On Klein’s Three Argument Methods on Policy

Posted: 22 May 2010 by Little Alex in Philosophy, Political Science
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Ezra Klein’s comment on types of policy arguments rubbed me the wrong way.

Mr. Klein’s post was inspired by Rand Paul, the Republican nominee for a Kentucky seat in the U.S. Senate’s remarks on the 1964 Civil Rights Act. I don’t really have an significant interest in the celebrity gossip, but you’re dying to know, I feel Rand Paul is an insignificant rube and you can read my response to Allison Kilkenny’s comment at True Slant.

At his Washington Post blog, Ezra Klein notes “three types of arguments over policy”:

  1. The near-sighted pragmatic argument: whether or not “a policy will work”, outlining whether or not it “is likely to achieve its goals” as the factions “try to marshal empirical evidence in service of our points”;
  2. The universal argument: whether or not “a policy is philosophically acceptable”; or
  3. The political argument: whether or not “a policy will help someone’s chosen party in the next election”.

Pretty simple, to the point, yet often—as Mr. Klein points out—arguments are always in one of these molds disguising itself as one of the others. “Almost all debates pretend that they’re simple policy arguments. But a fair majority of them are philosophical or political arguments posing as policy arguments,” he writes, later adding: “The only problem is that this leads to a lot of confusing arguments where people are trying to convince one another with evidence that doesn’t have very much to do with the root disagreements.”

On the surface, there’s little against which one can rationally argue from simple observation. What Mr. Klein brushes over is that when he argues that in type #1, “In theory, whoever’s evidence is stronger wins,” and fails to scrutinize this type of argument, he falls into his own cognitive dissonance or is uninterested with whether or not “a policy will work”, but whether or not it pacifies or provides a band-aid.

It’s very dangerous that the pragmatic method—as it actually exists in the zeitgeist—is immune from scrutiny, though it is excessively deceptive in its narrowness. Policy, pragmatically speaking, is the written plan for government to act in a certain manner. When solely preventative on the surface, pragmatically, it is always an effort to negate in some area and vice versa; we may call these ‘unintended consequences’.

The problem with the term ‘unintended consequences’ is that it leaves the actually-existing pragmatic approach to political discourse with two self-detonating elements that should fully negate any perceived validity:

  1. If the negative consequences are unintended, but easily foreseeable (as they usually are), whether or not “a policy will work” is no longer a question as an honest, pragmatic approach would provide the “evidence” it would not; or
  2. Said negative consequences are completely intended, in practice, but marginalized within the discourse to not lose political capital for the policy.

In other words, the first and third types of arguments are both very political—whether or not electoral politics is a direct driving force—in their blinding, fallacious cynicism.

More importantly, there are no legal arguments that are not philosophical at their roots. Marginalizing these roots—doesn’t just spontaneously result in moral hazard, but—actively fosters the hazardous conduct. The significance of morality in the law is that there can never truly be justice without ethics.

Pragmatism can never meet goals of any common good—if such a concept can be actualized—without applying ethics universally. Or at least the active intent to do so, especially within contingencies—where they’re most often ignored.

In practice, Mr. Klein is right in identifying three actual methods people use to argue policy, but doesn’t identify that in practice, the three methods are:

  1. Utilitarian;
  2. Deontological; and
  3. Cynical

Pragmatically, all three are flawed by themselves. Only the third can achieve stated goals and avoid unintended consequences on it own. Mr. Klein discusses the third really well and isn’t worth discussing here. But, utility ignorant of basic principles perpetuates the worst of cynicism in which, I believe, Mr. Klein shares my disinterest. Hopefully, he’ll come to understand this, soon, or else he’ll perpetuate the culture of breaking windows.

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