Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Please don't go 'beyond ideology'

Commenting on the lead-up to the federal government's bipartisan, budget-busting effort to buy votes ... err ... I mean, goose the economy, Bob Greenstein, executive director of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, said, "The question is whether they can get beyond ideology and decide what has the best bang for the buck in terms of stimulating the economy."

Along the same lines, in 2006 presidential hopeful Barack Obama told Keith Olbermann that he wants to "get beyond ideology to think in terms of what works, that we can’t solve every problem overnight, but we can make progress." According to his Website, the things Obama considers among the ranks of "what works" include expanding the Family and Medical Leave Act to smaller businesses and more situations, creating a government-administered national healthcare plan and phased withdrawal of troops from Iraq.

Beyond ideology?

Whatever you may think of government "stimulating" the economy, nationalizing healthcare, imposing family leave rules on businesses and ending the war in Iraq, these are all issues worthy of debate. That debate is likely to be informed by strong opinions about the proper role of government, the limits of coercive power, and the appropriate use of military force. Opinions on those matters, when guided by consistent and well-considered views, are called "ideology."

You can't just talk about "what works" if you haven't decided what "works" means. For instance, it's not a settled matter that "stimulating" the economy through government spending (or direct payoffs to citizens) is effective. John Maynard Keynes, famously, believed strongly in government spending as an engine for fueling economic growth. Milton Friedman, on the other hand, dismissed Keynesians' love of borrowing and spending and called for a steady hand on monetary policy. There's still plenty of disagreement among economists to fuel a healthy debate and policy makers who take the time to look into the matter line up on one side or the other.

Then there are arguments not only over what "works," but what is right. These are not small disagreements. To a large extent, ideology can be thought of as morality applied to politics. Is censorship ever justified? What about the seizure of private property? Jailing political dissidents? Disarming private citizens? These issues are all subject to discussions of the proper use of state power.

Do you have large-scale unemployment? Perhaps shipping surplus laborers to the gulag would "work" if all you intend to do is bring the unemployment figure down. But if you consider shipping people off at gunpoint to be a wildly immoral way to manipulate statistics -- a violation of individual rights -- you're on your way to filtering "what works" through an ideology.

From another perspective, failing to apply moral concerns to such a scenario -- that is, declining to consider ideology -- would make you something of a sociopath who is willing to use coercive power without any consideration for when it is right or wrong to wield force.

When we consider the debate over the stimulus package that Mr. Greenstein wants to move "beyond ideology," it's worth remembering that at least some people consider the whole tax apparatus used to gather and distribute "tax rebates" to be an immoral abuse of power. That's an even more fundamental issue than whether the rebates will function as advertised.

To the extent that we have a political system that's marginally tolerable, policy debates are subject not only to arguments over "what works," but also to moral considerations of when the state should and shouldn't act. The process is messy and contentious, but it at least gives us a framework by which to judge some uses of state power as simply unacceptable.

We have ideology to thank for that.

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