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Three types of arguments over policy

PH2010051802815.jpgRand Paul's comments on the Civil Rights Act are a good reminder that Washington is home to two -- actually, three -- different types of policy debates. The first one, the one that we're used to, asks whether a policy will work. That's the one where I say health-care reform is likely to achieve its goals and cut costs and David Brooks says it won't do either thing and we both try to marshal empirical evidence in service of our points. In theory, whoever's evidence is stronger wins.

Then there's the second one, which is the one that Paul is giving voice to, which asks whether a policy is philosophically acceptable. Paul isn't arguing that the Civil Rights Act was ineffective at desegregating Woolworth lunch counters. He's arguing that government shouldn't tell private businesses what to do, and when they do, that's not legitimate even if it achieves its stated policy goals. Or, more prosaically, a Republican argues that we shouldn't have more government involvement in health care because government involvement is bad, and that's true whether or not it's proved efficient in other countries. In theory, whoever's philosophy is more appealing wins.

Then there's the third one, which is the debate that we're usually having even though people don't admit it, which asks whether a policy will help someone's chosen party in the next election. That's the one where Chuck Grassley and Orrin Hatch oppose a bill that looks like a bill they sponsored in 1993 and Mitt Romney attacks a bill that's based off legislation he signed in Massachusetts because the bill in question is a Democratic bill, and if its passes and is accepted as major achievement, it will ruin the Republican Party's chances in 2010. There's no real way to bridge arguments based off this premise, though I think it's the most common type of argument in the Capitol.

Almost all debates pretend that they're simple policy arguments. But a fair majority of them are philosophical or political arguments posing as policy arguments. And that's not an accusation of cynicism: People see a situation, register a gut reaction and then prize evidence that supports the conclusion they want to come to. So Republicans who supported the 1993 health-care reform bill that John Chafee proposed now oppose the virtually identical bill that President Obama proposed, and Republicans who supported George W. Bush's budget-busting Medicare Prescription Drug Benefit say that the far more fiscally responsible Affordable Care Act is too profligate, and Democrats who would never consider Medicare cuts if proposed by a Republican support them in the context of health-care reform.

The only problem is that this leads to a lot of confusing arguments where people are trying to convince one another with evidence that doesn't have very much to do with the root disagreements. Say this for Paul: At least you know where the guy is coming from.

Photo credit: AP Photo/Bowling Green Daily News, Joe Imel.

By Ezra Klein  |  May 21, 2010; 12:00 PM ET
 
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Comments

"...and if its passes and is accepted as major achievement, it will ruin the Republican Party's chances in 2010". It's clear what you mean, but you might want to tone this sentence down a bit before the attack dogs pounce on it. As it stands, it could be taken to imply you think the successful passage of health-care reform has ruined the Republicans' chances for 2010 which, sadly, is unlikely to be true.

Posted by: bigmandave | May 21, 2010 12:35 PM | Report abuse

Uhm, no. Paul might have been interested in the second type of argument, but right now he very clearly sees he'll lose the third type of argument if he continues to engage in the second type of argument.

Now Paul has pretty hastily retreated to saying that the second type of argument is off-limits because the nasty democrats are trying to get him to admit what he actually believes in a sneaky attempt to make him unelectable.

Posted by: MyrtleParker | May 21, 2010 12:38 PM | Report abuse

Also, incidentally, in most cases I think what "philosophical" arguments really boil down to is self-interest. Conservatives say they want tax cuts for the rich for "philosophical" reasons, when really it's because it tends to benefit them. A lot of liberals want a path to citizenship for immigrants because a lot of liberals are, or are close to, the people who will benefit from it. Conservatives are against it because they believe it won't benefit them. These kinds of disagreements are dressed up in the language of morality, when really in a lot of cases they're just about self-interest.

