The Freedom Center and Spring 2023 FC Talks series presents Kaveh Pourvand (University of Arizona).

Kaveh Pourvand is a Postdoctoral Fellow in the Freedom Center. He is a political theorist and received his PhD from the London School of Economics.

Abstract: James Buchanan and Geoffrey Brennan famously argued for behavioural symmetry in institutional evaluation. There should be a presumption that individuals are similarly motivated across different institutional domains – unless empirical evidence reveals otherwise. We should not, for instance, stipulate that individuals are selfish in the marketplace but motivated by the common good in the voting booth or when running for political office without firm corroboratory evidence.     

In this article, I propose that we adopt a complementary principle of epistemic symmetry. We should adopt a defeasible assumption that individuals have the same epistemic capacities across different institutional domains. Within political philosophy, it is often claimed that important social goals must be left to the state because private individuals would not know how to coordinate their actions to achieve the desired result, unlike the state which can determine the actions of all citizens simultaneously.  

I argue that this claim fails to meet epistemic symmetry. It falsely assumes that the state is a unitary actor, overlooking how “state” action also requires coordination of actors both inside and outside the state. Empirical investigation may still reveal state actors to be more effective than private actors at overcoming coordination problems, but this result cannot be stipulated from the armchair.