Everyone who advocates any political or social position, and who claims to do so because it serves interests other than merely their own, acknowledges, either implicitly or explicitly, that we are in a shared enterprise. Some think the public interest is best served by an absolutist commitment to “less government,” and some by doing the analysis and making the determination, in each instance, in the light of the specific relevant facts. But regardless of what we value, what we believe, what we insist upon, if we are valuing it, believing it, and insisting upon it in a public forum in an attempt to persuade others that it is the right thing to value, believe, or insist upon, then we believe that we have some shared fate, and some common interest in governing and organizing ourselves wisely. That is the human enterprise.

First, let’s dispense with the artificial distinction above between “governing” and “organizing” ourselves. Those who believe that churches and community organizations and voluntary associations of various kinds are useful, but that government is an impediment to our individual and/or collective welfare (the latter simply being an aggregation of our individual welfare, according to some set of values held by the individual advocating a particular position), are in effect saying that they favor one form of government over another. If government were eliminated or reduced, but voluntary organizations were left to fill the void, then the latter would become governments, and would be subject to many of the same issues, debates, and concerns that current governments are subject to. So, the debate is always over what form and function of government we advocate.

I assume that we can all agree, that in any conflict of ideologies, generally speaking, we are acting on the assumption that some are more useful than others. The logically possible alternatives are that conflicting ideologies are not actually incompatible, or, if they are incompatible, that the public interest is unaffected by the choice between them, in both of which cases there should be no conflict. The existence of conflict demonstrates the belief that some ideologies, some positions, better serve the public interest than others.

I further assume that we can all agree that the purpose of our political process, of our public debate over which ideas to implement, is based on conflicting beliefs over which ideas best serve the public interest. We should all acknowledge that we are engaged in a process the purpose of which is to select those ideas which best serve the public interest, however it is defined.

There are really, implicitly, two interrelated debates taking place under that one rubric: What is “the public interest,” and how is it best served? In other words, there is a debate over how to define the goal, and over the means for achieving it. We routinely conflate these two debates, arguing over means to differently conceived goals without debating the relative merits of the goals themselves, because we are in conflict over policies which, by their nature, are based on particular resolutions of both aspects of this contested terrain.

The first thing we need to do, in service to the human enterprise that we all implicitly acknowledge we are in, is to engage explicitly in the debate over what defines “the public interest,” without leaping to the debate about how it’s best served. This pre-empts the error of various idolatries, including “Constitutional Idolatry” (the treatment of adherence to a particular reductionist interpretation of the U.S. Constitution as the necessary and sufficient justification for all policy positions), by requiring attention to the end that is being served, rather than merely advocacy of a particular means for serving it. It requires, in other words, that the argument be made, rather than merely the dogma invoked.

Having to “make the case” is an essential procedural cornerstone of engaging in the human enterprise most effectively. We resolve legal disputes by “making the case” in court, which looks for adherence to a particular set of procedures and rules to best ensure the accuracy and reliability of the information presented. We resolve scientific and academic disputes by “making the case” in peer-reviewed journals, which look for adherence to a particular methodology which maximizes the reliability of data and of the analysis applied to it. We need to learn how to submit political disputes to the same discipline, to a methodology which maximizes reliability of information and of the analysis applied. The starting point for developing such a discipline is the requirement that political positions prevail to the extent that the case for them prevails in a court-like or academy-like procedural crucible, rather than to the extent that they manage to exploit unexamined emotional responses and predispositions (the same predecessor to modern legal and scientific procedures which gave us throwing witches into lakes to determine guilt or innocence, and basing knowledge of nature’s subtleties almost exclusively on popular superstitions).

When we subject the fundamental political conflict over how to define “the public interest” to this constraint, we discover that one set of positions is based on a refusal to make the case, rather than on how well the case was made. The Tea Party and its fellow travelers, invoking the “Constitutional Idolatry” mentioned above, claim that we have an authoritative document that tells us exactly how to pursue the public interest, without requiring any consideration of what the public interest being pursued is. It jumps to advocacy of a methodology for pursuing the public interest (i.e., adherence to a particular interpretation of the Constitution), assuming that the public interest is thus served. It may be, but the case needs to be made, explicitly, to determine if the argument should prevail under a sound methodology applied to political disputes.

Currently, there isn’t really any debate over what the public interest is. There is, rather, a conflict between those who think we should pursue it, and those who think we shouldn’t, the latter, essentially, arguing that the public interest is best served by being disregarded. This latter group is rooted, for instance, in a belief in the justice of inequity, that what each has is what each deserves, and that any attempt to “redistribute” wealth, or to refine property rights in ways which result in the redistribution of wealth, is an injustice against those from whom it is redistributed.

But this position is detached from reality. It doesn’t recognize that current property rights are a legal and political artifact, no more inherent to nature than alternative sets of property rights, and are a particular kind of distribution, not the absence of one. Modifications in these laws are less “redistributions” than “alternative distributions.” All that distinguishes them from the current system of distribution of wealth is that they are more or less efficient (contributing more or less robustly to the production of wealth), more or less fair (distributing wealth and opportunity with less regard for the chances of birth), and more or less sustainable (establishing a stable pattern of rights and responsibilities).

This position that defends strictly defined and inviolate private property rights is detached from history, in which the distribution of wealth extant today is rooted in violence and exploitation, and that the distribution of opportunity today is affected by that historical legacy. It is detached from empathy, in which the injustice of being born into poverty and suffering its effects is a social problem to be addressed rather than someone else’s problem to be disregarded. It us detached from pragmatism and economics, in which our current extreme economic inequality diminishes economic robustness and social mobility, decreasing both aggregate wealth and increasing persistent, long-term social costs imposed on all of us. But most of all, it is detached from consideration of what “the public interest” means, because the economically, socially, and morally dysfunctional commitment to current inequities can only be defended in blindness, for only as long one refuses to face the question of what “the public interest” means. It crumbles under scrutiny as soon as that question is addressed.

The Human Enterprise requires that we address both the question of what defines “the public interest,” and what means (i.e., public policies) best serve it. And it requires that we do so according to a methodology that maximizes the reliabilitiy of information and analyses employed, and minimizes the role of prejudice (i.e., emotional predispositions). It’s time for all of us to engage in that enterprise together.

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