Of course I'm liberal, I believe in liberty.

Thursday, February 24, 2005

Ideology or Pragmatism? -- or -- What's My Political Philosophy?

I had a few different lines of thought hit me today. I often define 'ideology' as believing in a preconceived set of solutions, regardless of pragmatic considerations. This is why I say pragmatism trumps ideology. But pragmatism by itself is meaningless, you need to have morals, goals and a vision to strive towards before you can actually be pragmatic about the solution. Once you have that vision, pragmatism kicks in.

Think of a map. Once you have a destination in mind you can use a good map to determine the course. First you have to find your current location and the location of your destination, then you find the best route. There may be more than one route, perhaps the freeway is busy this time of day or they are doing construction on a certain street, it really doesn't matter as long as make it to your destination. That's the pragmatic approach.

Ideologues want to drive, say, south. No matter what, you have to drive south. Then another set of ideologues come around and say you have to drive north. Before you know it everyone is arguing over whether to drive north or south and completely ignores the destination. Those that try to point to the map and say that sometimes we need to drive north and sometimes we need to drive south are derided as wishy-washy flip-floppers. First he says north! Then he says south! Which one is it?? He can't make up his mind! I say go South! I've always said go South! You may not like where I'm going, but at least you know where I stand, I'm going South!

(I didn't mean this to become a rehash of the election, but, oh well, there we are. Kerry isn't the perfect pragmatist, but Bush is an excellent example of an ideologue most of the time. But now I'm distracting myself, this really wasn't the point...)

Well, that's one train of thought. The other is "what is liberalism?", a common question in the liberal blogosphere lately. (See Matt, Mark and Kevin.) Or more pragmatically, what should the Democratic party stand for? Or more personally, what do I really believe in? Part of the reason of creating this blog was to get past the "I know what I like when I see it" stage and develop a consistent philosophy of government. But is a philosophy of government the same as an ideology as I've defined it? Can be, which is part of the problem I and others like me keep running into. We seem to keep going back to The Enlightenment or pragmatism. The best I've seen is Brin's Modernism approach, but that still isn't really it.

While contemplating all this I wondered if I was the only person who supported both school vouchers and single-payer healthcare. Vouchers are considered further to the right than most Republicans are willing to go and single-payer healthcare is considered further to the left than most Democrats are willing to go, yet I think both are a good idea. Then, just as I was thinking this was a perfect example of how we should look to pragmatic solutions to problems regardless ideology, it occurred to me that both ideas are, in fact, basically the same.

A voucher program as I would like to see it would be a federally funded program where each child gets a voucher of equal value to pay for the schooling of their parent's choice. The single-payer healthcare system would give each person a choice of healthcare plans (insurance) they could choose as they like. Just introduce the word 'voucher' into the healthcare plan and they look almost identical.

More to the point, they both have the same philosophy: combine a centralized collection and distribution of funds (the leftist, socialist side) with local control and the power of the free market (the rightist, capitalist side). The central government should also play a roll in the collecting and distributing information such as what results are gained from various (educational or medical) practices, making sure school and medical records are easily exchanged between providers, etc. Who says social justice and the free market are opposites?! I want to eat my cake and have it too! The only reason one idea seems leftist and the other idea rightist is because we are starting at two very different places on the map; education is almost completely socialized and healthcare is almost completely free market. But the destination for both are actually quite close, even if the drive is north for one and south for the other.

In fact, in the real world this is exactly how I manage. I don't micro-manage, instead I get people to take ownership of their own work, try to clear roadblocks, make sure communication occurs laterally between developers, build consensus when problems arise, etc. Hmm, perhaps I really do have a solid, consistent philosophy and didn't even realize it. That's great if it holds out.

Of course, it doesn't hold out completely. Obviously we don't want to collected everyone's pay check and just distribute them equally. Nor do we want to give local control to hire whichever soldier you decide with your military voucher. (Why is it the military is the best example I can think of something that needs to remain completely socialized? Funny how that works.)

But this is a good start on a political philosophy. I think the same philosophy can be applied in the temporal dimension as well. As I implied in Stratum IX Leadership, leaders need to be forward thinking. And even if we can't be guaranteed brilliant leaders, the basic idea can still be institutionalized. Is it fair to say government itself should focus on the long term but leave the short term up to the individual and free market? Perhaps not universally, but I think this is a good philosophy. Companies are great and making a profit from quarter to quarter and are generally okay at investing in shorter term R&D, but they really can't waste resources on long term science, math and other investments that take decades to pay off. Definitely something worth thinking about.

So here's he question. Does this mean I'm now an ideologue trying to apply the same solution to every problem? That's certainly something to look out for. But it's good to have a philosophy and this seems like a reasonable start. It seems to capture most of my (seemingly) haphazard ideas into a single philosophy.

I'm curious what others think. Totally nutzo? Absolutely brilliant?

UPDATE: I continue this train of thought in Micromanagement.