Idealism vs. Empiricism: a comment on Madsen Pirie

Joe Leech (2014) studies History at Pembroke College, Cambridge. In this article he reflects on Dr Madsen Pirie’s recent visit to Pembroke Politics.

British politics in the new millennium has rarely been a fertile ground for philosophy of a more fundamental kind. The scramble for the centre that has characterised our political generation left little room for it. In a general election where all parties claimed to represent ‘hard-working families’ and few voters believed in the incompatibility of the arguments on offer, it was difficult to put much clear space between them. Perhaps then it was the resultant hecatomb of those who clung most obstinately to the centre, not to mention the earthworks in the Labour party that followed, which made Dr Pirie’s thesis on the philosophical differences of left and right in modern politics ring a little louder at Pembroke Politics.


The thrust of that argument posited a deep separation of method between the sides of the spectrum. Whilst the left’s visions are based upon utopian constructions of an ideal future, Dr Pirie suggested, the right seeks to draw on the experience of the past to produce the most efficient system possible. The ready acceptance of that argument requires a few axioms and caveats, which were indeed provided. We may take it as given, for example, that the end of mainstream discourse in liberal democracies is a utilitarian increase of personal wealth, comfort and freedom. Exceptions to the rule are rife, of course, and that was well acknowledged. The spectrum presented was, however, one between the kind of pragmatism that Pirie espouses, and the utopianism he has so often attacked.

Pirie has made a career out of economic prophecy for one side of that divide. As co-founder of the Adam Smith Institute and a prolific private adviser, he has an impressive track record of correct divination: the expectation of two consecutive Conservative victories in 1981 and his early backing of John Major come to mind. He puts that down, as might be guessed from the preceding argument, to firm empiricism. As a libertarian economist, Dr Pirie is often described as a member of the Austrian School but it is difficult to see any ideology as part of his philosophy. The strict drawing of conclusions from the best available data is not conducive to the formation of grand theory, and indeed Pirie’s aims are simple and well defined: to make everyone better off, by whatever means work best.

As methodological tools empiricism and utilitarianism can take us quite some way. In their pure forms they are also not techniques that politicians formed in ideological traditions are always wont to use, as ex-MP Julian Huppert discovered when he was widely mocked in the house for his repeated calls for ‘evidence-based policy’. Rare as it is to find a politician who does not extol the virtues of empiricism, it is rarer to find one who follows its tenets as closely as Pirie. Nevertheless, the idea that politicians of the right are more willing to take measures motivated by the evidence of the past has some weight. High ideals tend to take a back seat where such pragmatists are concerned, particularly if we limit ourselves to economic policy.

Yet it is perhaps too far to attach Pirie’s concerns to the right more generally. It would be difficult not to agree that Conservative fiscal policies are at least to some extent ideologically motivated, particularly at a time when the jury is still out on whether austerity is  the most effective approach to economic management. Moreover, whilst Pirie may be shorn of the social pugnacity and geopolitical isolationism of so much of the British right, an attempt to extend his philosophy to them is bound to run into problems of completeness. Much of the right may share Pirie’s economic thinking (at least in part because he wrote much of it), but they have other concerns that have little to do with libertarianism or utilitarianism. An acceptance of Pirie’s apparent implication that the right is less ideologically burdened and more empirically agile than its opponents is troublesome even within the economic realm, and becomes more so once raw economic wisdom is placed at the service of a wider package of received ideas and considered beliefs.

It is that social element which gives this author particular cause for reflection on Dr Pirie’s address. Utilitarian social and economic theory may well be the most streamlined and effective approach to political ethics yet found. There can be little doubt that the efficiently regulated free market economies adopted by the more successful post-war democracies have served their people better than any other population. To that extent, an empiricist taste for free markets, coupled with effective government mechanisms to regulate them, is most defensible.

Yet this is to exclude a central part of the discussion. Factors other than pure wealth are surely central to the happiness of individuals. Every community is established with a view to some good, as Aristotle noted; that good extends to comfort of the social and not just economic kind. Pirie is fundamentally unconcerned about social inequality, on the grounds that inequality is both a product and a driver of economic growth. So long as the poor get a little richer, the rich may get much richer providing they contribute to the rise of the poor, goes the argument. Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, a politician who incarnates more than most Pirie’s values, said a similar thing in 2013 when he noted that if more billionaires moved to Singapore “my Gini coefficient will get worse but I think Singaporeans will be better off.” Inequality, though, is socially corrosive. The poor, as one recent study which the Adam Smith Institute itself picked up on suggests, consistently under-invest in themselves and their families relative to their means[1]. One does not have to witness the communautarisme of the worst of the Paris banlieues to see that social unrest, ingrained low expectations and cycles of deprivation are results not of poverty in the absolute sense but of the determinate weight of inequality.

It is the Piketty thesis, maligned as it is by the right, which presents the greatest challenge to Pirie’s brand of libertarian economics. As the west struggles to accommodate the end of the extraordinary post-war growth era capital may settle in ever more remote strata; it is possible that the evidence of the past alone will be insufficient to overcome that trend. Dr Pirie would doubtless disagree that this will be the case, or even that it should be overcome. His record of prediction makes that important. Yet a social agenda must address more than possessions. Empiricism and idealism as opposed philosophical views may explain some political behaviours, but to attach them squarely to ends of the spectrum is to lose sight of the greater part of political discourse.


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