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Ideas versus people

Remember the cliche about stopped clocks? When it comes to public policy–or anything involving some thought, for that matter–we ought to keep that in mind.

Three recent incidents illustrate some unhealthy habits, in which we focus on people and not the ideas they express.

The first incident involves the Common Core States Initiative. There are reasonable arguments to be made for and against it, and overall, I oppose it. On the other hand, Bill Bennett recently penned an op-ed in which he said conservatives ought to support it. Out came the knives: Bennett was paid to say what he did, so conservatives (or anyone for that matter) ought to ignore him. Never mind examining the substance of his argument. He got paid to say it; toss his essay in the trash!

Bennett, though, worked as the secretary of education for the U.S. government, and has written books on education. Doesn’t this suggest that he can make an informed judgement on the merits of the Common Core–and that his argument should be examined based on whether or not it is logical and true?

When it comes to public policy, the question of “who benefits” is not entirely out of bounds. When we consider a policy option, it’s reasonable to ask whether this politician, that union, or a business over there will financially benefit as a result. Bring it out to the open in the interest of knowing as much as we can about the costs and benefits of the policy. But don’t discard the idea out simply because so-and-so will reap a financial reward. We need to apply some other principles, too. (Example: Don’t say “I don’t like Coca-Cola; Coca-Cola supports the Export-Import Bank and reaps financial gain from it. The bank is a bad thing.” Instead, it’s possible to build an opposition to the bank on the broader principle that government should not substitute its judgment for those of private-sector financial actors.)

The second incident involves Peter Bell, a black man (it’s relevant, just wait) who recently penned an essay about disciplinary policy in the Minneapolis public schools. He’s concerned that recent changes by the school system will drive middle-class families away. When the Center of the American Experiment (where Bell and I both serve as policy fellows) posted the essay  on Facebook, one public commenter simply dismissed Bell as an Uncle Tom. No matter that his argument could be criticized on several grounds–or might even be right. Nope. Shout “Uncle Tom,” and close down the theater.

Finally, from the left side of the political spectrum is Ezekiel Emanuel, who wrote an essay with the provocative title, “Why I hope to die at 75.” Emanuel discusses American attitudes toward sickness and death, and concludes that at some points in his life–sometimes at 75, sometimes sooner–he will refuse medical treatment. He’s careful to say that this is his idea and not necessarily for anyone else.

The headline aside, there’s really nothing unusual going in in the essay; questions about when and why to obtain treatment have been with us for a long time. But here again, I’ve seen an honest evaluation of an argument short-circuited by something external to it. In this case, it’s politics.

Emanuel was an intellectual godfather of the Affordable Care Act (“ObamaCare”). Therefore–so some of my conservative friends say–we should simply dismiss the essay. Worse, some of my friends turn snarky, invoking the idea that “I’d be happy to be on HIS death panel.” (For my Christian friends, I’d remind you of someone who said “love your enemies.”)

Regardless of how you view his conclusion, Emanuel raises some interesting points that can be considered quite apart from politics alone. American lifespans increased a lot in the last century, mostly because we have reduced childhood mortality. We’ve also increased the portion of time that we spend with chronic diseases and disabilities; is this an unalloyed good? One may wave this latter observation off as a quality-of-life ethic, but it’s a startling one nonetheless.

Fear of ObamaCare and death panels aside, Emanuel is right: we’re all going to die sometime, of something. It would be best if we think ahead of time of what we want for treatment for as well as what we want to accomplish with our lives–two thoughts Emanuel dwells on. But we lose the opportunity to wrestle with those questions by shouting “Death panels! Death panels!”

When I chided one Facebook acquaintance of mine for camping on the politics of ObamaCare rather than address the merits of specific arguments in the essay, his response was, to paraphrase, “you may not care about politics, but politics cares about you.” He refused to go deeper into the article. Again, that’s a pity. For one thing, it interjects politics into everything–something a conservative should reject.

I understand that ideas have consequences. So let’s discuss them, and point out why they’re right–or wrong–instead of ending the examination with a cursory attack on the person bringing forth an idea.

There’s an “all over the Internet” quote that applies, and it comes from Eleanor Roosevelt: “Great minds discuss ideas; average minds discuss events; small minds discuss people.” I don’t know when or where she said that, but I like it, and I wish more people would take it to heart. Instead, our discourse too easily resorts to team colors and personalities.