Comment 40277

By Borrelli (registered) | Posted April 29, 2010 at 16:21:46

Interesting essay, as usual, Ryan. However I find it intriguing that the model of public policy development you've presented makes almost no mention of the medium in which social/public policy is developed: human interaction.

Even if I were a person who honestly believed that objective truths existed and were knowable (yes, up is up, grass is green, and gravity makes me fall down go boom, but they are all concepts negotiated and reinforced through social interaction), I'd be foolish to believe that everyone can and will naturally arrive at those beliefs, towed along by reason.

Being "correct" on issues of fact is one thing, as social consensus drives factuality, but determining the "correct" route in the realm of public policy is not simply a factual issue, but a collective action one--as a matter of using shared resources to achieve shared goals, individuals still need to be towed to the "correct" answer, and the rationality they use to arrive there varies and is exploited by different actors in the polis.

I'm not sure if you are operating from an assumption that people only use purposive/means-end rationality to make decisions, but either way, I recommend to you the work of Jurgen Habermas as an excellent resource on the topic of rationality, especially within the public sphere. In the first volume of A Theory of Communicative Action, Habermas outlines the various forms of rationality available to humans, (instrumental; value-based; affectual), and then begins to present his theory of Communicative Rationality, which I believe to be the most relevant when speaking of public policy issues.

The goal of Communicative Rationality is indeed to find consensus, much as you desire, but it is firmly rooted in social interaction and communication, not an instrumentalist approach to an objective "what is best." Fear not, it's not a relativistic concept, but it's not the same thing as what you suggest. Without boring you with too much detail, I guess the distilled message is that communicative rationality is not about object ends--the validity of people's speech acts (their claims to truth) are the ones that are actually evaluated intersubjectively, and are the path at which two or more individuals can achieve consensus.

What you seem to be advocating for is some form of technocracy where decisions are made by experts faced with hard facts, and able to form rational decisions based on a fair assessment of the facts. That's fine, but it's not liberal democracy. Democracy's messy, complex and plagued by conflicting groups of interests--and we negotiate solutions and facts as a differentiated social group. Your reasons for advocating one solution over another lie in a means-ends analysis based on efficiency ("Bike lanes won't work the best unless they're done this way,") yet you disregard the reasons provided by others for not agreeing with that model as irrational, instead of appreciating the different justification/form of rationality they use to get there ("It's too expensive", "It's bad for drivers", or the less likely, "it's immoral!").

So while the appeal to moderation may be a logical fallacy, it is an essential part of the social incrementalism that gets large groups of individuals to agree to change anything at all.

Comment edited by Borrelli on 2010-04-29 15:22:10

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