When political partisans of different persuasions argue, there often comes a turning point where the conversation deteriorates completely. Maybe one side accuses the other of being disingenuous, while the other side claims the first is ignorant or bigoted. Voices are raised. The opponents proceed to talk past each other or at each other, and not to each other.
The political climate of the United States, replete with blatantly partisan news stations, entrenched politicians, and rancorous academics, apparently passed that point some time ago. This blog will attempt to conduct a conversation on politics and policy without the vitriol. We will strive to inform the policy debate by engaging arguments from both sides and attempting to verify claims by looking at history and evidence. In particular, the following guidelines will drive the discussion on this site:
- There are neither heroes nor villains in politics. A common way for partisans to claim superiority is to accuse the other side of being evil or stupid. On this site, we will assume first that the actions of anyone involved in politics, including politicians, bureaucrats, the news media, etc., are driven by their personal preferences, and influenced by the institutions and norms that they face. For example, politicians are influenced by what they genuinely believe, but also by their constituents, potential donors, lobbyists, the rules of Congress, their party, and the political and economic climate. We will consider these possibilities before making assumptions about a politician’s character.
- Every policy has costs and benefits, winners and losers. Most policies worth arguing about will result in at least a few people being affected negatively. It will likely cost some people a certain amount of money or other perks, but result in certain benefits for those people or others. In order to argue for or against a policy, one can easily focus on only the benefits or costs of that policy. To get a better understanding of a policy’s merits, it’s better to attempt to identify all the significant costs and benefits, and the people or organizations on which they are most likely to fall.
- Every policy comes with risks, uncertainty, and unintended consequences. If anybody tells you that they know exactly how health care reform will pan out, they are lying. It certainly may achieve its original goals and be introduced smoothly, but that is simply impossible to know. To varying degrees, this is true of every piece of legislation. We just can’t say with certainty what a policy’s effects will be (and it doesn’t help that sometimes we can’t tell what those effects were after the fact). If we downplay a policy’s potential risks, even in the interests of promoting that policy, we are doing ourselves a disservice.
- A lot of “political” “news” is irrelevant. Maybe people like to hear about the antics of political aides at strip clubs, or what candidates did in college, or whether a bureaucrat paid his taxes or signed a petition 10 years ago, but let’s be honest: The overwhelming majority of that stuff doesn’t matter. Partisans like to paint their opponents with a broad brush, hoping that they will be identified with their most dysfunctional elements. Unless a certain scandal or accusation appears that it will have some political consequence, we will not address it here. If we discredit a policy position, it will be based on the merits, not because the policy position’s proponents have some crazy friends.
- Keep it civil. We will not question the motives or the intelligence of people who criticize posts on this site. When others respond to our posts or we respond to theirs, we hope to keep the debate constructive.
I think that people will find these guidelines noncontroversial, but their application is necessarily subjective. No matter what we do, I’m sure at least some people will think that we fail to live up to these standards. We will inevitably mischaracterize costs and benefits, fail to acknowledge a risk, or treat a politician unfairly in at least some people’s eyes. We welcome any constructive criticism if readers think we have strayed from these guidelines.
Some may view this blog as an attempt to eliminate bias or partisanship, but I think that would be too strong of a claim. Partisanship and bias are only natural, and I’m sure that my own personal biases will come through in which topics I choose to discuss and how I present them. Rather, think of this blog as an attempt to suppress some of the less constructive, knee-jerk consequences of bias and partisanship.
I don’t condemn those who are angry or excited about politics. In fact, I can get pretty worked up about politics, myself. I suspect that pretty much every piece of legislation in American history, good and bad, has reached enactment because of its proponents’ enthusiasm and/or anger. Policies do have consequences, and people have every right to get worked up about them. However, when we entrench ourselves in perennial shouting matches, when we refuse to hear each other out and we accuse each other of vile things, we may not make the best policy choices.
As seductive as the concept may be to some, this is not a battle between good and evil for the soul of a nation. This is just good, old-fashioned, American representative democracy. So let’s calm down, and start to work this stuff out.