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When Bad Theory Leads to Poor Policy



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The well-known American cultural disposition to “practical things” and the idea of “just getting the job done” has led to an ingrained suspicion of theory as somehow unimportant, if not useless. Many undergraduates arrive at university having been lectured by their parents to take “useful” courses and to avoid those classes that provide “only” philosophy or theory. Sadly, the same attitude is also common among many graduate students. And yet, despite this popular orientation or mythology, even a moment’s thought suggests that theories drive virtually everything in our world, from what we understand is befalling us each day and how we make sense of it, to what entrepreneurs believe will “sell” to whom and why in the marketplace, to how we regard our fellow citizens as we participate in self-governance processes. When these conceptions are wrong-headed, the consequences are typically severe and unforgiving. If an entrepreneur misjudges her market, her firm will fail. And if our elected leaders operate on faulty assumptions or theory as they make political choices on our collective behalf, the likelihood is strong that the policies that result will come freighted with heavy costs.

I was reminded of this truism, unacknowledged though it may be in our popular culture, by a recent column in Commonweal by William Pfaff (May 17, 2013). Pfaff argued that our policy-makers had erred profoundly and often with major negative consequences in recent decades because their framing theories of how to make sense of world events were misguided or simply wrong. Among other examples of failed models, Pfaff cited the “Domino Theory” and Samuel Huntington’s “Clash of Civilizations” argument. The Domino Theory assumed Communist takeover of Southeast Asia and beyond if the United States did not intervene in the Vietnamese conflict. Lawmakers’ acceptance of that contention led to our involvement in Vietnam and that choice cost tens of thousands of lives and traumatized our nation in ways that continue to reverberate today.

Likewise and more recently, the George W. Bush administration relied on Huntington’s thesis to argue that it was necessary to subdue militarily and that it was possible also thereby to “democratize,” the nations of Iraq and Afghanistan. Such was required, the Bush White House team argued, as each purportedly posed parlous and immediate threats to our nation in the post 9-11 era. We are now more than a decade out from each intervention and neither nation can be said to have a sturdy democratic regime despite the loss of thousands of lives and the expenditure of more than $3 trillion by the United States. The theory that America could impose democracy from the top-down militarily has proven spectacularly wrong, just as the Domino Theory was shown to be woefully wrong-headed decades prior.

Also under President George W. Bush, the U.S. launched a large and originally clandestine rendition and torture program aimed at combatting an unspecified, but ongoing “terrorist” threat. The results have been tragic for American moral standing in the world and also resulted in the quagmire that is symbolized by the prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, many of whose “inmates” are seeking to starve themselves to death out of hopelessness that their cases will receive appropriate judicial attention. While the costs to America’s standing are potentially very real for its troops when they are captured by hostile forces, who know full well the U.S. has tortured for its own purposes, this disastrous program, a clear violation of both international law and long-standing American policy, has yielded virtually nothing of positive value to the regime now mired in its consequences.

Our elected officials have indeed made many tragic choices in recent decades as a result of adopting ill-considered theories and that trend continues. Republican Senator Ted Cruz (Texas) and a few like-minded Tea Party-oriented colleagues are currently preventing Congress from any possibility of adopting a budget by disallowing appointment of a joint House-Senate conference committee to determine if such might be possible. He takes this stance because, as he says, he does not trust his own party members to take the steps he believes necessary to reduce national expenditures and debt in the conference process. Were this scenario confronting a for-profit firm with which he was involved, Mr. Cruz would likely decry the profound inefficiency it represented and the unmanageable situation it would pose. But he and his colleagues have willfully imposed those conditions on the government he is elected to serve solely on the basis of an assumption about the possible future behavior of other Republican legislators not mirroring their preferences. That self-absorbed theory, such as it is, suffices for Cruz and a small group of fellow lawmakers to hold the nation hostage to a manifestly absurd scenario.

More broadly, I have earlier reported how a few senators prevented United States adoption of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities late last year based on a widely discredited claim that it would impair American sovereignty. In fact, ironically, the Convention’s provisions were modeled on the long-standing Americans with Disabilities Act (1990), championed by President George H.W. Bush (R) and could have no such effect.

Another recent example of theory taking the guise of ideology-driven choice-making gone awry is the ongoing call by Republican legislators for deep reductions in government spending on the grounds of a ballooning deficit. They continue to clamor for fresh cuts in socially oriented expenditures particularly on this argument. Nonetheless, it does not accord with reality. The nation’s deficit is declining, not growing, and despite a consensus among economists nationally that the fiscal course these legislators advocate will slow, if not endanger, the country’s economic recovery, they are persisting in it. Obviously, the population writ large is bearing and will shoulder the costs of this zealous pursuit of an ill-advised theory of policy choice.

These examples point up three basic axioms of democratic politics. First, leaders’ views matter. When our elected officials act on flawed or strident perspectives of the world, rather than on as judicious a perspective as can be obtained of the issues in play, the nation often comes the cropper. Second, simple-minded and self-regarding partisanship, compounded by dismissal of other views, can be positively pernicious for effective governance, as the Cruz example suggests. Finally, our nation appears to have made its worst mistakes when its leaders have allowed fear and ideologically rigid disposition to run roughshod over a more prudential evaluation of situations and alternatives from multiple stakeholder perspectives. Given these realities, our present course continues to suggest the likelihood of a governance process hobbled by misguided and misleading theorizing among some lawmakers who are also unwilling to countenance other views. The result is an ongoing scenario that is potentially poisonous, if not ruinous, for effective democratic decision-making.

Publication Date

June 2, 2013