common grounds politics

In political life, we tend to see a few strategies. First, we see partisanship, which is simply a word for “I do what my team does and fight my team’s enemies.” That sets up life a zero-sum status contest. Second, we see ideological politics. People argue for politics from an abstract argument about what is demanded by their belief system. It also leads to a sort of zero sum politics as well. Any deviation from your belief is a decrease in the value in the policy. Also, ideological politics is tough unless you happen to have an already popular ideology. Ideologies entail lots of consequences that other people might not buy. Third, there is incrementalism, which is to find small, moderate policy improvements that are hard to dispute. Success is likely, but you can easily miss the big issues.

There is a fourth approach to politics that people don’t seem to take often: “common grounds politics.” Here’s how it works – survey the range of ethical systems that you are likely to encounter, such as liberalism, socialism, etc. Then focus on important issues that are fairly straightforward consequences of many, or even all, of these theories. In other words, common grounds politics is when you focus on important issues that are logically consistent with the stated ethical systems of most people you will encounter.

Let me give you an example of a policy that is common grounds and one policy that is not common grounds. I think that open borders is common grounds. It is an obvious application of egalitarian theory because we allow poor people to decrease inequality by getting jobs in industrialized nations. It should also be intuitively appealing to libertarians who favor free markets.  It is not hard to come up with arguments from conservative, socialist, and utilitarian perspectives. Also, you will notice that arguments against migration tend to invoke violations of most political belief systems. For example, should an egalitarian treat people differently just because they happen to be born in a different nation? Should a “social values” conservative support policies that make it hard for families to stay together? It’s not hard to see that open borders is a good candidate for common grounds politics.

In contrast, school privatization is not a common grounds issue. The reason, I think, is fairly obvious. The policy violates the principles of many ethical systems. For example, liberals are comfortable using the tool of taxation to redistribute resources in society and school spending is one way that is done. Conservatives are happy to use schools to promote religious values. You can come up with a utilitarian argument for why public schooling has positive benefits. I am not making a point about the validity of school privatization as a policy. I am only noting that you would need to do a lot of ethical argument in order to make most people buy into that policy.

I claim no originality for common grounds politics. In fact, this argument is a modification of Huemer’s meta-ethical position in The Problem of Authority. Huemer argued for radical libertarian politics from common grounds. He is trying to appeal a number of standard philosophical positions (e.g., Rawlsianism, Kantians, etc) to make a strong policy argument that is counter-intuitive to most people. I take a different approach. Start with people’s “folk morals” and then see what policies are consistent with that. There is no attempt to smuggle in an entirely new ethical system. Instead, look for that rare policy that is both important and obviously consistent with most people’s basic intuitions.

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Written by fabiorojas

April 14, 2014 at 12:01 am

Posted in ethics, fabio, philosophy

3 Responses

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  1. How can this work, though, if most people are going to interpret policies through a partisan lens – judging the policy based on who proposed it rather than the actual content? Look at health care reform. This was a market based reform that kept private insurance companies at the center of the health care system. It was also originally a Republican plan. This should have been consistent with conservative value systems, but most conservatives strongly opposed it because of its association with Obama and the Democratic party. Similarly, how many liberals defending the Obama administration’s record on domestic surveillance and civil liberties would be doing the same for George W. Bush?



    April 14, 2014 at 1:48 am

  2. The key, in practical terms, is cognitive dissonance. Let’s stick to my hobby horse, open borders. To the conservative anti-immigration person, I’d focus on how the policy contradicts their stated ideology: “You believe in limited government, then how is building a fence not expanding government?” “You believe in free markets, then aren’t migration restrictions limiting economic freedom?” Since this is a common grounds issue, then it’s hard to write off immediately as a partisan policy without incurring psychic costs.

    Perfect strategy? Not even close. But it’s way easier than either partisan grounds or theoretical grounds (e.g., arguing from some absolute ethical principal).



    April 14, 2014 at 2:14 am

  3. The big issue is that people’s folk morals could be consistent (or inconsistent) depending crucially on how the policy is framed. The key question is the extent to which frames based on common grounds can beat out other frames. I’m not sure the newer literature on this stuff (Steensland, Skrentny, Best, Brown) points one way or the other.


    Josh Mccabe

    April 14, 2014 at 12:21 pm

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