Jeffrey Friedman on Edelman and Caplan
By Arnold Kling
In an email, he writes,
Like the Frankfurters (and Caplan), Edelman simply couldn’t understand why everyone didn’t agree with him–his own (Marxist) views were so self-evidently true!–that he reduced the views of those with whom he disagrees to dark drives.
Read the whole thing, which I copied below the fold. I think that Friedman is correct to highlight the issue of reductionism in Edelman’s writing. I think of reductionism as the refusal to take someone’s reasoning at face value, and instead to look for deeper motives. I agree with what I think Friedman is saying, which is that unless you have good empirical evidence going for you, reductionism is not a valid analytical tool.
Nowadays, reductionism is often simply used as a rhetorical device. “He is talking his book.” “He is writing what he is paid to write.” “the G.O.P. commissioners are just doing their job, which is to sustain the conservative narrative.”
Marx and Freud are the two most influential reductionists of all time, and my sense is that a paradigm that derived vaguely from Marx and Freud was widespread among intellectuals in the 1950’s.
All that said, when I read this
Ethanol supporters managed to slip a one-year extension of the ethanol subsidies into the bill senators approved Wednesday to extend the Bush-era tax cuts.
I give Murray Edelman his due. This subsidy is the sort of thing that organized interest groups really care about, while the rest of us watch the drama over estate taxes and taxes on high earners. In fact, my guess would be, based on Edelman, that some significant goodies in the bill are even further under the radar than the ethanol subsidies.Friedman’s email:
I have a mixed reaction to Edelman too–but mostly negative. When I was still a history grad student I was at some boring party and pulled one of his books off the shelf, retired to another room, and was fascinated. This played a small role in my eventual decision to switch into political science. I must have happened into some of the passages on the simplistic nature of people’s political notions.
However, Edelman routinely conflates cognitive factors like that with emotional ones–much like Bryan Caplan does–which I consider facile. I think your post sets the scene very well: there was no attempt to understand Nazism as a belief system that produced ideologues who had actual ideas, not just emotions–every bit as much as liberals, conservatives, moderates, libertarians, Christians, Jews, Muslims, etc. Instead, Nazism was explained away as “irrational,” i.e., emotional. No real understanding can follow from this; there’s a huge difference between explaining and explaining away. To apply this psychologistic framework to U.S. politics seems to me equally nonexplanatory–indeed, ideological. Like the Frankfurters (and Caplan), Edelman simply couldn’t understand why everyone didn’t agree with him–his own (Marxist) views were so self-evidently true!–that he reduced the views of those with whom he disagrees to dark drives.
I have always rejected Marxist methodology; Edelman combines the same materialistic reductionism to which I object with a psychologistic reductionism to which I also object. I’m not saying that people never act for (a) emotional or (b) self-interested reasons, but I’m saying that people also have (c) “cultural” or ideational reasons (based on their processing of the information stream to which they have been exposed) for thinking that they are doing what is appropriate. Whether a given person or movement or society is primarily motivated by (a), (b), or (c) is an empirical question, and Edelman’s work is just as devoid of evidence that it’s (a) + (b) as Marxist work is devoid of evidence that it’s (b) alone (and Caplan’s work is devoid of evidence that it’s (a) alone).
You can see that I think there’s a family resemblance between all forms of reductionism, so I have such huge problems with public choice theory. I believe that our default option should be to take people at their word and try to figure out why they might sincerely believe things that we would uncharitably find “insane.” Otherwise we have no ability to test our own beliefs by comparing the arguments for them to the actual arguments that stand behind other beliefs, once these are treated respectfully rather than explained away.