This blog post comes out of the commentary on last week's article, Why I'm Not That Exercised About Earth Day, which considered what is the "best" policy solution to a more-or-less binary issue - in this case the push for a continuous network of bike lanes - in which public opinion is sharply divided.
After one commenter suggested that the solution is to avoid both extremes, an interesting discussion followed around whether both sides of the issue constitute "polar extremes" and whether the solution is to find some kind of "common ground".
Now, I strongly support the search for common ground, especially among groups with orthogonal or even opposing agendas; but I've always understood "common ground" to mean specific policy areas on which distinct groups can agree.
A great example in Hamilton is the light rail plan, which enjoys the strong support of environmentalists, urbanists, BIAs, professional associations, the Chamber of Commerce, and politicians from across the political spectrum.
The important point is that all of these groups support light rail and want to see it built. Some support it because it reduces air pollution; others support it because it encourages intensification; still others support it because it catalyzes new private investment. Their reasons might be different but light rail has broad enough appeal that it can serve many interests simultaneously.
But is it possible to find common ground between people who support a policy and people who oppose that policy without persuading some people to change their minds?
It's an appealing fallacy because the middle ground often is the correct position, once you have canceled out the extremes of opposing ideologies. However, it is not necessarily so, and there are many cases in which the middle ground is clearly wrong.
The key to understanding the distinction is to understand the opposing positions to which the middle ground presents itself as an alternative.
As one commenter pointed out yesterday, if one position is correct and and the other position is incorrect, the 'right answer' is not somewhere in the middle. The right answer is still the correct one.
The middle ground fallacy applies to the bike lane debate, in the strict sense that the factual evidence abundantly supports one position and abundantly rejects the other.
The question of what happens when a city builds a network of bike lanes is a question that can be answered reliably and objectively through the use of reasoning from evidence, and so it makes sense to apply the principles of reasoning in assessing attempts to answer the question.
Set aside for a moment the question of whether and how to accommodate people who are unable or unwilling to reason, an important question to which I will return shortly.
In the context of a debate in which all sides have applied some kind of reasoning to defend their positions, it is entirely legitimate to subject the various arguments to basic logical tests to determine whether they make use of empirically valid premises and logical reasoning.
It matters if one side is objectively correct and the other side is objectively incorrect, in the sense of either believing facts that are incorrect or drawing conclusions that rely on fallacies of reasoning.
This is true even when dealing with a public composed of people with varying levels of informedness and willingness or capacity to reason. I would argue that it matters especially in such cases.
An approach to policy based on finding "balance" between opposing positions is dangerous because it exposes the political process to systematic abuse by interested parties who can deliberately move one fringe farther into the extreme to 'drag' the middle closer to their side.
The Overton Window is a concept developed by the late Josef P. Overton, who was vice president of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a conservative think tank.
The premise is that you can array all the possible policy actions on a given issue in a line ordered from accepted policy all the way to unthinkable.
[ Policy - Popular - Sensible - Acceptable ] - Radical - Unthinkable
The "window" is the subset of possible policies that are regarded as publicly acceptable to consider. Overton argued that you can "move" that window by aggressively promoting extreme, unthinkable policies in such a way as to make the 'merely' radical policies start to seem acceptable by comparison.
Since commonly held ideas, attitudes and presumptions frame what is politically possible and create the "window," a change in the opinions held by politicians and the people in general will shift it. Move the window of what is politically possible and those policies previously impractical can become the next great popular and legislative rage.
Further, the width of the window is relatively inflexible, so that:
policies that were once acceptable become politically infeasible as the window shifts away from them.
Consider, as an example of what I mean, the American health care reform debate. Twenty years ago, the Democrats wanted roughly what every other industrialized country on earth takes for granted: universal, comprehensive health coverage with a single payer for all or most medically necessary expenses.
The Republicans responded by complaining that the Democrats' health care plan didn't include enough market incentives and personal responsibility, so the plan that was eventually adopted ended up being an awkward combination of what the Democrats wanted and what the Republicans could live with.
That system limped along for another decade or so until the middle of the past decade, at which point its glaring failures and contradictions once again threatened to break the system down completely.
So the Democrats came at health care reform again, this time starting with a baseline plan that already incorporated what the Republicans had insisted - market incentives, personal responsibility and so on.
The Republicans responded by demanding a whole new laundry list of concessions designed to drag the plan farther and farther to the right.
The Democrats, eager to seem moderate, dutifully incorporated the change requests that weren't actually lunatic in an desperate effort to get something - anything - passed, but the Republicans receded to the right faster than the Democrats could track them.
By the time the final health bill was passed, universal single payer health care - the actual policy of every other industrialized country - had been rendered "unthinkable" in the US due to the aggressive Republican efforts to drag the window to the right.
The final policy was more right-wing in design and scope and more toothless in its ability to incentivize universal coverage than even the Republicans had wanted when the process began - and the Republicans still reacted by calling it tyrannical and socialist and inciting the public to rise up and fight it.
(One predictable consequence of the full-spectrum hate campaign was a string of vandalism and death threats against Democrats associated with the plan.)
If the Democrats were not trying to find a fallacious middle ground between their original starting position and the moving target that was the Republican line on health care, they would not have been susceptible to the Republicans moving the Overton Window.
The legislation would have had a chance of actually being based on a sound understanding of how health care works rather than the political fustercluck it turned out to be.
A health care plan that tries to find a middle ground between a policy designed from evidence to provide universal coverage and a policy designed to prevent universal coverage cannot help but fail to achieve universal coverage.
Similarly, a bike lane proposal that tries to combine the evidence-based position that a continuous network of bike lanes fosters more and safer cycling with the irrational position that a continuous network of bike lanes is somehow dangerous or unfair to drivers cannot help but fail to achieve the goal of increasing the rate and safety of cycling.
A badly designed, discontinuous bike lane network is worse than no network at all, because you end up with the situation in Ancaster in which Councillor Lloyd Ferguson sees a bike lane running along a short stretch of Golf Links Road and stopping arbitrarily before the highway on-ramp, notices that no one uses it, and concludes that bike lanes are a waste of money.
The only truly successful long-term strategy is a strategy that stands on principle, argues from clear evidence and relentlessly chips away at irrational and misinformed arguments against following the correct course.
My experience discussing and debating policy issues in Hamilton is that most people, when given a chance, are basically reasonable and will eventually come to accept a reasonable conclusion from the evidence.
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