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What can political philosophy contribute to policy debates?

Political philosophy explores questions relating to the best organization of our collective political and economic institutions and policies. As such, one might expect that detailed discussion of policy issues would be commonplace in political philosophy. Just the opposite, however, is usually the case. Most political philosophy is pitched at a very abstract level. It may focus on the merits of egalitarian liberalism, libertarianism, or socialism or explain why we should prioritize the least advantaged or personal responsibility in thinking about our political institutions and policies. Yet, policy recommendations are usually discussed in only very broad and cursory ways. Some political philosophers do outline and defend alternative policy ideas, such as a universal basic income, but even these discussions tend to be very abstract and pay little attention to contemporary circumstances. In depth discussion of the philosophical issues involved in family policies, health care policies, old age pensions, and disability policies are relatively rare in the political philosophy literature. Why is this?

Part of the explanation can be traced back to political philosophers themselves. Individuals who have chosen political philosophy as a vocation or hobby are likely to be more interested in ideas than the details of social policies and circumstances. At least since Rawls published A Theory of Justice (1971), most analytical political philosophers have further adopted ideal theory as their preferred philosophical methodology. Ideal theory makes a virtue of abstraction by suggesting that too close engagement with existing social policies and circumstances may distract us from achieving a deeper understanding of justice.

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Leaflet by Liberal Publication Department. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

There are nonetheless some compelling reasons for political philosophers to take up careful policy analysis. First, some interesting and underexplored philosophical questions arise from a close look at social policies. The greatest barrier to equal opportunity in liberal democracies, for example, is the family. Children raised by parents of different socio-economic classes have very different real opportunities to achieve society’s goods as adults. Should, then, policy intervene into the family to equalize children’s opportunities? How far should it go and how effective can it be? A detailed exploration of health care policies raises similarly intriguing questions. Political philosophers have traditionally justified universal health care by claiming that it is essential for saving and extending lives. Recent social science research shows, however, that health care has a limited impact on these outcomes. Should, then, states continue to support national health insurance? If so, why? The elderly population is growing rapidly in all Western democracies, yet very few philosophers have addressed in any detail the question of what society owes the elderly. Should society guarantee old age pensions? If so, in what form? Should it also pay for long-term care, or should this be a personal or family responsibility?

A second compelling reason for philosophers to analyze social policy in more detail is to gain a deeper understanding of justice. Rawls assumed that some abstraction from existing policies and circumstances was necessary to gain a deeper understanding of justice. Attention to details, however, can also be enlightening. In discussing economic disadvantage, philosophers almost never explore the demographic characteristics of individuals living in or near poverty. Yet, a survey of poverty across Western democracies reveals that eighty to ninety percent of economically disadvantaged individuals in these countries are parents with young children, children, elderly, disabled, or sick, or caregivers of the elderly, disabled, or sick. Arguments for helping the economically disadvantaged and the policies needed to support this group take on a very different form in light of this information.

The most compelling reason for political philosophers to devote more direct attention to policy analysis is to contribute more directly to policy debates and policy-making. Existing political philosophy has had some general influence on policy debates and policy-making over the last thirty or forty years. Probably the strongest influence has come from libertarian theorists. Milton Friedman and Robert Nozick, in particular, have had a notable influence on the tenor of policy-making. Perhaps not coincidentally, these theorists have also been among the most directly engaged in policy analysis, even if only as in Nozick’s case by advocating for the rollback of all forms of social support. If the influence of these philosophers on policy-making is to be counter-balanced, other philosophers need to make a detailed case for more generous social policies.

Not all political philosophers are interested in influencing policy. Some even favor a separation of philosophy and politics. For those philosophers, however, who are interested in contributing to policy debates, a more direct engagement with contemporary policy issues seems advisable. Too often policy debates take place in contemporary societies without a full appreciation of all the important philosophical issues at play. Unless philosophers directly engage in these debates and make these issues explicit, they are likely to be overlooked. Political philosophers have a great deal to contribute to social policy debates by helping people to understand how existing arrangements support or do not support important values and by highlighting better ways to realize important social goods. Yet, political philosophers must first realize for themselves how enriching and philosophically exciting a closer engagement with social policy can be before they can perform this important function for society.

Headline image: Zoom zoom zoom by Brooke Hoyer. CC BY 2.0 via Flickr

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