Thursday, January 22, 2009

Two Types of Political Argument

As a follow-up to yesterday's post/rant, it occurred to me that there is a distinction worth making between certain ways of defining success in the political realm and the implications those definitions might have for evaluating our political leaders.

On the one hand, you might have what I will term an ideological view of success. Such a view takes certain political positions as moral commitments regarding how government should be structured. For example, you might think it a matter of basic justice that taxes should be as low as possible or (alternatively) that income disparities should be as minimal as possible. These are moral commitments in the sense that to violate them is to do something basically unjust regardless of what measures must be put in place to achieve them or what consequences happen to follow from them. Thus, if you think that it is a matter of basic justice that taxes should be as low as possible, it will not matter to you if a certain scheme of taxation yields great disparity in income.

On the other hand, you might embrace a more pragmatic view of success according to which a government is successful if it achieves certain goals however it happens to achieve them. We want people to be employed and as many children as possible to receive as good an education as possible. Let's figure out how best to achieve those ends.

Obviously, these views are not mutually exclusive: the ideologue has pragmatic concerns and the pragmatist has moral concerns. But I think they represent two broadly identifiable approaches to political questions and are bound to inform the judgments we render on our government and the space we accord our leaders to implement their policies.

Moreover, what often complicates our moral and political discourse is that one person's pragmatic commitment can violate another's moral commitment. Thus, here's Rush Limbaugh telling Sean Hannity that he hopes Obama fails if his policies are socialist even though he's perfectly happy to support Obama if he ends up being a Reganite, lowering taxes and the like.[1] In this snippet, Limbaugh is espousing what I take to be an ideological view of what a successful Obama administration looks like: it will lower taxes and make government smaller, full stop.

By contrast, Obama has shown a strong pragmatist streak as he did in his inaugural address when he said that the size of government is not nearly as important as whether or not government works. Commitments regarding the size of government are not among Obama's moral commitments. Rather, he wants a government that is able to accomplish goals that he takes a great many of us to embrace.

The salient question when trying to cut through all the rhetoric and politicizing is thus which commitments are appropriately moral commitments and which are merely beliefs about the best way to accomplish a particular end. There answers are not always straightforward and often depend on a host of empirical questions to which we might not have any answers. But perhaps adopting this framework is a good way to organize our reflection.

[1] I'm perfectly aware that in focusing on the the world of talk radio, I am ignoring my own advice to ignore it. No apologies, though, provided that it's philosophically interesting.


NonVoxPop said...

I’ve got to commend you on not ignoring the world of talk radio. Ideologues, be they talk show hosts on either side, those of deep religious conviction, those with simply strong party affiliation, etc., constitute (I would guess) a significant portion of the country. Like it or not, they’re part of what defines “us,” as much as we’re part of what defines “us” whether they like it or not.
The dilemma is that apathy informs luke-warm democracy (the sort of government that Plato guessed had the potential to be neither best nor worst?) whereas ideology informs a more invested, but perhaps evil, unjust and ugly government.
I am impressed that Obama doesn’t (and insists that his people don’t) impute motive, even to political adversaries. I think it underscores what you identify as his pragmatic approach. The notion is, in a nutshell, that even when we have different basics and backgrounds, our interests converge. In that convergence we work together, and from it we strive toward greater accomplishments.
The question is then this: those who wish us to fail regardless of that convergence—how do we not allow them to undermine our common interests and at the same time not impute motivation?
This topic, I think, is the very essence of the sort of political discussion engendered by spiritual principle.

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