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Policy Judgments and the Commons



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Most policy analysts will admit when pressed that while an economics framework (perhaps dominant in the profession) can be a powerful tool in their work, it should be used judiciously and with due regard to the fact that the democratic political process is not a market. Many will go further and contend that not only is this so empirically, it should also normatively be the case. The most insightful of these thinkers, often welfare economists, including Ezra J. Mishan particularly, have agonized over this concern in their work. They recognize that while economists may hypothesize that citizens are consumers who seek to maximize their benefits from government, the reality is much more complex, both for those individuals and their families. And if this is so for citizens, it is especially so for lawmakers who in principle must seek to reconcile divergent points-of-view (if not as often in practice, sadly, in today’s gerrymandered House congressional districts). They must also wrestle not only, or merely, with the efficiency dimensions and implications of their policy choices, but also with their purport for social equity and for programmatic effectiveness. While economists and the market prize choices that maximize efficiency, equity concerns or effectiveness issues often cause judicious democratic leaders to pause to consider whether justice or program efficacy require more than optimizing that criterion alone in policy decision-making. More deeply perhaps, public officials must consider these other valences and must find ways and means to balance among the competing imperatives they represent in ways that result in defensible outcomes for the citizenry they serve.

This said, it should be noted this argument assumes that lawmakers acknowledge the existence of, and wish to take actions to serve, a common good or a broader citizenry. Little here is relevant if they are not disposed to do so on ideological or other grounds. In fact, we have many leaders today in the United States Congress who appear to have adopted a view that realization of their personal power, partisan or sociopolitical dispositions or visions is more important than serving the best interests of their constituents or of the polity. For example, 144 Republican House members are now on formal record as embracing national default, whatever their particular electoral calculus in doing so. I know of no serious analyst willing to make an argument on behalf of nonpayment of the nation’s bills as creating a good for the American people, but many in the GOP were willing to support and to vote for it nevertheless. Moreover, none of the 144 sought to persuade those in their constituencies who erroneously favored such a course to shift their views on grounds their perspective would harm their own and the nation’s interests, despite the fact that an actual default would likely have been catastrophic. In any case, the recent partial federal government shutdown alone imposed costs exceeding $28 billion.

I raise the truism that democratic political leaders are asked to consider more than efficiency alone and to seek to secure the best interests of their constituents, even when these may view matters otherwise, in order to highlight the paramount historic significance of the common good as an arbiter of public action. As I have noted here and previously, however, many of our political leaders today, especially in the GOP, refuse in practice to acknowledge that their roles require them to discern a public interest while balancing among the often-competing claims of efficiency, equity (however understood) and effectiveness as they make policy decisions on behalf of all American citizens. Instead, they campaign consistently and misleadingly on platforms of “making government more market-like” and suggest that only efficiency matters in political choice making and that market processes can substitute for political ones. These officials also appear to be ideologically convinced that democratic politics need not reach the question of whether certain distributions of income and wealth undermine the possibility of political or democratic equality. They thereby set aside broader difficult questions of what it means to ensure equitable treatment of citizens amidst our nation’s heterogeneity. In recent political campaigns, some in the GOP have taken this argument so far as to contend that some Americans merit only de facto second class status in terms of equality because they are undeserving on one or another criterion of judgment: generally their relative poverty, food insecurity or other vulnerability.

In practice, this sort of mindset has significant consequences for policy-making. For example, a single-minded focus on efficiency might suggest that the government should expend little or no effort to publicize public programs, as optimally, citizens should know that initiatives for which they are eligible exist, realize that such offerings may assist them and take full advantage of their possibilities. Yet, in the real world, Americans often are unaware of public programs or, if aware, may find it difficult to meet the conditions of participation, whether out of ignorance or lack of specific capabilities or values. On the last point, for example, many elderly and very poor women in this country resisted signing up for food commodity support when that program existed because they feared accepting aid would stigmatize them. Many of them were sufficiently proud that they went hungry, rather than feel demeaned for their poverty. The same has been true for many very poor aged women eligible for Supplemental Security Income benefits or nutrition assistance during the history of those programs. This list might be extended to include other factors. It may also be difficult, for example, for citizens to take advantage of public benefits programs if they work full-time jobs that afford them little flexibility to visit offices to secure eligibility during business hours, or if information is not made available in multiple languages or at appropriate reading levels.

In addition, to these sorts of practical concerns, policy-makers must weigh how to treat relatively intractable problems in the policy process. Assuming we accept that there is a common responsibility to help ensure an educated population, how much responsibility should society assume for assuring school readiness and completion when families cannot or will not do so? Shall we collectively provide hot breakfasts and lunches, public pre-school programs and after-school activities aimed at offering young people productive alternatives to returning to empty homes, or simply argue that it is too bad that some children lack supportive families and they should help themselves if they wish to succeed? Since we know that alcoholism and drug addiction are characterized by very high recidivism rates, on what basis shall we collectively decide to provide treatment and determine how many episodes of “falling off the wagon” are too many in moral terms when we know that not affording succor is likely to lead to early death and a wide range of social costs?

These choices cannot be made on efficiency criteria alone, nor can they be ignored in a decent society whose citizens realize they are not autonomous islands. Any claims to the contrary are empty rhetoric and reprehensible pretense. Political choices are not simply economic decisions in an alternate process. Moreover, they often require that lawmakers balance competing equities rather than optimize a single evaluative criterion. Nonetheless, many GOP legislators and leaders today continue to adopt political stands that at once attack the idea of the democratic commons in favor of a radically individualized conception of freedom, disparage any who might require assistance from the polity and promote the idea that the broader society can survive with a majority of its citizenry imagining that all within it are individually and radically independent and many are beneath contempt. Democratic societies cannot exist, let alone govern themselves, without mutual recognition of individual dignity and common claims. Policy-makers who pretend otherwise do not so much debate always difficult and relevant possible policy tradeoffs, such as those outlined above, as offer a vision of anarchical pretense and magical thinking that ultimately results in the erosion of governance capability amidst an artificially constructed social enmity. Sadly, many in the nation’s Republican Party now appear to have adopted just such a stance. It will do nothing but continue to corrode the practice and possibility of both freedom and democratic governance.

Publication Date

November 3, 2013