On right action and American politics

July 20, 2020

We try to do what's right in the best way we can. This is a statement that generally guides human behavior. You can summarize this as "right action."

What defines right action differs from person to person, however. In looking at the approaches of Americans to the problem of politics and national leadership, we can observe two primary examples.

The first defines the quality of being right as the degree of perceived adherence to one's world view. The second defines the quality of being right as the degree to which a measurable result adheres to the desired outcome.

So, when judging the policy of a political figure, someone with the first approach will judge that policy as correct if it conforms to one's value set. Someone with the second approach will judge that policy as correct if it has been measurably proven to be so.

These two approaches overlap to varying degrees in a single individual. The policy in question will be judged more dispassionately and in greater alignment with the second approach if the policy has less alignment with an existing identity value of the individual. That is, a person is more likely to be rational about a topic if that topic doesn't matter to them much. However, if the topic impedes or aligns with a core value of the person in question, they are far more likely to be irrational in their reaction to policy on that topic.

It should seem reasonable to suggest that an empirical approach to every decision is ideal. The problem is that humans are incapable of being rational about every decision in their lives. However, in striving to be rational about as much as possible, one can approach the ideal even if it remains elusive.

Judging a policy based on its measured results or on historical measured data is far preferable to the alternative. When evaluating those measurements, it's important to trust the opinion of experts over the opinion of unqualified individuals. This lends itself to more accurate prediction of results, which in turn allows for more effective policy choice.

Further, once a policy has been in place for an amount of time that allows for statistically significant results, that policy can and should be reevaluated to determine its correctness. This reinforces a structure of continual improvement.

Too often in American politics, policymakers make value judgments based on personal identity and not on measured results. Voters decide on their representatives the same way. This conflicts with the original philosophical climate that gave birth to the United States of America in the first place. Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison were all proponents of Enlightenment philosophy. The phrasing of the Declaration of Independence includes language to this effect; in describing the right of people to establish new government, the Declaration states that they lay "... its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness."

It's not enough to content oneself with baser instincts. Instead of choosing the path of blind acceptance, we must choose to temper our molten feelings with the cool water of empirical logic. Only then can we forge a strong future.