Facts and Values in Political Debates

There’s been a spirited discussion of one of my posts here. (Okay, “spirited debate” is my euphemism for “clobbering”). I’d like to get some sense of why we’re so deeply divided. For now, I’m turning to this article, which tries to disentangle individuals’ value priorities from factual judgments. (Yes, I admit, it’s experimental philosophy, which I usually find less than helpful).

Here’s part of the abstract:

In two experiments, participants judged the fairness of different distributions of wealth in hypothetical societies. . . . As meritocracy increased, all participants became more tolerant of economic inequality, particularly when participants judged fairness from a redistribution frame of reference that made salient transfers among classes. Liberal participants, however, placed a greater emphasis on equality than conservative participants. . . .

I think these observations are interesting because they show the degree to which our intuitions about distributive values hinge on our perceptions of reality. If we think we live in a meritocracy, we are much more likely to tolerate a high degree of inequality. (But I wonder if things work in the reverse as well. For example, to avoid cognitive dissonance, might members of a society with massive inequality of resources want to believe that it is meritocratic?)

I have a sense that the TOTM commenters have a certain view of the market as a meritocracy: that the rules governing transactions are neutral and fair, everyone bargains at arm’s length, etc. But I think this does not match the empirical reality recognized not merely by scholars, but by people in business (e.g., G. Richard Shell, in Make the Rules or Your Rivals Will.) As David Callahan argues, rising inequality also provides the means for “winners” to “get more adept at turning money into influence–twisting rules to their benefit” (19). And I think that idea underlies “platform neutrality” as well.

One thought on “Facts and Values in Political Debates

  1. Huh? I am pretty sure that none of us at TOTM believes that market is a “meritocracy.” Likewise, most of us would laugh at the suggestion that “the rules governing transactions are neutral and fair.” Why are you making up these silly conjectures?

    What we do believe is that saving people’s lives is a worthier goal than fighting “commodification.” And we know enough economics to talk about the tax incidence and the elasticity of supply without having to cite Sartre or Diane Sawyer.

    Please don’t write that I only say so because I secretly believe that people should colonize Mars or that transaction costs don’t exit.

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