Monday, March 3, 2014

Nenshi: Right About LRTs, Wrong About Ideology

Calgary's Mayor Naheed Nenshi visited Toronto last week and made some sensible comments about LRTs.  He also made some mushy and poorly reasoned comments about ideology, his ideas are popular, but fundamentally wrong and beliefs like this actually hinder progress on issues people care about.  You cannot wish away ideology.  It doesn't go out of style because it is simply how you view the world, and how you think a better world can be made.  Here's what he said:
“Here’s the thing: nobody cares about those old labels of left or right and liberal and conservative. Is removing the snow a right-wing or left-wing idea? Is fixing the potholes more New Democrat or Conservative? It’s ridiculous,” he said.
This is very unpersuasive.  It isn't hard to find libertarians who disagree with the ideas of having the state tax its citizens to provide & maintain public roads or plow those roads during winter.  Are such people a significant political force on the municipal scene?  No.  But then all Nenshi is saying that the politically potent forces agree on these particular ideological questions.  Even so, you can find plenty of left/right division in the details:  Should the workers providing these services be government employees or private contractors?  Should sidewalks be plowed?  Should homeowners be responsible for shovelling & fined if they don't? etc. 

Further, Nenshi here has (cherry) picked two quite settled matters of debate.  That the contemporary left and right mostly agree about these two things hardly means the End of History and agreement on everything else City governments might do.  Nenshi himself, who has been targetted by right wing forces in Alberta for his urban centric policies must know this.  Try asking conservatives whether public transit should be a subsidized public service or a for-profit business.  Or whether city governments should provide free or subsidized services for their residents from pools to libraries to parks, homeless shelters and sporting fields.  Ask whether urban planning should preference mass transit & higher density construction or sprawl & car-centric roads.  Ideological divisions abound once you stray from the easy matters of largely settled issues. 

The general positions that left and right take on these issues can be relatively easily derived if you understand what the division of "left" and "right" mean.  The labels themselves are arbitrary, a throwback to the French pre-revolutionary parliament.   We could call them "coke" and "pepsi" or "dogs" and "cats" - but the underlying heuristic employed by each camp does not tend to vary much across cultures or time periods.  It's not an accident that these labels have survived centuries & crossed oceans intact.  If you understand what drives the right, you can then understand why say, they want car-centric sprawl and public services minimized.  The eternal cry for "smaller government" applies just as much to municipal government as national ones.

The basic cleavage is this: The left seeks to enlarge the circle of human compassion, and the right seeks to shrink it.  There are other ways to express this, (you can state that the left seeks greater equality and the right greater hierarchy) but this basic division underlies the policies positions on specific issues taken by "liberals" and "conservatives."  This does not mean necessarily that people on the left and right think of their positions as such, in these terms (or even consciously), but the high consistency in finding these cleavages on such a disparate set of issues as handled by the modern municipality it not a mistake.

How is that Relevant to Municipal Politics?

One objection might be that municipal politics are "low-level" nuts-and-bolts issues that should not really concern people concerned with the high questions of the human condition.  But of course this is untrue.  Who needs reliable, affordable and timely public transit more than the poor?  What decides which communities the poor can afford to live in more than municipal policy?  Whether you live in a violent slum or a safe and healthy neighbourhood are largely decided by things like land zoning, provisioning of parks, and how the local schools are funded.  I'm sure some issues exist that don't easily translate into grand questions of social equality, but whatever their prevalance, municipal policy affects such questions in important ways.   

What is Ideology?

Nenshi doesn't use the word (and even mixes in partisanship by referencing political parties) but that's really what he's talking about.  It's important to spend a few words defining "ideology" - never mind whatever dictionaries say, ideology usually has a derisive meaning when used, and you frequently see people trying to dismiss someone else's ideological position in favour of their own ideological position by labelling it as such.  Typically anything that challenges universally accepted ideas is "ideology" but those universal ideas are not understood as such.  Much like "treason", ideology doth never prosper.

So what is it?  Ideology is your heuristic means for understanding how the world works.  It is a set of beliefs, both conscious and unconscious about how people behave, what is right and wrong, and what is the "good life."  Are you pre-disposed to think people are basically honest and will behave ethically with minimal supervision, or that they're dishonest and require monitoring and enforcement to behave themselves?   What do think "right" and "wrong" mean and are decided?  The Bible?  Utilitarianism?  Your ideology decides how you address these.

None of this is to say that all ideological beliefs are empirically or ethically equal.  Evidence matters (says my ideology, at least!).  Our heuristics may lead us to think that say, lowering taxes improves economic growth.  Does it actually do so?  This is an empirical question (to the extent reliable empirical tests of large numbers of people can be accomplished and accurately measured).