Posted by: bigmandave | May 21, 2010 12:40 PM | Report abuse

I think the three category assessment is a smart way to understand the current terms of debate. But I disagree that debate lately is characterized by philosophical arguments masquerading as policy arguments. I think it's just the opposite. Questions about what is good and bad policy are defined in terms of right and wrong, as moral rather than practical questions. Expand Medicaid to cover an additional 5% of the population? Increase taxes for those making over $200,000? Socialism! Destruction of liberty! Those characterizations could only be correct if you believe that government has no legitimate authority to raise revenues and make expenditures, which is a philosophical position, not a practical one.

Posted by: dollarwatcher | May 21, 2010 12:51 PM | Report abuse

Because these candidates are running for the job of making, amending, and repealing laws, this is about what type of laws and regulations we are and are not going to have. Period. That is, focus like a laser beam not on some personal question like whether they are personally racists but instead on comparing and contrasting the set of laws they want to exist and not exist to that set of laws that the rest of us would like to see exist and not exist. Many people vote for conservatives without fully understanding what those conservatives' positions really are and what they would really do if they could get away with it with respect to making, repealing, or amending laws and regulations. That's right - assume that the reason conservatives and especially Tea Party conservatives have as much of the political power they do is because they capitalize on the ignorance of so much of the general public as to what set of laws they want to exist and not exist.

How is so much of the public so ignorant? Conservatives get and keep so much of their power by pulling the wool over the eyes of some of the public. Paul's recent claim that he is in favor of the legislation and would not repeal it is a prime example. Note that not repealing it is not the same as not amending it. These word games are how conservatives pull the wool over the eyes of some of the public.

Example: I bet that Paul's poll numbers will go down when people start to more fully understand what his real positions are, but then his poll numbers will go up again as he partly succeeds in re-pulling that wool over some pairs of eyes with these word games.

The goal should be to fight these incessant word games and educate the public fully on all the consequences that would occur from giving conservatives like Paul the power to repeal and even just amend present regulation, as well as the power to prevent future laws and regulations that are presently so desperately needed.

Posted by: Keefanda | May 21, 2010 1:06 PM | Report abuse

"1993 health-care reform bill that Lincoln Chafee proposed"

You mean John Chafee, Lincoln's late father, and predecessor in the same seat.

Posted by: UberMitch | May 21, 2010 1:10 PM | Report abuse

Two points: first, a lot of Republicans who supported the 90s healthcare reform bills don't support the current bills because we're already massively in debt (because of Republicans). Second, I think a lot of libertarians and conservatives as well, although they may seem to be making philosophical arguments, are also weighing unanticipated consequences. In the case of Paul and the ADA, as a society, we seem to have foisted the responsibility to care for marginalized members onto the state and the law. As a consequence, people don't hold doors for people in wheelchairs and don't give up their seats for the elderly.

Posted by: ChristopherCarr | May 21, 2010 1:24 PM | Report abuse

I somewhat disagree with you on the argument Paul is making. Like many libertarians habitually do, he seems to be conflating arguments 1 and 2 together, with a missing assumed (or rationalized) bridge that maximizing freedom will also produce the best possible policy outcomes.

Lower taxes produce more growth and better economic outcomes for everyone. Reducing government interference in the market increases efficiency and gives a better response for less money, etc.

In this case, Paul started with argument #2 about freedom and constitutionality, but also tried to throw in there something from #1 about how he wouldn't go to such a business and free individuals would give us the same policy outcome of desegregation anyway.

It's a fundamental dichotomy in much libertarian argument, which is precisely why it's worth pressing on this specific point. With Civil Rights you clearly have a case where the desirable policy outcome conflicts with the view of maximizing negative liberty. So why are you really a libertarian, and to what extent will you sacrificie utilitarianism to philosophical arguments?

Posted by: dt4211 | May 21, 2010 1:25 PM | Report abuse

Another example is the America COMPETES Act supporting science/engineering/technology R&D. Nearly every Republican who blocked it this week and last voted for it in 2007.

Posted by: Hopeful9 | May 21, 2010 1:30 PM | Report abuse

Actually, with Civil Rights, much of the discrimination in question was government-based discrimination. There are of course libertarians who don't deviate at all from the philosophical line, which is nuanced and varied and from a variety of sources: look at the difference between Ayn Rand and Andrew Sullivan for instance. But there are libertarians like those at Cato and Reason whose arguments are almost always based around effects of particular policies.

