Sunday, August 12, 2007

Political Reality

Some policy proposals are dismissed not because they are flawed, but simply because it is perceived that they could not be implemented in the current "political climate"; though recognized to be objectively good, they are denounced for ignoring "political reality". This objection is strangely circular, for - ex hypothesi - there are no real grounds for anyone to object to the policy. The only objection is this one itself. And so it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. No-one takes the proposal seriously, merely because they expect others to be similarly dismissive. That's "political reality": two mirrors set to reflect each other, regardless of the world beyond.


  1. Interesting point Richard. I do think in part it is the job of philosophers to be unrealistic in this sense. I know I often am, I suspect some people on committees I am on dread me opening my mouth, since it is often to make a suggestion that what we are doing is not best practice. The usual response to this is that best practice is impractical, usually because it is either expensive or time consuming. My response to this is usually, ah but it is right.

    There is however I think an interesting question for political philosophers and bioethicists, both camps I fall into, which is that given that we are trying to change the world (maybe only in small ways). This is that what sells (i.e. is politically achievable) may be in some ways (particularly for you since you are a consequentialist) more important than what is correct.

    While I'm quite keen on keeping the big vision going, I'm also aware that tiny steps are needed, and this might call for compromises along the way.

  2. Sometimes, claiming that something can't be implemented because of the current political climate is a polite way of saying it won't happen because it will reduce the power and income-stream of lawmakers; and they care more about that than whether or not it's objectively good.

  3. Hi David, I think it's important to distinguish different kinds of (alleged) "impracticality". If some proposal would prove excessively expensive, for example, then that is a genuine reason to oppose it.

    But what I'm talking about here is when people just label something "impractical", even when there's no practical flaw in the proposal itself -- other than the listener's refusal to go along with it! It ends up being a way for people to oppose something for no good reason (possibly, as Gil suggests, as a cover for opposing it for bad reasons!).

    So it's just this peculiar form of objection that I'm suggesting is illegitimate. Genuine practical flaws are well worth highlighting. But not mere flaws of perception, or unpopularity, as those can be changed by inviting people to look more carefully.

  4. (Here I assume that the general population is not irreparably irrational!)

  5. I think there is a valid situation where the majority of the population genuinely sees the proposal as somthing that should happen but somthing that it would be unwise to propose.

    Also you could then create an awkward equilibrium where no party wants to open the can of worms related to suporting the idea because they know they would get half hearted suport from some opposition from supporters for being foolish and opposition from those that oppose it.

    I.e. the general population might not be irrational but they could have oppinions that cannot 'spin on a dime'. And a party might have a limited amount of effort spare in order to go around educating people on policies and the true nature of underlying public oppinion.

    A lot of this would come down to the issue of tribalism - basically that proposing a political idea becomes a way of promoting your tribe as oposed to the idea itself

  6. An independent political reality can not exist, political reality revolves around the objections and the percieved value in reality.

    In the example you offer you have noted two objections which count towards the unfavorable political reality. To those objections you could add -the costs to do the change. Also you have not clearly enough defined a benefit, what is the value advantage over the current system? If all you can offer is the hypothesis that it will end a stigma, where is the proof we will not just stigmatise all people living on UPI.


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