Huemer opens with a powerful example of his thesis.
In 1799, America’s first President, George Washington, fell ill with what is now thought to have been an infection of the epiglottis in his throat, a rare but serious condition that can lead to blockage of the airway and eventual suffocation.1 His good friend and personal physician attended him, along with two consulting physicians. Medicines and poultices were tried, along with five separate episodes of bloodletting that together removed over half of Washington’s blood. As one contemporaneous account explained, “The proper remedies were administered, but without producing their healing effects.” The former President died shortly thereafter. Needless to say, his treatment either had no effect or actually hastened the end.And concludes just as powerfully.
Washington’s doctors were respected experts, and they applied standard medical procedures. Why were they unable to help him? Put simply, they could not help because they had no idea what they were doing. The human body is an extremely complex mechanism. To repair it generally requires a detailed and precise understanding of that mechanism and of the nature of the disorder afflicting it–knowledge that no one at the time possessed. Without such understanding, almost any significant intervention in the body will be harmful.
Popular wisdom often praises those who get involved in politics, who vote in democratic elections, fight for a cause they believe in, and try to make the world a better place. We tend to assume that such individuals are moved by high ideals and that, when they change the world, it is usually for the better.And there is substance and value in virtually every paragraph in between.
The clear evidence of human ignorance and irrationality in the political arena poses a challenge to the popular wisdom. Lacking awareness of basic facts of their political systems, to say nothing of the more sophisticated knowledge that would be needed to reliably resolve controversial political issues, most citizens can do no more than guess when they enter the voting booth. Far from being a civic duty, the attempt to influence public policy through such arbitrary guesses is unjust and socially irresponsible. Nor have we any good reason to think political activists or political leaders to be any more reliable in arriving at correct positions on controversial issues; those who are most politically active are often the most ideologically biased, and may therefore be even less reliable than the average person at identifying political truths. In most cases, therefore, political activists and leaders act irresponsibly and unjustly when they attempt to impose their solutions to social problems on the rest of society.
Perhaps the most dramatic example is that of Karl Marx, who famously commented that “The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point, however, is to change it.”[24, p. 145] Marx’s greatest legacy is the practical demonstration, through twentieth-century history, of the consequences of changing a world that one does not understand. This is not the place to detail his misunderstandings, which have been discussed at great length by others. Let it suffice to say that despite the seriousness with which generations of intellectuals around the world have studied his works, Karl Marx’s understanding of human beings and of society was minimal. His influence on the twentieth century world, however, was unparalleled–and, as most observers now recognize, almost unbelievably malignant. This is no mere accident. When one lacks a precise and detailed understanding of a complex system, any attempt to radically improve that system is more likely to disrupt the things that are working well than it is to repair the system’s imperfections. Marx’s failure to improve society should have been about as surprising as the failure of George Washington’s doctors to cure his infection by draining his blood.
Perhaps, one may hope, human beings will one day attain a scientific understanding of society comparable to the modern scientific understanding of most aspects of the natural world. On that day, we may find ways of restructuring society to the benefit of all. But we cannot now predict what that understanding will look like, nor should we attempt to implement the policies that we guess will one day be proven to be beneficial. In the meantime, we can anticipate many pretenders to scientific accounts of society, after the style of Marxism. These will be theories resting on dubious premises that only certain political ideologues find convincing. These ideologues may, as in the case of the Marxists, adopt the quintessentially unscientific attitude of regarding those who question the ideology as enemies to be suppressed.
Political leaders, voters, and activists are well-advised to follow the dictum, often applied to medicine, to “first, do no harm.” A plausible rule of thumb, to guard us against doing harm as a result of overconfident ideological beliefs, is that one should not forcibly impose requirements or restrictions on others unless the value of those requirements or restrictions is essentially uncontroversial among the community of experts in conditions of free and open debate. Of course, even an expert consensus may be wrong, but this rule of thumb may be the best that such fallible beings as ourselves can devise.