The economic theories of F.A. Hayek provide a good bridge between the two, that government interference in daily life is effectively an abstraction that distorts information and forces otherwise rational actors to make poor decisions. Look at corn subsidies for instance.

Posted by: ChristopherCarr | May 21, 2010 1:33 PM | Report abuse

Uncertainty and complexity conspire to prevent any clear empirical winner in many policy debates, so the type 1 (effectiveness) and 2 (philosophy) arguments get conflated. Climate change is a good example - although the empirical case for climate change is strong, both the complexity of climate models and the uncertainty regarding specific predictions cause the debate to collapse into a philosophical argument on the role of government.

Posted by: jduptonma | May 21, 2010 1:36 PM | Report abuse

"Say this for Paul: At least you know where the guy is coming from."

From a politically naive and philosophically immature position?

Also, he's just plain wrong. There was nothing unconstitutional in the Civil Rights Act of 1964. 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments--part of the constitution--clearly allow for the Civil Rights Act

@Keefanda: "Many people vote for conservatives without fully understanding what those conservatives' positions really are and what they would really do if they could get away with it with respect to making, repealing, or amending laws and regulations"

Many people vote for liberals under the same conditions. In fact, I've heard conservatives make that identical argument as an explanation was to why otherwise good and intelligent people vote for liberals.

Also, efforts to "educate" the ignorant in order to compel them to vote the way you (as the enlightened) do will often be misunderstood, and therefore ineffective.

"Conservatives get and keep so much of their power by pulling the wool over the eyes of some of the public"

Well, first of all, all due congratulations to you on being so much smarter than the general unwashed member of the public, and not being so duped by those wascally conservatives. Second, one might argue that most politicians are deceptive and, even if they aren't, as many conservatives think liberal politicians are outright liars (and wolves in sheep's clothing) as conservatives do liberals. So the idea that you're going to educated duped Republicans or conservatives and somehow "get their minds right" is overly optimistic.

Which is not to defend Rand Paul, who's arguments are highly, deeply and profoundly flawed.

Posted by: Kevin_Willis | May 21, 2010 1:41 PM | Report abuse

"Say this for Paul: At least you know where the guy is coming from."

No. You. Don't.

I am shocked that a guy who would oppose laws banning segregation and all kinds of discrimination because it's "government overreaching" believes doctors should be paid more in Medicare because "physicians deserve a decent living."

I don't understand how you reconcile those positions.

Now, if it's "I oppose government action when it doesn't directly benefit me," then those positions make a lot of sense.

The guy isn't principled. He's a jerk who wraps his self-interest in high minded philosophy.

Posted by: theorajones1 | May 21, 2010 1:51 PM | Report abuse

"Also, incidentally, in most cases I think what 'philosophical' arguments really boil down to is self-interest."

I disagree. Philosophical arguments are often made most vehemently by those who have no real stake in the outcome. They are the spoiled parlor games of the affluent or the abstract passions of the otherwise detached. Rand Paul, who has grown up surrounded by privilege (and I do not mean just, or even mainly, financial) to such an extent that he may not know how privileged his upbringing was in any real sense can make such abstract, principled philosophical arguments against the Civil Rights Act because he has no real stake in outcome, either way.

I once was in attendance at familial party where everyone was watching a soccer game on TV. For whatever reason, one person was highly involved in the outcome of the game. He was screaming and throwing things throughout the game, and when his team lost he threw a tantrum that might have been more appropriate if had just found out his house had burned down or that as sibling had died. Yet he didn't know anybody on that team, had no financial stake outcome--he had just, on his own, developed an obsessive passion about a particular sports franchise because he was raised in a household where he had the luxury to do so (and, no doubt, have role models that suggested such obsessive behavior was normal and acceptable).

That's the philosophical argument, most of the time. It's the product of privilege and leisure, and practical policies that come out of such philosophical debates can often be damaging (as Rand Paul proves, just talking about it can be practically damaging) to their advocates. It's not about self-interest.

