When I started this blog, one challenge was figuring out how to differentiate its subject matter from the kind of “politics” writing that focuses on campaigns and politicians. I settled on “political ideas” as the catch-all phrase, but I wanted to write a post clarifying just what it is the blog is meant to cover.
“Political ideas” is my take on what in other venues might be called political philosophy. Political philosophy is a subject matter very dear to my heart, but the “philosophy” part of the name brings with it connotations of the ivory tower. One of the goals of this blog is to illustrate how political philosophy is being conducted all the time – by newspaper columnists, politicians, civics teachers, and taxi cab drivers. “Philosophy” sounds like something done by philosophers, whereas anyone can have an idea. The point is a small one, and not worth belaboring too much. So, throughout the blog I’ll use the terms “political philosophy,” “political ideas,” and “political thought” pretty interchangeably, but always bearing in mind that people can have principled and thoughtful opinions on questions of political value without citing the Enlightenment philosophe who best supports their views. (Not that that’s a bad thing to be able to do.)
Definitions of “politics” and “political philosophy” abound, and it’s a fool’s errand to find one both universal and specific enough to make everyone happy. My working definition for political philosophy is “the questions, answers, and debates over how societies should be organized.” This definition is my own, and intentionally errs on the side of broadness. It also helps point out something important: political philosophy is about “oughts” and “shoulds.” That is to say, when asking questions about individuals, groups, laws, etc, political philosophy aims to do more than just describe how the world works or predict what would happen if certain things change. Political philosophy makes what some people call “normative” claims, which are arguments about values and morals. In particular, political philosophy is concerned with the morals and value systems that we use to hypothesize about what ideal (or maybe just “better”) societies would look like.
It’s this concern with “ought” questions that differentiates political philosophy from other fields. An economist, for instance, might be interested in questions about similar topics such as taxation and income redistribution. But while an economist would ask whether a given amount of taxation and redistribution affects labor productivity or economic growth (descriptive questions), normative questions about what kinds of taxation and redistribution are fair, just, or most desirable are questions for political philosophy. This isn’t to say that economists shouldn’t weigh in – factual questions about growth and productivity are obviously relevant to deciding what is just and desirable. What if the highest productivity is only possible under the barest levels of taxation, which would not sustain much of a social safety net? Or what if it seems possible to tax the highest earners at 90% without slowing growth or innovation? Economists might be among those with the best grasp of the relevant tradeoffs. But when it comes time to choose the best tax policy, deliberation involves not only questions of fact but questions of fairness and social priorities as well. How much growth should we sacrifice to promote social equality? Should top marginal tax rates be limited by concerns over fairness?
It’s easy to see how broadly relevant political philosophy is; normative questions of the “what should we do about this?” variety are raised by many findings in nearly all social science and policy-related disciplines. What’s surprising is how infrequently these kinds of questions are given a treatment as thorough as the empirical questions that inform them. Political values are both over-employed and under-scrutinized in public conversations. Over-employed because of the frequency with which terms like freedom, fairness, equality, and human rights are invoked by writers, pundits, and politicians as the unimpeachable justification for a cause. Under-scrutinized because when values show up, they’re usually sound bites or trump cards rather than conversation starters. Right now, political talking points make it seem like you can simultaneously have your cake, eat it, and give it away for free to small business owners. Critical discussion of priorities and conflicts just isn’t what we’ve come to expect.
That’s not to say that this kind of discussion is absent from the public sphere. As I mentioned with the newspaper-columnist-and-cab-driver point above, there actually are conversations about values happening all around us. But they often take place in the introduction or conclusion of that new popular book about economics or evolutionary psychology, or as small digressions in op/ed pieces. Other times, conversations about political philosophy take place very explicitly but in less mainstream sources. It’s understandable to a degree – these conversations are often complicated, messy, and leave many issues unresolved. But they’re also fascinating and important, and there should be more space for them. This blog is my attempt to highlight existing spaces and add to the conversation.