Maybe Political Ideas Do Matter

I have been intrigued by the idea that what we need now is deeper political thinking, that starts with understanding those principles of government which the Tea Party and other libertarians have tossed aside.  When I am absolutely astounded by the stupidity of current political rhetoric I dream of a movement that engages all of us in dialogue about fundamental political ideas:  A science cafe focused on philosophy and government that would lead us to the  promised land of engaged, deliberating citizens.

I wake from this dream and discard it because I doubt that enough of us are truly  motivated by political principles and interested in principles as a basis for political decisions.   There is considerable evidence that what we profess philosophically in politics is a poor guide to the specific policies we prefer.  Americans have been called philosophically conservative, but “operationally liberal“.  When asked about specific problems we expect government to be part of the solution. On the other hand, we,  large majorities of us,  profess to support limited government and minimal taxation.

In Philosophy Shapes Politics Zack Beauchamp discusses the possibility that the political ideas we hold may motivate our views of government policies and programs.  He borrows the concept of motivated reasoning to explain how.

To get us started he uses an example from the kitchen:

…. motivated reasoning theory claims that, instead of using reason to get to the truth of the matter, we use it to get to the conclusion we want to reach. For example, if I really want sour cream on my Chipotle burrito, I won’t reason towards the truth on the health impact of sour cream, because that would move me away from my desire to get tasty sour cream. Rather, I’ll convince myself it’s not so bad for me (I exercised today! It has protein!) so I can get what I want.

This type of thinking is sometimes called a rationalization.  We are only pretending to search for reasons that will determine a decision.  How would motivated reasoning work in politics?

If we believe in an enforceable right to health care as an extension of our antecedent moral beliefs …. we want the government to be able to ensure greater access to better health care. If we think people have a right to keep fairly earned money on libertarian grounds, we want the government to respect that person’s right to their money.

In other words, our philosophical commitments might be motivating our policy views.

People who believe in a moral right to health care want to accept the claim that the government can effectively provide people with health care, as that would allow the government to be able to bring about the state of affairs they want. People who oppose taxation on moral grounds are more likely to accept supply side arguments that taxation (sic, tax cuts –wh53) will raise government income so as to eliminate arguments against the outcome their political philosophy inclines them to prefer.

If this is all true, then commitments to principles matters, and how we “think about principles” matters.  Philosophic discussion is not useless!  I can dream again!

Beauchamp adds, of course, (some of you have already arrived at this conclusion) —

 Unless, of course, people come to philosophical views based on another, more basic desire (rich people are opposed to taxation because they want their money).

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4 Responses to Maybe Political Ideas Do Matter

  1. Fathead says:

    Philosophical commitments are no more than tarted up self-interest. If you have wealth, you want more. If your forbears had wealth, you learn this as a child. If your family does not have wealth, you not unexpectedly want help to rise economically. Facts have little to do with beliefs.

    The facts demonstrate that the usual mode of government action, irresponsible legislative direction followed by bureaucratic implementation, often does a mediocre job of accomplishing many of the things many of us want it to do. This is due to the effect of unfettered political “speech” (i.e., money) from the private sector on the legislative process, a lack of resources for governmental agency missions, and to some degree a lack of competence and accountability.

    On the other hand, the profit-driven private sector is equally prone to shoddy products, with the additional component of significantly more avarice and immoral behavior, and significantly less accountability for all but perhaps small businesses. Touting competition, it frequently and unethically strives for monopoly in order to maximize returns on investment. It resists with all of its available resources any governmental effort to make it pay the social costs of its profit-making activities. It is, for example, much more profitable to peddle sugar and fat, so called “value added” products made chiefly from the very inexpensive, government subsidized corn surplus, than to sell raw fish and carrots. The meteoric increase in diabetes and obesity in the American people, with a tremendous increase in health costs, is no concern of those so engaged.

    Do these facts bother the progressive or the libertarian? Not at all. More of what they believe will improve things.

    • The libertarian probably accepts diabetes as either the unavoidable consequences of the “freedom to choose” (we will make poor choices), or as the result of a rational choice for fatty, unhealthy foods because they taste good, over the benefits of healthier and longer lives. In this case the facts are taken into account in a way that maintains the core belief in markets and “liberty”.

      The liberal is in a tougher spot in your example. If government is only a mediocre means for achieving my interests, why don’t I seek out more effective means to achieving my interests, or at least give up on government? If a philosophical commitment to government programs for solutions to public problems is a dead end, then I should rethink my commitment for the sake of my self-interests!

      And if I continue to believe in government as a means for solving problems, despite all the evidence to the contrary, I have put my philosophy ahead of my self-interests.

      • Fathead says:

        I suppose you are correct for a small minority of people who constitute the liberal economic elite who are not totally invested in pimping in one way or another for the private sector. They are putting philosophy ahead of self-interest if they believe in government. A few people in the elites do have principles, even if they can afford not to have them. See Micah 6:8 for that teaching.

        But what option do the less fortunate, the poor and what used to be called the lower middle class, have (unless they inherited/learned a prejudice against government – talk about philosophy over self-interest)? Who will provide public education for them to better their lot? The private sector cherry picks a self-selected population for inclusion in its not-inexpensive private schools. Who will provide public transportation? Who will maintain the street in front of your home? Not enough demand to warrant repairing it, according to the private sector. Who will provide cheap, close-to-home, public recreational opportunities? Who will even try to protect the environment? In general there is no profit in those. Etc., etc.

        Hoi polloi may not believe government is working, but it is the only game in town for a great many of them. See Marie Antoinette’s witty remark about bread and cake.

  2. From the Empire State says:

    Thanks for a concise slice of political theory. Go for the sour creme on the chipolte.

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