A Mistaken Idea

Many of my readers, I imagine, are in this position. You have read Murray Rothbard’s The Ethics of Liberty. Or maybe some other book by Rothbard, or Ludwig von Mises’s Liberalism. Or maybe you have encountered the “argumentation ethics” of Hans-Hermann Hoppe. You find what you read convincing, and you would say that you know that the free market views that these thinkers defend is correct.

Should the following line of argument change your beliefs? The thinkers mentioned in the previous paragraph are very intelligent and knowledgeable. But there are also very well-informed and knowledgeable scholars who favor diametrically opposed views. The economist Bryan Caplan, who attended Mises University after he graduated from high school, went to Princeton for his PhD. He took classes from Ben Bernanke, about whom he says,

I was a student of Ben Bernanke at Princeton, and he was by far the best teacher and most impressive mind I encountered there. He is not a dinosaur Keynesian left over from the 60’s, or an idiot savant math whiz. Bernanke is a macro theorist who knows an enormous amount of economic history, and an empirical economist interested in wise policy.”

This describes very well the situation I am talking about.

I want to clarify the question I am asking. It isn’t this question: Should you look at the arguments that these scholars give against the views that you hold, or in favor of their contrary views? I think it would be a good idea for you to do so. As John Stuart Mill famously argued in On Liberty, knowing the objections to your position is a good way to understand better what you believe and the grounds for doing so. Even if the objections are wrong, Mill said, people who ignore these objections “lose…the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth produced by its collision with error.

Rather, the question I am bringing up is, Does the mere fact that intelligent and well-informed people disagree with you count as evidence against what you believe to be true? Should it induce you to weaken the credence you give your own ideas, so that you should no longer say that you know the free market position is correct? After all, they, being knowledgeable, are familiar with the same pro–free market arguments as you are, but they don’t share your assessment of these arguments. Why is your assessment of the arguments more likely to be true than theirs?

Two responses would let you immediately dismiss the last question, but these responses should be resisted. First, you might say, aren’t the proponents of antimarket ideas evil? Should the fact that an evil person holds views contrary to our own lead us to doubt what we think is true? Second, you might say, the people who challenge the free market don’t really believe what they say. They are advancing their so-called ideas as a means to gain power, profit, or political influence. It may well be that either or both of these responses would accurately characterize various people who have opposed the free market. But there are some who do believe what they are saying and are not evil. The Marxist philosopher G.A. Cohen is one example and Thomas Nagel is another. Then, our question recurs: Here are two major thinkers who reject the free market. Should that lead us to weaken our own confidence in the free market?

You might think that it’s obvious that it shouldn’t, and to give away the surprise ending, I think it is correct that it shouldn’t, although I’m not sure that it obviously shouldn’t. If you go over the arguments of your intellectual opponents and don’t find them convincing, in my opinion you are fully justified in holding on to your belief with as much confidence as before. But, surprising as it may seem, that probably isn’t the dominant position among contemporary philosophers who specialize in the theory of knowledge. The argument I’ve been talking about is called the “argument from epistemic peers,” and the people who think that the fact of disagreement should influence your own beliefs are called “conciliationists.” Those who don’t accept this are “standpatters.”

An objection to the conciliationist position has probably occurred to many of you. At one time, I thought it was a strong reason to reject the position, but now I’ve changed my mind. The objection is that conciliationism is itself a disputed view. There are many philosophers, the standpatters, who reject it. If so, shouldn’t conciliationists, according to their own doctrine, abandon their position? But this objection moves too quickly. The conciliationist view isn’t that the fact of disagreement should make you abandon your view but just that it should weaken the credence you give it. You should no longer say, for example, that you know your view is true. But this is fully consistent with continuing to think there are strong grounds to accept conciliationism. It’s just that these grounds aren’t as strong as they would have been without the disagreement from epistemic peers. In brief, conciliationism isn’t self-refuting.

I’ll conclude with one complication. Suppose someone argues in this way: “The people who challenge the free market are not in fact my epistemic peers. There is a good reason to think I’m more reliable in assessing the arguments in favor of and against the free market than they are. Namely, they hold a false belief. They wrongly think that there are good arguments against the free market.” (Note that this is a different point from the claim I earlier put aside, that the opponents don’t sincerely hold their views.)  Can you legitimately take the views in dispute to be part of the evidence in assessing whether someone is an epistemic peer? By this point, you won’t be surprised to learn that this itself is an issue in dispute.

If you take my advice, you can put aside this entire controversy and continue to believe with full confidence in the free market. But maybe you should instead believe one of my epistemic peers who disagrees with me.

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