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The Devil's AdvocateThe Devil's Advocate

The Devil's Advocate

Herds of peaceably grazing policy wonks have been left shaking their heads in dismay as the marauding presidential campaigns have rampaged through their turf, leaving a trail of wrong-headed assumptions, non sequiturs and outright falsehoods strewn behind them.... But are election races a useful platform for debating ideas? Preston Manning suggests they’re not, arguing that parties especially are not really good at generating or debating ideas. They are the marketing arm of ideas that have been distilled for public consumption. In the eternal words of Monty Python’s monastic order of the holy hand grenade, "skip a bit, brother."

Robert Joustra
3 minute read

Even economists are exhausted from presidential prognostications this week. Writing for his blog, Dan Drezner says our financial caste, normally simplistic-prediction happy addicts, are rousing in a cranky stupor even Peter Stockland could envy. Writing for the Financial Times Alan Beattie writes,

Herds of peaceably grazing policy wonks have been left shaking their heads in dismay as the marauding presidential campaigns have rampaged through their turf, leaving a trail of wrong-headed assumptions, non sequiturs and outright falsehoods strewn behind them....

But are election races a useful platform for debating ideas? Preston Manning suggests they’re not, arguing that parties especially are not really good at generating or debating ideas. They are the marketing arm of ideas that have been distilled for public consumption. In the eternal words of Monty Python’s monastic order of the holy hand grenade, "skip a bit, brother."

This worries me a good deal less than most political scientists. Drezner suggests the problem is that the wonks and speech writers just haven’t captured the right language for the big ideas. His hedged, though honest, economic plan is as follows:

I strongly favor inking more trade and investment agreements on behalf of the United States. Yes, it's likely true that greater globalization is one of the lesser drivers for increased inequality in the United States. Oh, and no trade deal is going to be a jobs bonanza—the sectors that trade extensively are becoming so productive that they don't lead to a lot of direct job creation. Will some jobs be lost from these deals? Probably a few, but not a lot. But on average, greater globalization will boost our productivity a bit, which will in turn cause the economy to grow just a bit faster, which will indirectly create some jobs. Goods will be cheaper, which benefits consumers. Oh, and by the way, there are some decent security benefits that come with signing trade agreements.

Drezer asks, can the "above message be sexed up at all without overpromising?" My serious answer: probably not.

This week Cardus played host to a top level political actor from Lombardy who talked with us at length about the concept of subsidiarity, a concept nestled both in the constitution of Italy and in the founding documents of the European Union. He also warned us not to actually talk about subsidiarity, which would yield blank stares, confused looks, or general anxiety. Subsidiarity means that if lower, more local levels of authority can handle a responsibility, they should. The problem, as our president noted, is that libertarians have absorbed the logic of subsidiarity and made a snappier brand out of it, poisoning the well for non-libertarian thinkers. In Caritas in Veritate Pope Benedict tries to take it back, arguing that "the principle of subsidiarity must remain closely linked to the principle of solidarity and vice versa, since the former without the latter gives way to social privatism, while the latter without the former gives way to paternalist social assistance that is demeaning to those in need" [58].

But, let’s be honest here, a papal retrieval of a popular libertarian brand isn’t winning anyone an election.

So we’re left with articulating our ideas as best we can, and then "sexing them up" for the public conversation and the political debate. Hypocrisy and exaggeration happen when you squish economic and political arguments into digestible bits. We learn to argue using logic we don’t accept, for positions we don’t agree with, because they’re "better than it was". One of the best recent examples I’ve seen is from the Institute for Marriage and Family Canada, which made the financial and demographic case for income splitting in families to expand a future tax base. No one—especially at the IMFC—seriously believes the best, most moral argument, for having children is economic, but when that’s the logic that carries an argument this important forward, you use it.

That is politics. And those politics are a fast moving stream, with deep currents of hypocrisy and exaggeration threatening to sweep us away. This is why first principles spaces—like Comment and Convivium —are so important. Speaking in sound bites must never reduce us to thinking in sound bites. 140 character limits are for marketing and branding, not for conversation. On that, at least, we can agree with Beattie and Drezner, even if it’s a bit fanciful to expect it from presidential debates in America.

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