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Applying Philosophy to Politics

In part 1, we took a look at some "He said, she said" reporting. (Read that first.) It was poor reporting because it didn't do any research into which claims are true, nor did it suggest the reader investigate. It left people to simply listen to the claims of whoever fits their political affiliation. It's not a rational approach to listen to and believe the unargued, uninvestigated claims of Democrats if you're a Democrat, or of Republicans if you're a Republican. But Fox News didn't aim for anything better.

Correctly understanding a political issue like power plant emissions regulations requires philosophical background knowledge. Most political pundits do not have this knowledge and therefore do their jobs incompetently.

A good example of philosophical background knowledge is an understanding of the role of government in society. Without a concept of what the purpose of government regulations is, and when and why they should (and shouldn't) be created, the issue cannot be rationally evaluated.

This raises a tricky issue. Everyone has philosophical ideas. They are not avoidable. Political commentators do have ideas about the proper role of government. The problem is they don't treat their ideas about the proper role of government as a major issue to talk about. So the topic doesn't get an appropriate critical examination. Unexamined (and sometimes even unstated) philosophical ideas are no substitute for ones which are stated clearly, critically considered, and integrated into one's explanations.

I know where my philosophical ideas come from. I know which authors I'm agreeing with, and why. I know the history of ideas I've accepted. I know what the competing philosophical claims are, who advocated them, their history, and why I disagree. This is what it means to take a serious philosophical approach, as opposed to just having some philosophy you picked up somewhere and don't think about much. Everyone should do this, especially people involved in intellectual pursuits like politics. Most people do not do this. (I don't know every detail of everything. But I know a lot about this stuff, especially for issues I write about.)

The proper role of government in society is to protect its citizens from force. That is my philosophical position. Arguing for it in full would take a long time, and I don't want to go into that right now. I want to illustrate how to use this philosophical position to sort through political claims. Fortunately, arguments on this topic have already been written down. If you're interested, you can read The Virtue of Selfishness by Ayn Rand, especially "The Nature of Government". Atlas Shrugged also helps explain. If you read those two books and still have any questions or arguments, contact me and I'll be happy to talk about the issue more.

Now let's look at some of those political claims:
The Obama administration claimed the changes would produce jobs, cut electricity bills and save thousands of lives thanks to cleaner air.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce argues that the rule will kill jobs and close power plants across the country.

The group is releasing a study that finds the rule will result in the loss of 224,000 jobs every year through 2030 and impose $50 billion in annual costs.
At face value, it's hard to tell who is right. I don't know the details of these proposed power plant regulations, and I doubt you do either. Different prestigious groups are making directly contradictory claims. At least one group must be mistaken. Many people would decide which group is mistaken by political affiliation, but that method is incapable of figuring out the truth.

However, this issue is easy to evaluate using an understanding of the role of government. The key issue here is not whether it will create or destroy jobs. The key issue is not whether it will cut bills or cost billions. A more fundamental issue is whether the government is acting according to its proper role.

Creating jobs is not the role of the government. The free market should take care of that. The government is like a giant bureaucratic company with 20 levels of management, except way bigger and with less accountability. The government is huge, heavy-handed and clumsy. I don't mean that as an attack on the government, merely facts (for details, see the books mentioned earlier). That is OK. The government doesn't have to be agile and efficient. It has a particularly hard job to do; as long as it does that job decently then that's good enough. It should not try to do everything well, it should stick to its purpose.

Given this perspective, we can ignore a lot of claims being made. Given that its government action designed to hinder companies from making the choices they think are economically best, I would expect it to do economic damage (that's another philosophical issue, though I've just mentioned it briefly and don't have space to explain today). However, that isn't the point. The government should not be in the business of creating or destroying jobs, raising or lowering bills, or otherwise trying to control the economy. The government should stick to protecting people against force.

The only defense of a regulation is that it protects people against force. The Obama administration does mention this by saying, "save thousands of lives". Saving lives is a legitimate purpose of government. The political commentary should focus on whether the regulation will or will not protect people. (This is complicated because doing economic harm does cost lives in the big picture, e.g. by leaving less wealth left over that can be used for medical research. As emotionally awkward as it may be, saving specific lives in the short term does not have unlimited value.)

So, key issue: Will burning less coal in power plants save lives? Will it protect people? No. (And neither side of the political debate is focusing on arguing this key issue.)

Coal power plants provide electricity which saves lives. Coal-based electricity helps people better control their lives and environment (for example, air conditioning saves lives during heat waves), and do less back-breaking manual labor. It dramatically improves quality of life. Reducing access to electricity does not protect people, it hurts people, so the government shouldn't do it. In part 3, I elaborate more on this view of electricity, and the related philosophy.

Elliot Temple on June 4, 2014

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