Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Good Argument Ain’t Enough

Tibor R. Machan

As rational animals, human beings do best when they think matters through and act accordingly. This is no less true in public policy matters. From the time of Socrates, political philosophers have urged us to be rational in our political affairs. Indeed, arguably the most famous Platonic dialogue, The Republic, is but a call to reason, what with the philosopher placed in the position of king, a symbolic role in a mythical society to remind us all that what matters most in both our personal and public lives is to think!

Some, however, have come to believe that if only someone has a good argument for some policy, law or institution, that’s all that is needed. So there is much consternation about why those with the best arguments do not always triumph in politics. In a recent comment on The Orange County Register’s efforts a while back to lay out the best public policy positions in its Sunday “Commentary” section the criticism consisted of claiming that the brief summaries presented were naïve, too simple and hopelessly idealistic. The Register’s libertarian political philosophy was then dismissed as unworkable.

Without realizing it, the critic could have commented on the American Founders’ political stance as laid out in the Declaration of Independence. It, too, could be dismissed in such terms. And such criticism would have a point if the editors had promised that with a rational approach to public policies, one that stressed the need for human liberty throughout human community life—liberty being, of course, a precondition for rationality—there would be a clear and smooth way toward sensible politics in the United States of America and wherever such an approach is tried. But that simply isn’t so.

Good arguments, sound ones, do establish what is best for a political system. But they are insufficient for purposes to get the policies adopted. An argument is only one side of the solution. Those considering it must also have a commitment to rationality. And such commitment is not always available.

Given, for example, that most Americans these days have irrational expectations of public policies and thus send irrational politicians to given the country at all levels of government, it is clearly not enough to approach them sensibly, rationally. Just the other day the prestigious PBS program, “The News Hour with Jim Lehrer” gathered together a little group of voters from Las Vegas. All of them chimed in with a wish list. Demands were voiced and it came through with the outmost clarity that every one of the voters selected for the interview—about eight of them—was captive to the entitlement mentality and the governmental habit.

Now when citizens of a country have such an attitude toward politics—seeing their government as Santa Claus—then the policies that they will welcome from their candidates and representatives will be anything but rational. The federal government is not only ill equipped to fulfill the Christmas wishes of the citizenry but it lacks the resources to do so.

By now the debt of the country is immense and the way nearly everything is funded is by coercively imposed credit, to be paid by the yet unborn citizens of the country whose “participation” even violates the principle of “No taxation without representation,” the is the only idea that might inject some slight measure of sanity in the economics of America’s public affairs. It has, of course, been abandoned completely by the various levels of government in the U.S. A. over the last century.

Hundreds of other examples of citizenship insanity could be cited to show that good arguments simply are ignored by millions who insist on trying to get blood out of a turnip, who insist not only on extorting funds from their fellow citizens but also on trying to extort funds that simply cannot be found. Like all those folks clocking to Las Vegas in the conviction that they will come away lucky, the bulk of the public now is hoping for the impossible.

You can advance great arguments showing what is rational, sensible in public affairs but when the public cares nothing about being rational, it will be a futile exercise, plain and simple.

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