Vague norms and specific proof

I’ve fallen off the blogging wagon in recent months. Whenever that happens, I find the best way to get back on is to post something small and easy. Fortunately, I had a bit of inspiration from a client’s recent blog post on intrinsic/normative arguments (“X is good in itself”) versus extrinsic/instrumentalist arguments (“X is good because it accomplishes Y”)—specifically as they relate to open governance and progress in that sector. It sparked some thoughts on the value and utility of arguments based on intrinsic value and extrinsic utility.

So as part of my effort to get back in the habit of blogging, here’s a simple thought for today: Principled arguments about the intrinsic value of something—whether that’s open governance, rights, justice, etc—can only make sense at a vague level. Extrinsic, practical, empirically grounded arguments are needed to define the details.

For example: There’s a principled argument to be made for progressive taxation, but there’s no principled argument to be made for a top marginal tax rate of 40% v. 60%. That argument has to be utilitarian, and can be at least modeled if not tested. Likewise, there’s a principled argument for equal access to education, but there’s no principled argument for the structure of private v. public provision of education services. That argument can only be made empirically, perhaps by comparing education outcomes in various institutional, economic, and political contexts to draw useful conclusions.

Policy conversations get muddled when we mix the two, e.g. grounding policy details in normative rather than empirical arguments (e.g. the Republican presidential candidates’ tax plans). And the thorniest political challenges emerge when there are arguments about conflicting intrinsic values (e.g. freedom v. security). At that point, empirical arguments are largely useless and progress is nearly impossible. This has confounded many an evidence-based advocacy effort. 

What about self-interest and in-group-interest? They may seem unprincipled, but these are actually a form of intrinsic argument: they are rationally self-contained and require no justification in outside principles. So again, you can’t overcome them with facts. You only overcome them by changing the context, i.e. with power.

There’s more to be said about the political interplay of intrinsic and extrinsic arguments—especially as they relate to issues like rising inequality or white privilege, which are grounded in self-interest—but let’s leave it at that for now. Here’s to a 2016 of increased writing.