Tag Archives: Richard Epstein

The Problem With Ideologues

It isn’t that ideologues are stupid. Most are really very bright–if we define “bright” to mean that they have high IQs. They just can’t deal with ambiguity, and we live in an ambiguous world.

Politicians aren’t all ideologues: although many members of Congress–both Democratic and Republican (albeit more Republicans these days)–doggedly adhere to relatively simple “black versus white, wrong versus right” world-views, many others do not. The current administration is far, far from ideological. (True, Trumpers play to their fanatic base of True Believers, but from cynicism, not agreement.) Con artists are the antithesis of ideologues, and as I’ve previously noted, we have an administration composed of none-too-bright Keystone Kops and people who would be right at home in the Mafia.

We should also distinguish between “True Believers” and ideologues. True Believers tend to be people who uncritically adopt world-views generated by others. They find those “ready made” explanations (white nationalism comes to mind) appealing because they provide answers/excuses: why is it that my life isn’t going the way I wanted/expected? Whose fault is it? Who can I blame?

Ideologues, on the other hand, tend to be high IQ people who have worked out a coherent, orderly explanatory model that they proceed to apply to a world that is anything but coherent and orderly.

And that brings me to Richard Epstein.

I met Epstein briefly some twenty-five years ago, when he was teaching at the University of Chicago Law School. (You don’t teach at U.C. unless you are really, really smart–of course, “smart” and “wise” aren’t the same thing–not even close.) He made a speech which I have since forgotten, and had just written a book which I read and which is still buried somewhere in my library.

I would describe Epstein as a radical libertarian, and what I remember most about that just-written book was one chapter’s insistence that we don’t need a government agency to award or monitor air lanes–that once two planes had collided midair, and the airlines had been held liable for the immense damages (he does believe in legal liability, evidently–it’s been a long time since I read the book), the airlines would be motivated to get together and agree on the distribution of air lanes, because it would be in their financial interests to avoid such collisions in the future.

Cold comfort to those on one of the first planes…

At any rate, Epstein is now, apparently, affiliated with both NYU Law School and the Hoover Institution, and according to the New Yorker,  his approach to the way the world should work significantly influenced early White House pandemic policy.

According to the Washington Post, “Conservatives close to Trump and numerous administration officials have been circulating an article by Richard A. Epstein of the Hoover Institution, titled ‘Coronavirus Perspective,’ which plays down the extent of the spread and the threat.

Epstein, a professor at New York University School of Law, published the article on the Web site of the Hoover Institution, on March 16th. In it, he questioned the World Health Organization’s decision to declare the coronavirus outbreak a pandemic, said that “public officials have gone overboard,” and suggested that about five hundred people would die from COVID-19 in the U.S. Epstein later updated his estimate to five thousand, saying that the previous number had been an error. So far, there have been more than two thousand coronavirus-related fatalities in America; epidemiologists’ projections of the total deaths range widely, depending on the success of social distancing and the availability of medical resources, but they tend to be much higher than Epstein’s.

According to the article, Epstein is known for his “libertarian-minded reading of the Constitution.”  He continues to advocate for what he calls a “restrained” federal government, and last year published an article on Hoover’s web site arguing that “The professional skeptics are right: there is today no compelling evidence of an impending climate emergency.”

Well, when pesky evidence threatens your carefully-constructed worldview, the evidence must be wrong.(What are you going to believe? Your lying eyes, or your elegant theoretical model?)

The linked New Yorker article has a verbatim interview. If you want a glimpse of just how far afield a rigid ideology can take even a really smart person, click through.