Posted by: Alvin | February 1, 2009

What Politics Should Be

It’s no secret that British Columbia has probably the most polarized political climate in the country, and in Vancouver it’s only more acute. It’s also no surprise that we live in some of the most challenging times we’ve seen as a country since the early 90s. So when I encounter people from both ends of this spectrum who have no capacity for pragmatism or respectful debate, I not only get disappointed, I get a little angry.

I’m not going to make any apologies for my politics, I belive in what I belive in, and I belive in it very strongly. At the same time, I resist the idea that you have to live somewhere on the political spectrum, occupy some sort of space that you let everyone else know about. The danger with this is that it doesn’t do much to solve complex situations, you know…the kind of situations you come across rather often in politics. Raw ideology works just fine when you’re debating the abstract. But in real life things are always shades of grey (and when you encounter situations where things seem to be black and white, it’s that much more important to actively seek out the grey lest you surrender to the easy way out).

The reality is that the sexiest political challenges, the ones policy wonks all want to come up with solutions to, are the most complex. So if you approach these challenges using a rigid ideological framework, you end up doing a lot of damage and alienating a lot of people in the process. Take social housing as an example. It’s not just an issue of roofs over people’s heads (as much as some politicians like to announce at rallies: “The solution is simple, build more housing!” just to get cheers from the crowd). It’s also not as simple as a business case. So when you have people on the ideological right claiming that market based solutions to housing problems is all you need, and people on the ideological left claiming that punitive taxation on development will solve the problem, you not only end up with bad decisions being made, you also end up with angry stakeholders and a disenchanted public. Housing is a complex situation involving land and development costs, opportunity costs, partnerships with all three levels of government, local neighbourhood planning processes, addiction and treatment issues, crime and safety, and future management challenges, just to name a few.

Its important as a good policy champion to understand where all your stakeholders are coming from, and to go one step further and help all your stakeholders to understand each other as well. Rigid ideology does the exact opposite. No one has a monopoly on good ideas, and as much as we want to hate the party we didn’t vote for, or vilify people whose life experiences have shaped the lenses they use differently than ours, remember that its far more productive to understand than it is to attack.

So that piece of property you own on the ideological spectrum? The one you spent a lot of time carving out and the one you love so much? My advise: sell it. Become a drifter and couch-surf around the neighbourhood. It’s the only circumstance where it pays to be homeless.



  1. Awesome article man. I love taking a philosophical bent on things like this, so here it is.

    Ideological is a vague term. Since Marx, being called ideological has been an insult. It doesn’t need to be. It could just mean someone concerned with ideas. And who can condemn someone with beliefs? Yet, the term has been used to identify a particular form of belief, and if it becomes clear what is problematic in that form of belief, the term could clarify discussions and lead to construction instead of contention.

    To me, the way to understand ideological is this: it is a stubborn commitment to means. Most debates concern two separate things: the principles one extols and the policies one uses to achieve them. The principles are basic. That is, we do not value them for something else, but for themselves. Principles are the ends we seek. They usually exist in a hierarchy; so, when they conflict, one trumps the other. In any action we take, they are the ultimate justification. They could be equality, freedom, happiness, piety, or any other value that is fundamental and does not rely on something else for justification.

    Policies, alternatively, are the means used to achieving our ends. They may be necessary for the principles we seek – that is, in all cases they must be applied to achieve the end – or they may be contingent – that is, they are useful for achieving the end in some circumstances but not others. It is mistaking this distinction that leads to one being ideological. By believing that a particular policy is necessary when it is in fact contingent for achieving one’s ends, one becomes attached to a policy that, in some circumstances, may not help achieve one’s ends; or worse, it may even lead to undesirable ends. To be ideological is not to be committed to principles, but to policies.

    To take this out of the abstract, an example can be found regarding deficit spending. Take someone whose end is human happiness. One of the necessary means to achieving this is having an economic situation that is sufficient for happiness (having food, shelter, etc). This economic situation may be harmed by deficit spending – an irresponsible government could spend enough to harm the economy. So being against deficit spending seems to be a policy that can help achieve the end – happiness via economic satisfaction. Yet, it is my understanding (I’m no economist) that deficit spending may, at other times, help the economy. So in some cases a policy contrary to the one just described, this time being for deficit spending, could be helpful to achieve one’s end. Evidently, deficit spending is a contingent policy – depending on the circumstances it may or may not be useful for meeting one’s ends. It would be ideological to deny this and instead believe it is necessary to prohibit or promote deficit spending in all circumstances. That is, it is ideological to maintain a stubborn commitment to a policy, that is, a mere means.

    So what would be constructive is clarity on whether a conversation regards ends or means, and then whether the means are necessary or contingent. All too often it’s unclear if the person we speak with disputes our ends or our means. If we can reach agreement on our ends, then there might be less stubborn commitment to means; because as long as the end will be achieved, the means that are used are irrelevant – unless, of course, they conflict with other ends (I’m no Machiavellian!). Admittedly, deciding what means are necessary or contingent is complex. Yet, there may be less contention and more construction if the commitment to one policy over another is set aside.

  2. Wow Mark! Thanks for this! I absolutely agree, when I wrote about being ideologically rigid this is exactly what I meant. I have every confidence that our politicians are trying to find ways to create prosperity, protect families, make the province healthy, and whatnot. Gordon Campbell’s problem was not that he held rigid principles, but that he held on to a rigid idea of how to realize those principles. That is where politics takes a turn towards being unproductive and harmful. Political situations change (the economy to take a completely random example), but principles usually don’t. Since that’s the case, smart politicians and policy makers should convey their personality and political style by articulating their principles and not their ideology. It sounds simple enough, but sadly its rare you see a politician give a speech about their principles and pledging to do whatever it takes to get there regardless of any ideological foundation. More often we see people attack the ideological space of their opponents and then distinguish themselves by doing something stupid like passing a balanced budget law.

    Where things get a little touchy though is what you were hinting at towards the end. The notion that the ends justifies the means. While I just finished saying that politicians should be rigid about their principles and not their ideologies and just ‘get it done’, one can’t in every situation ignore the means. Because policy (and by extension, politics) is so complex and far reaching, we have to discuss our means just as rigorously. If it can be seen that different means will lead to the same end then fine. But sometimes you encounter a situation where a particular way of doing something may disenfranchise certain individuals. This can happen for a number of reasons, mostly unintentional. If you are relying on data from StatsCan for example to guide your policy decisions, any problems in the data or oversights in it could lead to unintended problems later on (even if for the vast majority of people, you’ve held true to your principles).

    Regardless, the model of flexibility and principles needs to be a bigger part of what we demand from our leaders and what our leaders demand from themselves and each other.

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