On reason, on rationalizing and on public policy (and a brief thought on Tim Murphy)

Most of us know that there is at least one reasonable person in the world…. ourselves.   And most of us believe that it would be a much better world if everyone was as reasonable as us.

People who make public policy are too often the same way which is at least part of the reason it is so hard for any group larger than one person to make a decision to do anything.

There are two basic questions to making sense of the world and those two questions have a lot to do with the kind of public policy that is proposed.

The questions are simple :

Can I believe this?

Must I believe this?

The first question is one of justification.     It is about rationalization… making what we want to do or we have decided to do make good sense.   It is about fire… ready…. aim.   We tell ourselves we are trying to make a decision but really we are trying to dress a decision already made in the prettiest possible ribbon.  

We possess a positive genius to come up with good reasons for bad things.   We are at our most intelligent trying to explain the sense in stupid things.

Much of the time what we seek to justify are things that protect us or advance us or make us more important.   One of the most important questions to ask about any public policy is what does it justify.  If this policy becomes reality whose interests are served,  whose territory is enlarged?

Must I believe this?

This is a question in service of honesty and facts. It may,  in fact it will almost always benefit someone,  but the difference is that is not primarily about that benefit.   I still remember the night I heard Robert Whitaker ask if it was possible to have an honest mental health system?

Even when I want something else to be true where do the facts lead and even if it is uncomfortable will I go where the facts lead because honesty is more important than self interest.

Kind of seems pie in the sky doesn’t it?   Is honest possible in public policy,  in large organizations,  on major policy issues?   I am not totally sure that honesty  is even easily possible on a personal level.   I don’t know. I really don’t.

Maybe the best we can do is to be aware of whose interests are being served, what any given policy legitimizes. What does it define as common sense and “normal?” What road does it take us down and is that somewhere we want to risk going?

There is a common danger in all this, a very predictable catastrophe. Let me take the example of Rep Murphy and the Murphy Bill.

You are in huge trouble when you start believing that the things you can believe are the things other people must believe. It leads to the point where your argument is really not with their beliefs as much as it is with their character or motivation. Soon positions harden and civil war becomes your normal state of affairs.

Tim Murphy had staked out a position rather through intent or not that says it is impossible for a caring, committed, and intelligent person to sincerely disagree with him. And because of that he will only get a far as he can make others do his bidding.

He is his own worse enemy. The last couple of years have abundantly shown that. The scorched earth advocacy he is so good at leaves too many casualties and in the end he will find out he can’t beat everyone.

He still needs to convince people and it is so hard to convince people who think you never listen and that you only talk to hear how smart you are?

The biggest problem with people are that they are people. The biggest problem with policy makers is that they forget that and so much public policy debates are not much more than arguments about vanity.

I don’t know. What do you think?

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