Saturday, December 10, 2005

Political Systems & Ideas, Part III

The ideas that shape our political system and guide our politicians can obviously have negative consequences. Everyone knows that. What you may not have considered is this: "negative consequences" can be those results that undermine our values (really, not just according to one side or the other). Ideas determine how we decide to use our resources.

Laws, regulations, policies, and political philosophies are shaped by ideas. Easy enough. But what exactly can go wrong if the ideas we act on are bad ideas (meaning counterfactual. illogical, or destructive of widely-held values)? There are two types of problems that come to mind.

First, we waste resources doing things that simply do not work and will not work. Politicians love to accuse each other of doing just that. I think I understand the root of the problem, and maybe you do as well.

I can't explain what "working" means in a politcal context since the interpretation of things depends on one's political views. This is not technically true - the measurable result of an action is what it is - but we act as if it were. Thus, each side can accuse the other of wasting resources based on their own definition of what "working" means. Selective use of evidence rears its illogical head on a regular basis in the political world.

Secondly, acting on bad ideas is more likely to produce unintended consequences. After all, the definition of a bad idea is one contrary to facts or logic. Unexpected problems may cancel out any benefits that happen to come from the bad idea. Of course, "problem" and "benefit" are two politically loaded terms. Is it really a benefit if rich people get to keep more of their income under a new tax law? Or is that a problem?

It hardly matters how you answer those questions since the answer depends on your interpretation. The lower tax burden is a fact, but the goodness or badness of it depends on your perspective. One could analyze the actual impact of the tax cut, then compare the impact to relevant values (fairness?) and to the budget. Is the budget smaller because the rich are paying lower taxes? Will greater spending by the rich produce new revenue, business growth, and more tax revenue? Is this outcome acceptable?

Next time: Thoughts on how political decisions really get made, and on how they could be made.


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