In the absence of data, politicians pluck factoids from the ether, as Barack Obama did in this year's State of the Union address: “Every dollar we invest in high-quality early childhood education can save more than seven dollars later on, by boosting graduation rates, reducing teen pregnancy, even reducing violent crime.” Such facially implausible and utterly unsubstantiated claims flourish when there is indifference to information.
The Welfare Reform Act of 1996, which was applied conservatism, happened because empirical data convinced enough Democrats of the costs of welfare dependency. Charles Murray, the most consequential and conservative contemporary social scientist (“Losing Ground,” “Coming Apart”), depends on ACS and other census surveys. Sociologist Peter Rossi, a liberal Democrat and an accomplished analyst of social programs, formulated two “metallic rules” of policy evaluation. The Iron Law is: “The expected value of any net impact assessment of any large scale social program is zero.” The Stainless Steel Law is: “The better designed the impact assessment of a social program, the more likely is the resulting estimate of net impact to be zero.”
Clearly, conservatives should favor the nation applying to itself the injunction “Know thyself.” Besides, if conservatives do not think information about society — the more the merrier — strengthens their case, why are they conservatives?
George Will's email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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