Posted by: Kevin_Willis | May 21, 2010 1:52 PM | Report abuse

@theora: "The guy isn't principled. He's a jerk who wraps his self-interest in high minded philosophy."

Then he wouldn't have gone on Maddow's show, and he certainly wouldn't have said what he said.

If anything, Paul Rand is proving himself almost incapable of acting in his own self-interest. Unless it's in his self-interest to get permanently ejected from politics for all time.

Posted by: Kevin_Willis | May 21, 2010 1:55 PM | Report abuse

"That's the philosophical argument, most of the time. It's the product of privilege and leisure, and practical policies that come out of such philosophical debates can often be damaging (as Rand Paul proves, just talking about it can be practically damaging) to their advocates. It's not about self-interest."

I think this assessment of Rand Paul is right, but it backs up my point! Rand Paul has developed a libertarian policy of total non-intervention by the government, because he has grown up in a family that does not stand to lose much from that policy. They're white, so they don't stand to lose from the type of private discrimination under the Civil Rights Act. But when they do stand to lose from it - from the prospect of government cutting Medicare for instance - Rand Paul opposes it. Whether they realize it or not, much of the ideology is based on self-interest. Conservatives support the police stopping and questioning people under the Arizona immigration law because it's unlikely to affect them, but would oppose ID cards on the philosophical grounds that it's "government interference" and fascism, when in fact it's because ID cards might affect them. Liberals will support 'card check' for unions because it benefits the unions, when I think they'd object to the same policy in other contexts.

I don't think *all* philosophical difference stems from self-interest: if someone like Ezra Klein defended food stamps, for instance, it's probably not something that has a direct effect on him or his family. That's a genuine moral position. But I think the majority of philosophical differences are really just different social groups competing for self-gain, but masking it in terms of morality and philosophy to make it sound more principled than that. Certainly I think that's where a lot of Rand Paul's positions come from.

Posted by: bigmandave | May 21, 2010 2:23 PM | Report abuse

The old saying was "sticks and stones may break my bones, but words may never hurt me." I worry that the sticks and stones being hurled by the self-proclaimed progressive movement will silence discourse.

I'm surprised that there hasn't been more coverage of the trespass by Andy Stern's SEIU into the home of a banking attorney. Both Stern's SEIU beat down of two African-American Republicans in Atlanta several months ago and the vandalism of Representative's Cantor's offices two months ago demonstrate the power of the Obama/Pelosi/Podesta machine: if you're not down with O/P/P, you're likely to feel the wrath from the SEIU enforcers. While sad, the SEIU invasion is not surprising: the pillaging of a private home goes hand-in-hand with the Obama/Pelosi rape of traditional American moral values, practical health care, and prudent finance.

Personally, I believe only the courageous should verbally question the O/P/P. The multiple documented acts of violence by the liberal faction -- more than four times the number of documented acts of violence by the Tea Party -- should give every patriotic dissenter cause for concern: at a "kill ratio" of 4 to 1, three Tea Party members must suffer to counter each single O/P/P liberal vote.
And the plight (and the death) of the dissenters rates only a rare mention in the liberal media... when one talks of Andy Stern's SEIU, the violence is seldom mentioned.

Posted by: rmgregory | May 21, 2010 2:26 PM | Report abuse

@theora: "The guy isn't principled. He's a jerk who wraps his self-interest in high minded philosophy."

@Kevin: "Then he wouldn't have gone on Maddow's show, and he certainly wouldn't have said what he said."


Look at the way he answered Maddow's simple direct questions. I was taught that when asked a yes or no question, one should answer "The answer to your question is yes [or no], and please allow me to explain the reasons why." There would have been less controvery if he had just made the Libertarian philosophical argument in that way. People who are unfamiliar with Libertarian beliefs would have been surprised, but everyone could admire the fact that he would have the fortitude to express an unpopular view.

Instead, Paul blathered away about Boston in the 1800's, and gun bans, and generally did everything within his power to avoid having a straightforward discussion about the reasons why he thinks the government should not have made private discrimination illegal. It was like watching Bill Clinton's deposition in the Paula Jones case.

