Making Sense of Political Debate

Posted on November 26, 2008

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Humans love to name things. From an early age, we leave our mark on the world, attempt to control it, and even demonstrate our allegiance to others by naming and agreeing to be named. Unfortunately, names aren’t the powerful tools we sometimes imagine them to be. To name a thing does not give us control over it; to know a name does not even give us much understanding of the thing named. After all, there is nothing in a name which prevents it from being associated with a variety of things, ideas, habits, and ideals. As a result, paying undue attention to a name, and not to that which it names, can often lead to confusion, misunderstanding, and deception.

This fact is especially true in political debate. Very often, the name employed by a person to identify his or her political affiliations is not very helpful in determining his or her social and political aspirations because the policies and ideals associated with a particular political name, such as “Conservative” or “Liberal”, evolve and change over time and across generations. Today, Conservatives call for radical reform, while Liberals champion stability and the status quo. Republicans accumulate massive public debt and intrude into the personal lives of citizens, while Democrats slash public expenditures and insist on personal freedom. Some Libertarians call for state-sponsored guaranteed incomes, while others insist taxation in every instance is a crime. As a result, too often policy debate collapses into pointless arguments about whether or not a policy is truly representative of the Left or the Right, Liberals or Conservatives, Libertarians or Social Democrats.  

Fortunately, there is a way to cut through the sound and the fury of politics and to make sense of political debate. To do so, three basic facts must be kept in mind.

  1. Assuming certain background conditions, a person can become sufficiently competent such that he or she has a better than even chance of identifying the best course of action in different circumstances.
  2. The best evidence available on how best to proceed in different circumstances is whatever a majority of sufficiently competent persons independently judge to be best. The more independent judgments involved the better. 
  3. The predicative powers of persons are limited, we can not know in advance of inquiry and experience the best solution to all problems, and what counts as a best solution may change over time.

History, science, and day to day experience is the evidence for the first and third fact. The mathematics of probability is the evidence for the second.

The first, and perhaps oldest, debate one can encounter in politics is between those who accept these facts and those who do not. Generally-speaking, those who deny these facts argue that most persons are incapable of becoming sufficiently competent to identify the best course of action in many if not all circumstances. Accordingly, they also tend to identify a person or group of person’s who can identify the best course of action or who, independently of an ability to identify the best course of action and for some other reason, is entitled to order affairs however he or she or it sees fit. Persons who argue in this fashion, it should be noted, need not necessarily be evil and are very often well-intentioned and only want to do good for others even if those others are unable to see it as good. Truly, all of us, at some time or another, are prone to deny these facts—for instance, when we ignore the counsel of our closest friends and persist in a relationship that we later admit was unhealthy. Too often, when the evidence does not support our assessment of the world and what it should provide for us and others, it is all too easy to ignore, discard, or trivialize the basic facts in order to justify a course of action we prefer. Sometimes, it can be a mark of genius and conviction; sometimes, it can be a mark of self-indulgent madness. Either way, on my view, the existing evidence in favor of these facts is unequivocal and overwhelming and any person who persistently denies them is wrong whatever his or her motivation may be.

Accordingly, for me, the only real question of interest is how the debate persists at all. The best explanation, I think, is that it is very easy to confuse matters. Yes, it is true we do not yet live in a society where every person is sufficiently competent to judge well in every circumstance, but it does not follow from this fact that there is some person or group who can and should always decide every matter exclusively. Yes, under some circumstances of high urgency, it makes good sense for one or a very few persons to take a commanding leadership role, however, in these instances, the best leaders will act in accordance with rules, guidelines, strategies and/or principles identified by the independent judgments of a majority of sufficiently competent persons. Furthermore, for the vast majority of people, including corporate executives, law-makers, and even commanders-in-chief, the kind of high urgency and danger which rightly motivates strong and independent leadership rarely if ever exists and, when it does, it does not exist for very long. In other words, a platoon commander should, of course, exercise strong leadership when storming a bunker, but he should not act on untested personal whims when doing so; furthermore, it is very rare that any of us are ever in situations of urgency comparable to combat. So, calling attention to the incompetence of some persons and the need for strong leadership in some limited instances does not in anyway call into doubt the facts I’ve identified and doing so really only amounts to a distraction.  