Nenshi is rejecting ideology.  That belief is, itself, ideological.  How do you know?  Well if my disagreeing with his ideology isn't enough, let's ask what empirical proof he can provide to prove me wrong?  Two sample consensus issues in a universe of divisive ones?

Yes, Nenshi's Statements Are Popular
“If we went on to Bay Street today and asked 100 people, ‘Are you left-wing or right-wing?’ I guarantee you, 85 of them would have no idea what we were talking about and 11 of them would answer incorrectly. And the rest would be John Tory.’” he said, to wild laughter.
This is also weak. First off it is an argumentum ad populem fallacy.  That most people might have trouble placing themselves on a left-right axis doesn't mean one doesn't exist, it just means many people don't think very much about ideology.  Why should they? 

But at a deeper level, most of those people will be relatively easy to place on such a spectrum if you actually query them on their views of various issues.  Yes, there will be iconoclasts who are difficult to place, and most people have an issue or two in which they differ from their otherwise prevailing ideology.  By and large Nenshi's 100 will divide fairly predictably.  This is an empirical result of psychologists quizzing thousands of people on moral questions and finding wide agreement on the moral issues liberals and conservatives found more important.  The ethical bases of liberals and conservatives are different in significant and persistent ways.  People may widely believe they are not ideological, but that doesn't make it true.

What's the Harm?

We should think about the harm this does.  The biggest harm is that ideology that is not understood as such is the most dangerous kind.  These are the kinds of beliefs that are the most difficult to challenge and change when evidence mounts that the belief is not working.  Those of us who admit our basic ethical systems are ideological and that those systems guide our beliefs about what even municipal governments should do, and how they do it are at least conscious of these choices.  Those who treat their ideolical beliefs as "self-evident" or "common sense" are the least apt to accept evidence to the contrary.

The other major harm is that it makes a negative out of the highly necessary process of democratic disagreement and debate.  Challenging ideology is the surest way to ensure only the best ideas win out.  Many of the worst debacles started with unanimous or overwhelming supermajority votes.  Many of the most cherished and successful government programs started in strife over vehement opposition.  I realize Nenshi did not explicitly say so, but you frequently see this kind of talk followed by calls to "move past" the old divides and "work together to get things done."  Whenever you hear someone say that, ask "get what done?  How?  Why is that thing something that should be done?"  You will quickly see ideology at work.  We cannot "work together" on common goals unless we have those goals in common!  We cannot agree on means to achieve those goals unless we share enough ideology to agree those means will achieve the agreed ends, and further that they don't have ideologically undesirable other effects which outweighs our desire to achieve that agreed goal.

An example may help bring this last, crucial point home.  Let's leave the field of road maintanance and talk about poverty reduction.  Left and right will both tell you (usually) that they agree reducing poverty is a noble goal.  Great.  But how?  The left supports policies like a minimum (or "living") wage, income support programs paid for by progressive taxation, free public education up to and including post-secondary, etc.  The right generally opposes these things, and proposes freedom, choice, deregulation, private enterprise personal responsibility and negative disincentives to poverty (e.g. that you'll starve in the dark if you don't work will incent you) to reduce it.  They may or may not support private charity intervening, funded only by voluntary donations.  To the extent they support government helping out, they want strings attached, from drug tests to "workfare."  The differences between these approaches cannot be papered over.  In fact, the differences are so vast, and the empirical results of right wing approaches so apparently counter-productive that most on the left conclude that the right's support of the basic goal is not an honest representation of its views.  That it is disingenuous.  Whatever, not going to settle this here, but the point is that you cannot wipe away these vital debates over both means and ends and get to some magical place where we all agree on what and how we should be doing.

None of the above is to say that one should consciously self-identify with the "left" or "right" and then adopt the positions of that tribe for the simple reason that they are the tribe's beliefs. That's partisanship, and a very different matter than ideology.  If that were all Nenshi meant, fine. Great. Of course it is better if people arrive at their policy positions by individual thought, and even desirable that intra-ideological debate occur.  What "liberals" believe is not a fixed and eternal quantity.  It can and should change as new evidence arrives as to the results of previous real world policy experiments.  This in fact has already happened, with the major shift of 19th century liberals away from laissez-faire capitalism and toward mixed-mode social democracy.  That liberals today believe in, say, the minimum wage, should not mean they must always believe such.  A sufficient quantity of quality evidence showing that policy is counterproductive to the underlying goals of liberalism should change the beliefs of liberals. 

If it were just Nenshi, one politician saying such things it would not be worth replying at such length, but as he himself says, such beliefs are common and receive applause when expressed.  No one wants to be one of those silly ideologues who are closed minded and unreasonable.  Except the aversion to recognizing your own ideology as such is about as ideological as it gets.  I would infinitely prefer an honest debate between ideologues to one in which some are pretending to be above ideology, claimants to the one, true, pure nature of the world. 

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