The statements that he and his campaign have made since Wednesday night are equally evasive of his known philosophy on this topic.

So I can't agree that he is showing himself to be a person of principle.

I also agree with theorajones that stubborn Libertarianism is (by definition) about self-interest. It demands the belief that maximizing individual liberties is the magic solution to all that is wrong in society, even when faced with an obvious example where that is known to be untrue, like the liberty to discriminate based upon race, religion, and gender. That level of denial of reality requires a powerful engine of self-interest.

Posted by: Patrick_M | May 21, 2010 2:32 PM | Report abuse

"..and the vandalism of Representative's Cantor's offices two months ago demonstrate the power of the Obama/Pelosi/Podesta machine..."


That's the troll propaganda, and here are the facts:


After the passage of the health care reform bill in March 2010, Cantor reported that somebody had shot a bullet through a window of his campaign office in Richmond, Virginia. Cantor responded to this by saying that Democratic leaders in the House should stop "dangerously fanning the flames" by blaming Republicans for threats against House Democrats such as Tom Perriello and Bart Stupak who voted for the health care legislation.

A spokesman for the Richmond Police later stated that the bullet was not intentionally fired at Cantor's office, saying that it was instead random gunfire, as there were no signs outside the office identifying the office as being Cantor's. Ballistic tests indicated that the bullet was fired into the air and hit the office window going down. The bullet landed within a foot of the window, it did not even pass through the blinds.

Posted by: Patrick_M | May 21, 2010 2:41 PM | Report abuse

Here you say that politicians usually pretend that philosophical differences are just policy differences, but during the HCR debate you said that Republicans were doing the opposite. In a post titled "Political differences masquerading as philosophical ones," you wrote that Republicans "have elevated a variety of policies that they're willing to compromise on in other contexts to the level of philosophical difference. That makes compromise very difficult."

Posted by: vince432 | May 21, 2010 3:02 PM | Report abuse

"when one talks of Andy Stern's SEIU, the violence is seldom mentioned."


That's the troll propaganda, and here are the facts:


On a sunny Sunday afternoon, a group of union protestors with placards gathered outside the home of Greg Baer, deputy general counsel for Bank of America, to demonstrate against the bank's role in the foreclosure crisis, and to point out that major executives have escaped public accountability for the financial crisis that has put millions of Americans out of work.

They yelled and waved their signs. There was no violence, and nobody entered the house.

I am sure the protest was alarming to Mr. Baer and his family, and I personally think they should have stayed off of his grass. I generally find these kinds of protests to be counter-productive exercises. But the protest was certainly not "the pillaging of a private home...hand-in-hand with the Obama/Pelosi rape of traditional American moral values, practical health care, and prudent finance."


But congrats on a really nice try to divert attention from the topic, and I must say that your tea bagger purple prose is getting really polished, so you can feel very proud about the way you spread this complete rubbish around.

Posted by: Patrick_M | May 21, 2010 3:39 PM | Report abuse

@ Kevin_Willis | May 21, 2010 1:41 PM

I note some if not many of even those who favor the Tea Party so much that they scream that they want no socialism in the US also scream, "Don't take away my Medicare!"

There is no equivalence as you suggest. There are many more who vote for Tea Party conservatism out of ignorance than the opposite.

And I say, "Bring it on."

I have no doubt that once the public fully understands the difference between liberalism and Tea Party conservatism from comparing and contrasting what set of laws and regulations conservatism wants to exist and not exist and what set of laws and regulations liberalism wants to exist and not exist, liberalism would win most of the time - even the vast majority of the time.

Don't think so? Consider that Tea Party conservatism has made it so that the big and essentially unregulated corporations almost destroyed the entire world financially and are in the process of destroying much if not most of our food supply in the Gulf of Mexico and in the future, around FL and up the East Coast.

