Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Bayesian Reasoning and Whig Political Philosophy

It is customary in the United States to imagine two ideological camps, the Republican / Conservative camp on one side, and the Democrat / liberal camp on the other. These camps are represented by two party organizations. However, there are a great many right-leaning Americans who are disappointed by the leaders of the Republican Party, and a great many left-leaning Americans who are disappointed by the leaders of the Democratic Party. One can only hope that one day, the disappointed multitudes will realize that they've been living on nostalgia for the days of Roosevelt and Eisenhower, and that the two party organizations that share control of this country are merely two brands of the same toxic product. Til that realization, expect more repetition of the "tastes great" vs "less filling" argument or the "chocolate in my peanut butter" vs "peanut butter in my chocolate" argument, along the lines of "more government" vs "less government" and "we are taxed too much" vs "tax us more please."

I won't expand on this point today, beyond expressing gratitude that I am no longer suffering under the delusion that one brand is any less likely to bring this country to ruin than the other. Instead, I am writing to express my gratitude for discovering Whig political philosophy, and will attempt to explain concisely what sets Whig political philosophy apart.

The political left and the political right each adheres to certain absolutes. One ideology, for example, is always distrustful of government and the other is always hopeful that government will redress certain social ills. In place of this absolutism, the proper Whig remains an empiricist. That is, the Whig uses the evidence of his or her eyes and ears and decides, "is the current government doing everything in its power to serve the public interest?" and "does the government provide an unyielding bulwark against any encroachment on our Constitutional Rights?" If the answer to these two questions is "yea," the Whig will then say, "More government and greater taxation, if need be!" If the answer to these two questions is "nay," the Whig will then say, "The less of the current government the better!" and "I only pay taxes under duress."

Now, I am making these characterizations about Whig political philosophy advisedly. It began when a question occurred to me whilst I sat in my garret with my customary snuff box and glass of claret near at hand. The question was this: "Richard Price, that estimable friend to Ben Franklin and his club of Honest Whigs, was a personal friend of Thomas Bayes and even helped finish the Reverend Bayes' last work. I wonder then if there is some connection between Whig political philosophy and Bayesian reasoning?"

Now, if you do not know what Bayesian reasoning is, or know only enough of it to keep your distance from it, I will say only this: in the simplest terms, Bayesian reasoning is a logical extension of John Locke's Principle of Proportionality, which states, "Adopt a level of confidence in the proposition which is proportioned to its probability on one's satisfactory evidence." Or, in other words, "make use of whatever reliable facts are at your disposal when deciding whether or not a thing is true."

Bearing this principle in mind, John Locke's idea of the Social Contract may be viewed from a unique angle. The Social Contract may be read thus, "If government fulfills its obligations to the people, the people ought to fulfill their obligations to the government." And when the Founders discussed the weighty question of whether to bear continued oppression at the hands of the British Empire or to boldly declare independence, the question was decided thus: the King of Britain and his ministers were not upholding the proper obligations of government. The King had been disloyal to the people, and hence, the colonists could not be disloyal for seeking separation.

The Whigs believed that all governments exhibit a life-cycle. When new, governments provide their people with greater liberty than they had known before. In time, self-interested factions arise, vying for their separate advantage, and weaken the government. And once the government has been sufficiently weakened, it creates an opening for powerful individuals to exploit the situation for personal gain.

Surveying the current government, one may ask, "Whom does the government serve?" There are three potential answers. The government may serve the public. Or, the government may serve private interests. Or, the government may serve a small clique of powerful individuals. If the government serves the public, then we ought to do all we can to preserve it against corruption. If the government serves private interests, then we ought to do all we can to move it in a better direction. If the government serves only the powerful few, then we must change it fundamentally.

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