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Politics

You Can Argue What Ought to Be, or Make It Happen

Moral dudgeon is fun but doesn't win friends.

Are you tired yet of hearing about what we need to do to fix American politics? The earthquake of Trump’s election has unleashed a torrent of such suggestions. Mostly, it turns out that we need to do whatever it was the author wanted us to do on the day before the election. Those few contributions that struck an original note have caused an eruption of white-hot molten outrage from former allies.

So it is with some trepidation that I offer yet another suggestion for improving the sad state of our political discourse: Study David Hume’s distinction between “is” and “ought,” a concept that a whole lot of people on both sides seem to be struggling with.

The 18th-century Scotsman was complaining that philosophical treatises often went along discussing things that are, and then suddenly jumped to discussing how things ought to be, without seeming to notice that these were quite different categories of argument. His work has been widely available for two centuries, and yet, a casual observer of political discourse will readily note political warriors confusing their goals (“ought”) with tactics that might achieve them (“is”).

For example, in a column last week (and in private for longer than that), I argued that however noble the goals that social justice warriors seek, total war against religious conservatives is probably not the right tactic to achieve them. Offering religious conservatives the choice of recanting their beliefs about sexuality or forfeiting their livelihood is apt to create fierce political resistance that could reverse recent victories. Even if you don’t place much value on religious liberty, even if you are outraged by the beliefs those people espouse, I argued that it is far better to adopt a live-and-let-live policy than to try to exterminate those beliefs by any means necessary.

Now, I could be wrong about this. But what’s notable is that basically no one has tried to argue that my concerns about backlash were overblown, and that forcing people to convert under economic and legal threat would, in fact, be more effective than letting religious folks run their businesses as they wanted, and trying to change their minds through gentle persuasion.

Instead I got a litany of outrages that conservatives had perpetrated when they were winning the culture wars, a number of heartfelt paeans to the benefits of birth control and the love that gay couples feel for each other, demands to know why I had written about this rather than some recent outrage committed by conservatives, and (from liberal evangelicals), pronouncements that “those people don’t really love Jesus.” These are, you will notice, all “ought” arguments -- as if a claim of injustice were a blank check that the universe was obligated to cash.

Conservatives are every bit as bad, and every bit as damaging to their own cause.

Consider the government shutdowns that were, in their very best light, completely useless, and seen at a more realistic angle, a bit of wildly counterproductive showboating that cost conservatives their best opportunity to roll back Obamacare. Advocates of a shutdown argued that they’d tried everything else to cut government, and been stymied at every turn, and this was the only option that they had left.

This is, of course, another “ought” argument: smaller government is right, and if no other tactic has worked, then I am justified in resorting to whatever remains. The focus is entirely on what is morally permissible, or morally required, and not on any outcomes those actions might produce. They had that check, and they wanted what they were entitled to.

There are countless “blank check” theories of politics from both sides. The time I suggested to Obamacare’s supporters that passing the program on a straight party-line vote, using a somewhat obscure parliamentary maneuver that left the bill in dire need of new legislation to fix its flaws, might tend to make it a wee bit politically unstable. (I was told that then it would be Republicans’ fault, so supporters weren’t responsible for what might happen to the insurance market.) Or the arguments I myself made to opponents of the Iraq War, who had quite reasonably suggested that no matter how bad a leader Saddam Hussein might be, that still didn’t mean that invading his country would improve matters.

Now, in fact, there is some logic to leaning so heavily on “ought” arguments, rather than “is”; sufficiently fierce political outrage can sometimes alter political sentiment, turning “ought” into “is.” And making those sorts of arguments is certainly a lot more fun than boring debates over tactics.

Unfortunately, that works only when there are big institutional centers that can be converted and turned into megaphones for your cause. That kind of centrist institutional power barely exists any more. Hollywood may have some of it left, but its offerings are viewed with increasing suspicion by the right. And everywhere else institutional trust has badly frayed, or else the institutions are dividing into neat groups along political lines. Each side has its megaphones, but the sound barely reaches outside the circle of true believers.

The result is two sides frantically waving checks, and nowhere left to cash them. Our politics might improve if they stopped focusing on what ought to be, and spent more time doing the hard and boring work of changing what actually is.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

    To contact the author of this story:
    Megan McArdle at mmcardle3@bloomberg.net

    To contact the editor responsible for this story:
    Philip Gray at philipgray@bloomberg.net

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