Friday, August 27, 2010

Methods and Goals

Normative beliefs about public policy can usually be broken down into two components, goals and methods.  Goals focus on ends, or how the world should be in some hypothetical future, while methods deal with be best way to get there.  Ideological disputes are often confusing because this division is not at all clear.

Though counter-intuitive, it doesn't always work to simply jump immediately to the final goal.  If you raise your kid with the ethic of "do whatever you want, as long as it makes you happy," or "being happy is all that matters," the kid might not learn the value of delayed satisfaction and discipline.  A kid instilled with the ethic of "it doesn't matter what you do, as long as you give your best and try your hardest" will likely have happier outcomes overall.

When making predictions about a policy's future impact, one side often favors a more comprehensive perspective (accounting for methods), while the other side focuses only on final outcomes (goals).  For example, school busing opponents see racial equality as the final goal and see busing as directly opposed to that goal.  Conversely, proponents see that the method of school busing will result in a final outcome closer to the actual goal.

Both Republicans and Democrats hold dear positions that are overly goal-oriented and method-blind.  Republicans oppose aggressive anti-trust regulation, based on their goal of free-market capitalism.  They fail to see that the method of anti-trust regulation breaks up monopolies and results in more efficient free-markets overall.  Democrats, on the other hand, frequently oppose environmentalist policies such as nuclear energy and genetically modified foods on grounds that these policies are opposed to the final goal of a civilization in perfect harmony with nature.  In both cases the comprehensive policies are more pragmatic and tangibly beneficial; final-outcome policies obsess over transcendental ideals and frequently hold back improvements.

Generally it is better to support policies that include methods and process, because often adding nuance and complexity will result in more accurate predictions and outcomes closer to the stated goals.  However, complicated and counter-intuitive policies may be difficult to explain and promote.  Additionally, simple transcendental ideals can have an inspirational effect on social movements that could be greatly beneficial.

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