less radical? Contra Nate, radicalism as well as liberalism traces its philosophical underpinnings back to the 18th century. See, for example, Voltaire’s quip: “The perfect is the enemy of the good”, as fine a manifesto for radicalism as any I’ve seen.

I think better characterizations would be “old fashioned liberals” vs. radicals.

I can see that I don’t meet Nate’s litmus test for a progressive of whatever stripe:

It should come as no surprise that I regard myself as a rational progressive. I believe in intellectual progress — that we, as a species, are gradually becoming smarter. I believe that there are objectively right answers to many political and economic questions.

Is the notion that human beings, as a species, are improving rationally based or an article of faith?

I don’t think that the human species is becoming smarter. I don’t think I’m in any way better, smarter, wiser, or more virtuous than Socrates, Jesus of Nazareth, or Siddhartha just because I’m more recent. Or that I’m smarter or fundamentally better than my twelve times great-grandfather, for that matter. I do live in a better world than they did but that’s not because human beings are any better, it’s because technology is better.

I do think that we learn more over time by observing ourselves and the world around us, that social and political institutions are a technology, and that technology advances as we learn more. There’s efficient and appropriate technology and there’s inefficient and inappropriate technology. The Constitution continues to be an excellent technology, solidly rooted in the keen observation of human beings, their nature, and behavior which will continue to be effective as long as that nature remains the same and the same sorts of behaviors derive from that nature. Too bad we’re not employing that technology any more.

Frankly, I think that progressives unnecessarily handicap themselves. If we’re smarter than our predecessors how can we learn from them? If you’re tolerant of existing institutions and cautious to change them but willing to change them as new, manifestly better technologies are devised, you’re no progressive. You are, as I am, a liberal conservative.


It’s occurred to me that Nate’s formulation is Euro-centric to boot. Is it his position that the people living in the backwoods of Borneo, isolated from contact with the rest of the world, are “gradually becoming smarter”, too? What’s the mechanism? Or are the rest of us gradually becoming smarter while the folks in the backwoods of Borneo are stuck in the old pre-progress state?

15 comments… add one
  • “Prone to elitism/demagoguery” seems to be creating a dichotomy where one doesn’t exist. One can be an elitist and a demagogue at the same time. I don’t see where those on the left usually bother to choose one over the other. (Some on the right don’t either, although some do.)

  • I think that’s true of a lot of his distinctions. Either they don’t hold water or they’re so completely in the eye of the beholder that it means whatever you want it to mean.

    That’s the reason for my title. I think he’s stacking the deck in favor of his own orientation to the detriment of the other.

  • PD Shaw Link

    I don’t if everyone saw this report: “Teenagers in Britain have lower IQ scores than their counterparts did a generation ago.” Notice it makes mention of visualcy.

  • Thanks, PD. I’d seen the article and thought I’d commented on it when it came out.

    I think that much of the Flynn effect is actually the Lake Wobegone effect.

  • Draw a line from Shakespeare to anyone writing today. Or a line from Michelangelo to anyone sculpting today. From Bach to anyone composing. The lines don’t exactly rise.

  • PD Shaw Link

    “O wonder!
    How many goodly creatures are there here!
    How beauteous mankind is!
    O brave new world!
    That has such people in’t!”

  • It has happened before.
    Strong men put up a city and got
    a nation together,
    And paid singers to sing and women
    to warble: We are the greatest city,
    the greatest nation,
    nothing like us ever was.

  • PD Shaw Link

    “Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”

  • Larry Link

    Didn’t Plato already address this….that we’ve reached just about as far as we’re gonna the allegory of the cave?

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