Friday, November 12, 2004

Objectivity and Civility

Chris Mooney has a nice case study of the problem of "balanced" reporting as opposed to "objective" reporting. That is, the problem of giving equal time to both sides rather than trying to figure out which side is right. Seems to me that this is what makes Josh Chafetz's civility in politics hard to come by, and sometimes undesirable. You should believe that your political opponents have rational reasons to support their positions. And thus, as Chafetz suggests, ridicule is not in order. But there are some things on which taking this "balanced" view of your opponent's positions is foolish: when their views contradict "objective" fact.

There are two stages of supporting a candidate or a position. First, deciding what's important, what the policy objectives should be. Then deciding how to carry it out. Most of the time thoughtful people can disagree on what policy objectives should be. Those normative judgements rely on that shaky thing called values and so, depending on a persons biography and etc., objectives will differ. These disagreements have to be appoached respectfully -- humility is in order (the value of tolerance and all that, is obviously assumed; apparently I'm a student of Hans Oberdiek). I agree with Chafetz to here. Respectful disagreements about normative objectives is generally healthy for political discourse.

The problem comes in the second part: actually making policy to follow through on those objectives. I'm enough of a social "scientist," to think that there are certain objective truths about the way the world works which one can ascertain. Being balanced and respectful in political discourse at this point may be polite and civil, but it doesn't get you anywhere and it is not desirable. If someone starts talking about supply-side economics and asserting that we are on the far side of the Laffer Curve, then they are objectively wrong, and humility accomplishes nothing. It is a fact that while the Laffer Curve does exist, elasticites in labor supply are such that it doesn't tell us anything. At this point, civility is not useful. If you attempt to be civil with someone who thinks the world works differently than you think it does, and you "know" yourself to be correct, and have much evidence to back it up, how do you have a civil debate? No matter how much I talk to a supply-sider (or someone who supports the gold standard) and how civily, not much is going to happen because their views are not "rational."

This is the problem of being too reasonable and always thinking that someone has a point. Sometimes they are just wrong and you have to be willing to say that. Else you can never get anywhere.

To say that we should always be civil in politics seems to me to belittle politics. Politics is too important to always be civil. It is not just a club where we want to have fun and be able to stay friends afterward. Some ideas are wrong and do not work and that has to be said.


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