Monday, June 6, 2016

The Overton Window and Epistemlogical Bias

Contemporary Western culture presumes to sit at the pinnacle of progress. It was not always so. The Greeks, those scions of reason and logic (who borrowed much from Egypt), believed that they lived in a period following a Golden Age of men and gods. A belief in progress as a linear march of history, with each successive generation building on the accomplishments of the last, is a relatively recent one.

It is easy to correlate this idea of progress with the material benefit of scientific empiricism since the early 19th century: the explosion of scientific discoveries of the last two centuries has been a blessing in helping elevate the standard living of Earthlings. I believe, though, that this easy correlation belies the growth in something equally (probably more) important and, conversely, nonmeasurable: the growth in the idea of liberty and the enormous impact of increasing the accuracy of prices which rises in proportion to free exchange.

Science benefited from the growing acceptance of liberty as an ultimate end as more and more scientists found opportunity in the greater availability of capital and the social and political freedom to pursue previously unacceptable ideas about how the world might work. Before Locke and Hobbes, Rousseau and Hume, Kant and Adam Smith, the Overton Window of acceptable discourse was framed primarily by religious considerations. The church did not object to an error in Galileo's thinking so much as object to his presumption of offering a more accurate view of the world than could the church. The church was the authority and the authority could not be wrong, which is to say: the church made a power play more than a good argument; a play that we still see being evoked today. Galileo had an empirical view; the church had a theoretical one. In this instance, the empirical view flowed from the Renaissance of Greek logic into the Enlightenment. Empiricism would come to frame the Overton Window for centuries.

Theoretical knowledge and the possibility of gaining understanding without experience (through apriori synthetic deduction) is an old idea. We see in early oral histories a transmission of a kind science in which past experience becomes a story with a moral or a lesson. These lessons helped human civilizations persist through calamity by nipping in the bud the consequences of repeatedly making errors in judgment. The theoretical code of the various churches presented various systems by which people could live in peace and prosperity. As an invention, religion codified the nonmeasurable truths of human interaction (or tried to). If you believe that stories have no real meaning in human history (you're wrong), then math is a good and old example of apriori theoretical knowledge.

That the epistemological bias of the church suppressed the work of Galileo is unequivocal. That the epistemological bias of contemporary politics suppresses the works of Mises, Hayek, Rothbard and Hoppe is contentious.

In discussing the political institutions today, the Overton Window encompasses how to use government, not whether we should use it. Few things remain free from the influence of the state today and it is rare that a situation that arises for which we find the consensus answer: wait before we act, it is likely that there are unseen forces acting as we speak to solve this problem before we make it worse. This is the pejorative, Partisan Gridlock, which impedes the bureaucrat from perfecting his fellow man.

Practical political discourse today evokes restlessness - a sense of needing to do something; in the future, perhaps we will swing back towards humility in the unseen hands of nature. As the discussion stands, communication is made all the more contentious by the unwillingness to acknowledge the current epistemological bias towards empiricism. Thus, the Overton Window will only accept ideas framed by this bias even when the outcome will likely aggravate rather than alleviate the problem.


  1. Alaska,

    You seem to be pointing out what might be called the Hegemony of Empiricism and Scientism. I admit (begrudgingly) to being something of a Marxist on the question of ideology and ideological superstructures, and am curious as to what you think is the driving cause behind this state of affairs.

    My first instinct is to point out the corruption of the natural hierarchy. Because we lack an aristocracy that has a sense of itself, the clerical class has become self serving or beholden to the owners who themselves are even worse. It is obvious that much of the effort put into expounding the virtues of fractional reserve banking is nothing more than a concerted effort to bamboozle the masses and the same is true of democracy itself. As H.L Mencken said, "democracy is the theory that the common people know what they want and deserve to get it good and hard."

    While I agree with most of what you write I would like to focus on the "growth in the idea of liberty" and "acceptance of liberty as an ultimate end." I have thought about this for awhile and though I haven't come to any final conclusion, I suspect that the idea of liberty is dangerous and easily perverted.

    We can doubt agree that the actual conditions of liberty are a good thing in that it leads to capital development and expanding production methods based on prices. This is beyond dispute. However, the concept of liberty and the idea of liberty as an end in of itself proves to be problematic. Liberty does not have to mean what we would like it to mean. It could mean anything. To ask your average person to wrap their head around this stuff is asking too much. I am of the view that society would benefit from being based more on a conception of duty than on a conception of liberty since the former is simple and easy to enforce where as the later can exist without people being conscious of it.

    Part of the beauty of the market system is that people do not have to know what they are really doing to participate in it. They can deal with the trees and pay no mind to the forest.

    In this way I have never been found of the word "libertarian." Though at the end of the day I am one. I believe that an actual libertarian society would have no use for the word itself and that it may even become an obstacle. I prefer the word used by Curt Doolittle: propertarian. I believe it is better to start from what we actually want (private property) than to start from liberty and explain how private property is the best way to achieve it.

    The only way to arrive at the sort of society libertarians would like to see is for the current ruling class to be destroyed. In its place new elite will need to take responsibility for their communities and essentially impose the conditions we want on the masses. Essentially authoritarianism. To tell the masses that they are free (even if they actually are) is a mistake because it will lead to them believing they have a say in the social order.