Consider that in 41 states, because of Tea Party conservatism, we still have health care via Medicaid being denied to most homeless people. And note that the conservative crap that emergency rooms are the answer is just that, a bunch of crap, because by law emergency rooms have to treat only emergencies. Never mind that the vast majority of health care homeless and other people need to avoid premature death down the road in not an emergency at the time.

And I could go on with a very long list proving that most people would go the liberal route if they fully knew what would happen if they went the Tea Party conservative route, if they fully understood what the Tea Party conservative "limited government" mantra actually implies. It would mean for instance, massive private discrimination, and the absolute green light to large corporations like big banks and oil companies to rape and pillage at will, even more so than they have done. It would also mean no more public libraries, public schools, Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, and on and on. What the Tea Party would replace all this with would be essentially nothing in comparison.

I believe that much of the public who views the Tea Party favorable just does not understand all this.

Posted by: Keefanda | May 21, 2010 6:26 PM | Report abuse

ballance alert. Ezra you are very smart knowledgable and liberal (it's not a dirty word). However, working at the post, you seem to have decided to ballance (as in Jack Ballance and Cilizza's anonymous editor -- google it yourself).

You note cases of Republicans being either hypocritical or reasoning from their gut and then write " Democrats who would never consider Medicare cuts if proposed by a Republican support them in the context of health-care reform." I understand it is obligatory to criticize both parties. However, the criticism of Democrats is unreasonable.

First the claim of fact is only partly true, Democrats would have considered cuts to Medicare Advantage's unfair advantage in other contexts, but the bill has other Medicare cuts.

Second and importantly, cuts to Medicare itself have a different impact in the context of health care reform. Assume one cares only about the consequences of cuts (no philosophical opposition and no political considerations). One typically would have a different opinion about cutting something than about not increasing it. Thus one would feel differently about cutting one flow of money to, say, a hospital, depending on whether or not one is simultaneously increasing another flow of money to that hospital. If the total flow of money is now roughly OK, balanced cuts and increases are roughly OK, but cuts alone or increases alone are no good.

I claim that this is exactly what happened with health care reform. Congress cut medicare compensation schedules for hospitals (and nursing homes and home health care agencies but not for office practices). At the same time with expanded medicaid, subsidies and mandates, congress plugged the hole in hospital budgets due to care for the uninsured.

The Medicare (not Medicare Advantage) cuts and the Medicaid increases were similar in size. This is more like keeping the flow of cash the same and changing the names of patients on the hospital bills going the other way than it is like Medicare cuts not in the context of health care reform.

I am talking only about hospitals' budgets. Definitely policy not philosophy and politics only to the extent that all policy affects politics.

Posted by: rjw88 | May 22, 2010 9:38 AM | Report abuse

It will be interesting to see if Rand Paul's new tactic will work (allegedly he is being told to lay low and not speak to the media. It worked to an extent for Sarah Palin but she wasn't really running for anything, McCain was (to me no one votes for the Vice President, they either like the person running for President or they don't. Whoever is the running mate is normally not very important). But I do not think he can avoid the press and win the Senate. I think what he said will grow into a larger issue unless he is willing to be interviewed and finds a way to change the discussion (similar to Tiger Woods who finally got the media to shut up by holding his press conference). However, I know nothing about running a campaign and rumor is that Karl Rove is the person who gave Rand Paul the advice to cease and desist having so much media time so maybe it is a good policy to have. As I said, it will be interesting.

Posted by: garykevin | May 22, 2010 9:25 PM | Report abuse

garykevin, his statements about Obama being "Un-American" by being too tough on BP (and the Massey mine operation) because "an accident is just an accident" were almost as outrageous as his statements about the Civil Rights Act.

How many people in America would agree with Rand Paul that the government has been TOO HARD on BP?

The guy's mouth is a time bomb. His handlers will want him to keep it shut to the maximum extent possible.

Posted by: Patrick_M | May 23, 2010 1:56 AM | Report abuse

I wrote a response to this article for The Inductive if you care to check it out:

http://www.theinductive.com/blog/2010/5/24/why-should-i-have-to-defend-libertarianism.html

Posted by: ChristopherCarr | May 25, 2010 1:13 PM | Report abuse

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