Turning now to those who accept the identified facts as facts, there are three other perennial debates one is likely to encounter. First, there is a debate about the background conditions under which persons are most likely to become sufficiently competent. Second, there is a debate about who should secure these background conditions and for whom. Third, there is a debate about how best to employ the independent judgments of persons to determine society’s organization.

With respect to the first question, on my view, the answer is empirical and uncomplicated. There is some set of conditions, both material and socio-cultural, that must exist if a child is to have a reasonable chance of developing into and remaining a competent person over his or her lifetime. History, experience, and empirical research indicates time and again that a person requires personal security, material and emotional well-being, some education, and good health. Of course, within different cultures and societies, there will be some variation in terms of what this means specifically, but there will always be some basic standard which all persons minimally require. It is, after all, wholly implausible that any person will have a reasonable opportunity of becoming and remaining sufficiently competent and remaining competent, if he or she lives in constant fear of her life and abuse, lives in poverty and poor health, and never receives any kind of education. 

With respect to the second question, I think, the answer is equally straightforward.  In living, we are all affected by the decisions and judgments of other persons. So, each and every person’s life will be improved if she or he is affected by the decisions of more rather than fewer sufficiently competent persons and most persons’ lives will be made worse if he or she is affected by the decisions of incompetent persons. If we assume most persons want to live a better rather than worse life, it makes good sense for all persons to secure for as many persons as possible the necessary conditions for competent independent judgment. Of course, this does not mean we should all secure for all persons as many resources and services as is possible. We (or some of us) can, if we choose, maximize resources for some persons, but there will be a point where no person’s interests are being genuinely served by supplying more and more services and resources to one, some, or all persons. 

With respect to the third question, on my view, the debate essentially turns on the fact of temporality (that is, time). All things being equal, it is right, I think, to assume that the uncoerced exchange of resources and services will, in the long-run, create the best outcomes for all persons. The problem with this assumption is the caveat, “in the long run.” In the short run, a person or persons will be forced to bear all kinds of costs he or she would rather not bear because of the choices of others. Moreover, thanks to the condition of temporality, these same people may never experience the positive outcomes which will arise in “the long run”. Even more worrying, it is very possible for a specific group of persons to suffer in this fashion across generations for no other reason than being born at the wrong time and place. Add to this fact the uncertainty of what will happen in the future and how future events will affect the long term balance of things, it seems less and less plausible to insist that certain forms of hardship persist over time in the vague hope that everyone will be better off in “the long-run.” In light of this fact and in light of the fact that there are good reasons for some resources and services to be managed competently by some persons on behalf of others, I don’t object to a responsible government interfering with some of the choices of some persons in the short run—particularly when this will diminish or eliminate an obvious instance of hardship or suffering. Of course, this statement should not be interpreted as indicating that any organization—government or otherwise—can do as it pleases or that we should accept the status quo with respect to society’s organization and its institutions. All organizations have good reason to aim for outcomes identified by a majority of independent judgments, there are a number of more or less effective ways of doing this, and most of our social practices and institutions do not, as of yet, incorporate best practice. All of society’s organizations and institutions are works in progress and they will always be open to further refinement and development. 

These four debates, I think, provide a useful framework with which to make sense of political debate. Almost all the stakeholders, pundits, and talking-heads are essentially staking out positions with respect to the last three debates, while more than a fair share of them are explicitly or implicitly trying to keep alive and well the first argument about the three basic facts. So, when assessing political debate, rather than paying undue attention to the name with which a person affiliates him or herself, I suggest a person determine first whether or not those involved take the basic facts seriously and then assess all proposals in light of the three other debates. If one of the person’s involved in the debate does not take the three basic facts seriously, I also suggest you be very conscientious when considering his or her proposals because, whatever the rhetoric employed, it can be expected that this person will not be working to promote, preserve, and/or employ the independent judgments of sufficiently competent persons to shape society’s organization—including your own—and promoting, preserving, and employing independent human judgment is not only the surest means to the best answers to the three other debates, it is also the surest means to the best society possible for everyone.

For more of my political commentary, click here.