"THE MUPPETS"..Ph: John E. Barrett..© 2011 Disney

Against “Evidence-Driven Policy”

Culture Featured Philosophy Policy Rantish

I’m going to start with one of my biggest annoyances in political and policy debates and then tell you why I think you should care instead of just nodding and smiling until I stop talking.

Evidence-driven policy:  It’s all the rage these days.  You can’t swing a dead cat in Canadian political circles without hitting it.  Usually it’s a veiled dig at an opponent:  we like using evidence while they prefer to consult pigeon bones and chicken guts.  The implication is transparent:  our opponent’s positions are based on ideology, and our’s on Science.

The problem with claims of evidence-driven policy comes when evidence is elevated to the point where it no longer informs policy, but is thought to direct it.

On first blush this sounds good, as far as these arguments go.  Everyone loves evidence.  Science and its inquisitive method have advanced our standard of living in countless ways.  This is something we can all get on board with.

The problem with claims of evidence-driven policy comes when evidence is elevated to the point where it no longer informs policy, but is thought to direct it.

Political leaders love to invoke the idea of non-ideological policy.  It’s a mainstay of platforms and rhetoric, for example, from both the federal and Ontario Liberal parties: our opponents are rigid ideologues, we are pragmatists looking to help real people, etc.

The problem with this isn’t just that it’s a nonsensical claim, but that it’s actively dangerous.

Clinging to the idea of non-ideological policy is an abdication of our duty to think critically about the values and beliefs that underlie our assumptions about how the world works and where it should go.  Given that policy is most often preoccupied with 1) the balancing of different competing goals and 2) the means with which we strive to achieve our ends, it’s absolutely critical that we have a way to systematically think about why our goals should, in fact, be our goals.

Take, for example, health policy in the United States.  An express goal of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) is to decrease the number of uninsured Americans.  That sounds good.  But what about people who don’t want insurance, even at an affordable price (i.e. they’re young and don’t need it)?  Isn’t personal liberty a worthy policy goal?  But what about the cost inflicted on people through taxation or the future costs of debt?  Thrift is surely a worthy goal!  What about the increased regulatory burden on insurance firms?  Many believe that a liberal market economy is an important priority!  What about universal accessibility without cost?  Many believe that health services are a right that ought not be denied to anyone.

What we have is dozens of conflicting priorities: worthy applications of our time and treasure.  Without applying a value system there is no way to make any kind of determination of which goals are good and bad, or which goals are more important or less important.  By pretending to discard ideology, politicians and policymakers are not adopting some manner of neutrality but refusing to think systematically about the priorities and values that guide their decisionmaking.  Of course, politicians and policymakers do have values (whether consistent or not), which means that somewhere there is an ideology informing those values.  It could be conservatism, classical liberalism, marxism, or even a nihilistic lust for power.  But there’s something.

Instead of appealing to a sense of values, agents who try to disregard ideology turn to evidence-driven policy.  Evidence is called from its normal part to assume the role of identifying priorities and goals.  This perverts the purpose of evidence.  As facts, they are freestanding and useless to anyone.  There’s an infinite amount of information.  It takes a person to bring it together and build a narrative, to give it purpose.  They have to select what is relevant and what is not.  Evidence, properly used, is a way to determine the best way to achieve a goal driven by values.  It is supposed to convince others of an approach, to change the premises which buttress our values, but never to set the values themselves.  A skeptic who tests the premises of their beliefs against evidence isn’t putting some abstract concept of evidence in the driver’s seat, they’re valuing critical inquiry and trying to manifest their preferences.  Evidence is a map: indispensable on a road trip, but useless without a destination.

As facts, they are freestanding and useless to anyone.

Putting evidence in its proper place, the foundation of critical inquiry, allows us to think critically about the ideas we have about the world.  It’s these ideas that are central to the policymaking process and it’s these ideas why non-ideological policy is a sham.  My personal thoughts on why there’s this movement away from acknowledging the ideological basis of values and policies is that policymakers and politicians are trying to avoid political philosophy for fear of alienating supporters who might not toe a specific line.  But this avoidance is unethical.  Those in positions of authority and who exercise the right to rule others have a duty to reflect on the ethics of their actions and intents.  Obviously such analysis won’t make everyone happy – ethics is hardly a resolved field – but it would elevate the policy debate by allowing us to discuss the real things that matter to us.

Ultimately, most political fights aren’t about the technical details of policy.  They’re about liberty and security and responsibility and community and all other manner of values which individuals see as important and definitive.  It’s time we acknowledged this in our policy discourse.

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