Link: In Praise of Passivity

Normally the 2012 publication date would make this too recent for benthic canon, but Michael Huemer’s In Praise of Passivity was written in my heart long ago. The abstract:

Political actors, including voters, activists, and leaders, are often ignorant of basic facts relevant to policy choices. Even experts have little understanding of the working of society and little ability to predict future outcomes. Only the most simple and uncontroversial political claims can be counted on. This is partly because political knowledge is very difficult to attain, and partly because individuals are not sufficiently motivated to attain it. As a result, the best advice for political actors is very often to simply stop trying to solve social problems, since interventions not based on precise understanding are likely to do more harm than good.

I hope you’re already familiar with the anxiety of epistemology that observing polarized debates ought to induce, but Huemer gives an unusually concise, thorough, and well-documented survey of the landscape. This is, as always, not to say that I agree with every word of it—but this is largely a matter of degree, in particular of the extent to which the best we can do is to set our hearts on doing nothing and thus leave nothing undone. The author risks handing readers a lofty principle that’s too easily used to argue one position and dismiss others without ever engaging the positions’ particulars. But I take these ideas as an unspoken starting point for discourse. Or I would, were it ever worthwhile for me to talk to someone about politics. Anyway, it probably doesn’t work if I leave it unspoken.

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