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Monday, March 22, 2004
Rationalists don't bow to the evidence because they're rationalists

Not to sound like Matthew Yglesias (politics aside, no bad thing), but sat in the bath yesterday reading the excellent posthumous collection of Peter Utley's columns A Tory Seer, the answer to a rather interesting philosophical conundrum occurred to me. How it is that people can, against so much evidence of history, continue to hold so fervently to rationalist schemes of social remodelling and believe they can work, I have often wondered. How is it that some can still fail to see that - as John Weidner put it - "God made the 20th Century to teach us that the notion that things work better when experts plan them is a fallacy"?

Obvious as it seems in retrospect, it's because they are rationalists that they reject empiricism. The evidence of history is not the basis of their judgement - it's what works in theory, what ought to make sense, what plans would be preferable assuming their flawless implementation. Asking someone to look to all the dozens of cases where such plans have created not harmony and utopia but poverty, tyranny and murder is begging the question, assuming that evidence and tradition trump reason, that empiricism trumps rationalism. Of course, it is precisely this that socialists, modern liberals, communists, anarchists, fascists, some libertarians and most ideologues deny. If rationalists could be swayed with evidence of what appears to work, they wouldn't be rationalists at all.

I'd therefore like to offer this definition: A conservative is someone who recognises that history is smarter than he is.

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