    In short: the overton window is determined by what the elite can get the masses to believe. In a libertarian society we would want the overton window to be extremely narrow and I think that is best achieved by keeping the conception of society narrow- illiberal.

    I am just throwing out some thoughts and ideas, if I was unclear or in need of correction let me know, I am happy to go back and forth with you. These topics are very interesting to me. I think a two-tiered system is necessary at least in the short term. We don't want common people to be thinking too much about things outside their personal sphere of influence, that should be left to the elite. What are your thoughts on that?

  2. I googled Hegemony of Empiricism and Scientism and found a fascinating website run by some Anarcho-Philosphers. I haven't fully explored it, but the first discussion about Kant and the various forms of Enlightenment rang true:

    The second link I found was this:

    A good intro to the history behind scientism and goes a fair bit of the way of what I was trying to get at in this little essay. It actually echoes another essay I wrote recently about an intellectual bounce back towards religions, metaphysics and The Big Mystery.

    I have noticed with a few rare exceptions, that the Overton Window is often discussed out of context with the assumptions made by its frame. I expect to elaborate more on this in the future.

    When you say Marxist, do you mean in the sense of a march of the material forces? Do you think that individuals writing and thinking outside the frame of the Overton Window will effect change or does that come about by the movement of a "larger ideological superstructure"?

    As to natural hierarchy, Winwood Reade was the first to point out (that I know of) the clerical class usurping the reins of power from the pharaohs. At the website the Daily Bell, they often reference an ancient playbook of control, and it appears that the resilience of human nature has made it historically malleable. Battles for good and evil really take on historical perspective in this regard.

    As to the "growth in the idea of liberty", I agree with you: most people do not consider these abstract concepts. However, the forces of history (or whatever trended history upward the last 10,000 years) has introduced people to the benefits of liberty. They took the inch and looked for the next mile. People have been migrating towards more not less freedom whether they know it or not and it has driven the price of tyranny up. It is possible that writers and proponents of liberty do little to convince people to consciously change their behavior; but, they might act more as a counter-balance to the corrupt clerical class that read the tea leaves of their day (be it actual tea leaves or Keynesianism).

    I feel like you are right about liberty as an ultimate end. It makes sense if you don't have liberty to strive toward it; but, once you have liberty, the freedom becomes a means towards other ultimate values. I have to think more about it. One problem with losing liberty as an ultimate value is leaving the door open to creeping tyranny which has happened in the US.

    Liberty and property go hand in hand. Ownership is generally considered to be who controls the means of production. Via human action (and experience) we know that our actions are products of our decisions: we own our actions. First ownership of physical property seems more obvious to me than how we would convert considerable public (and publicly subsidized) to private. Maybe an auction? Not everybody is going to like it. Let property be saved, hoarded, augmented, rented, whatever. But allow competition to allocate it however it is first determined. Like Bionic, I believe different cultures will determine legal definitions based on their differing values.

    In summary, I think the Overton Window is artificially narrow. I think competition of ideas is inhibited by a framework that doesn't account for extra-sensory experience. Not everyone will choose to look out the same parts of the window, but the frame (NAP and human action) ought to be big enough include a variety of cultural preferences.

    Thanks for the comments. Hopefully, we can keep a good conversation going.

  3. "One problem with losing liberty as an ultimate value is leaving the door open to creeping tyranny which has happened in the US."

    I would argue that it is actually a conception of liberty that is behind the creeping tyranny. What James Kalb calls "The Tyranny of Liberalism." By the standards of the today, a decentralized libertarian society would be considered oppressive and exclusionary because not all people would be welcomed in all places. The main push by the Cultural Marxist left is to ensure that every subgroup is accepted in all places, public and private.

    I called it Hegemony of Empiricism because I was appropriating Marxist terminology. I really do agree with Marxist views on the role of ideology in society. Namely that it is the driven by interests. I of course disagree with the Marxists as to what interests predominate, but I would say that every significant ideology is tied to concrete political, economic, or ethnic interests. Hegemony is of course the soft rule of dominant ideas. The Overton Window is an expression of Hegemony and it is determined by the interests of who actually rules society. Therefore the Overton Window is simply the ideas permitted by the ruling class.

    If the Ruling Class is working against the interests of its subjects, its task is to get the public to sign on to their own exploitation. The most effective way to do this is to frame all ideas that are actually in the peoples interest as being outside of respectable opinion.

    "Like Bionic, I believe different cultures will determine legal definitions based on their differing values."

    I too am of this opinion.

    "I think the Overton Window is artificially narrow."

    Though it is difficult to measure the width of an abstraction, The Overton Window will always conform to the ideas of the ruling class. This is true of any society and it is absolutely necessary to deny legitimacy to ideas that run contrary to the essence of your society. A society based on the NAP is no exception.

    1. UC,

      I have replied to some of your ideas here in a new post:

      As to James Kalb, I read his piece and it appears to correctly point out the essential relativism of progressives, resulting basically as a kind of moral apathy and a failure to comprehend human history from methodological individualist viewpoint. Under the progressive point of view, discrimination is abhorrent even though it serves as a valuable economic input in price formation, without which a complex economy can not exist for very long.