The Philosophical and Practical Implications of Policymaker Ignorance

Project: Research project

Project Details


The Philosophical and Practical Implications of Policymaker Ignorance The Philosophical and Practical Implications of Policymaker Ignorance I am developing a long-term project on the subject of political epistemology. The limited work in this field to date has focused primarily on the (important and interesting) implications of inadequate voter knowledge. However, my project is innovative in that it considers not voter ignorance, but the implications of policymaker ignorance. In particular, the project considers how the effectiveness of public policy is limited by the knowledge possessed by policymakers, and the significance of these constraints for the problem of properly delimiting the realms of public and private activity. There are obvious reasons to restrict public policy to domains in which it can be most effective, and to prevent interference in spheres where it is likely to be, at best, impotent and, at worst, harmful. If public policy is to be effective i.e., if it is to achieve to some degree the goals at which it is directed it cannot place an excessive epistemic burden on policymakers. Policies that require more or different knowledge than their makers possess are unlikely to be effective in the sense of realizing their ostensible ends. The central thesis of my project in political epistemology is that the limits of effective policy are determined to a large degree by the extent and nature of the knowledge possessed by policymakers (and, conversely, by the extent and nature of their ignorance). Moreover, the knowledge and ignorance of policymakers is to some (albeit perhaps limited) degree an empirical matter. We can get some grasp on what policymakers do and do not know at any given time. We can learn whether, in their policy deliberations, they rely on specific theories and data sets, or fly merely by the seats of their respective pants. To the extent theories and data figure in the policymaking process, we can get some understanding of the limits of these and, thus, of the limits of policies made on their basis. In short, the project aims to improve our understanding of what policymakers can and cannot achieve, and, thus, of where the most effective limits of government control and individual freedom lie. Insofar as we are interested in keeping public policy to those domains in which it is most effective (in the above sense), we should not draw the line between the realms of public and private activity in a way that assumes policymakers possess more or different knowledge than they can acquire. If you believe (as I do) that policymaker ignorance is in fact pervasive, political epistemology would seem to support an evidence-based argument for a rather spacious realm of personal liberty. I am currently writing a book (under contract at Routledge) in which I analyze the significance for political epistemology of the philosophy of science and political thought of F.A. Hayek. Hayek often pointed out that the chief basis of the argument for liberty is recognition of the fact of our irremediable ignorance of much of what we need to know to realize our goals (Constitution of Liberty [1961] 2014, 386). However, he never clarified the nature of this connection between ignorance and freedom. My book argues that Hayeks philosophies of science and of politics provide many of the tools needed to analyze political ignorance, and to understand its significance for the problems of economic and political freedom. In particular, the book argues for two overarching theses. 1) Hayek defended a philosophy of science that implied (inter alia) certain potential dangers of politicized science, i.e., dangers of attempts to impose exogenous control on the scientific process. In political-epistemological terms, the knowledge required of effective political administration of the scientific process extends well beyond what policymakers possess. 2) Hayeks political philosophy established the potential dangers of scientistic policymaking, i.e., the dangers of misapplying scientific methods and results or of applying inappropriate methods and results to matters of public policy. Again, in political-epistemological terms, the existing state of knowledge in the natural and (especially) social sciences at any given time is of limited value to effective policymaking; it can inform, but can also mislead, and is rarely, if ever, adequate in itself for the realization of whatever goals at which policy might be aimed. The book further explores the connections between politicized science and scientistic policymaking. In particular, I argue that politicized science often takes the form of scientistic policymakingattempts to exogenously control the scientific process often consist of attempts to apply (what turns out to be) a faulty understanding of scientific methods and results to science policy. However, even when politicized science does not take the form of scientistic policymaking, because it tends to distort the outcomes (methods, experimental results, etc.) that emerge from the scientific process, it tends to encourage (ceteris paribus) scientistic policymaking. That is, to the extent public policy is made on the basis of politicized science given the latters tendency to distort scientific methods and results that policy will tend to be scientistic. One of the central chapters of the Hayek book will address the relationship between policymaker ignorance and corruption. Simply put, their ignorance distorts the incentive structure confronting policymakers. Other things equal, policymakers are more likely to pursue goals that they deem, epistemically speaking, relatively easy. Unfortunately, in many, perhaps most, political contexts, it is epistemically easier to engage in graft than to earnestly pursue and realize goals in the interests of ones constituents. Thus, we should expect to discover more political corruption where the epistemic burden of effective constituent-focused policymaking is, other things equal, relatively high. Thus, the deleterious consequences of policymaker ignorance are both direct and indirect. Ignorance places certain would-be policy goals beyond the scope of deliberate political action and, other things equal, incentivizes political malfeasance. The second part of the project, which I plan to develop in the form of journal articles as the Hayek book is in preparation, will eventually lead to a second book manuscript. From the perspective of political epistemology, Plato set political thought off on the wrong path when he assumed that there could be a wise captain of the ship of state capable of navigating any and all perilous waters. With relatively few exceptions Bernard Mandeville, David Hume, Adam Smith, Edmund Burke, Alexis de Tocqueville, Michael Oakeshott, and Hayek, come to mind political philosophers have never quite recovered from this false step. The second book will consider the history of political philosophy through the lens of the assumption that policymakers are cognitively limited. This book will be titled Political Philosophy as if Politicians were Human Beings. Of course, the point is not to rewrite the entire history of political philosophy, but rather to consider the implications of policymaker ignorance for some of the arguments essential to this history. This part of the project will extend an argument due to Hume and at least implicit in several of the authors named above. According to this argument, sustainable government requires, in the first instance, that the obligations of policymakers extend no further than their epistemic and practical capabilities allow. In political analysis, Hume argued, it as a maxim, that, in contriving any system of government, and fixing the several checks and controuls of the constitution, every man ought to be supposed a knave, an ignorant and selfish bungler. Where this principle is ignored, where knowledge, powers, and ethical probity are misattributed to policymakers, constitutional checks and balances are unlikely to properly constrain political decision-making to that which is realizable on the basis of existing political knowledge. My concern is to develop as far as possible a general theory of the consequences of neglecting Humes maxim.
Effective start/end date9/1/1712/31/22


  • Charles Koch Foundation: $42,000.00


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