A Partial Defense of Governing from the Gut

You have to do it sometimes

It seems that more and more the actions of government are questioned on grounds of evidence. Criticisms of the Federal government’s omnibus crime bill have mostly centred on the lack of supporting statistics to show that a) crime is actually on the rise in Canada or b) that the proposed policies will work, implying that the Conservatives are governing on ideology rather than facts. A recent editorial in the Globe and Mail noted several cases in British Columbia in which - to the detriment of the BC public, presumably - misguided public perceptions about technological or scientific issues were leading to needlessly costly policy decisions, in some cases with self-defeating repercussions (the author focused mainly on ‘green’ politics which seem illogically bent on dismantling policies initially taken for green reasons - like the movement to block BC Hydro’s ‘smart meters’ because of unproven concerns about the health effects of wireless radio transmissions). Conversely, no one would accuse government of acting on climate change irresponsibly or without evidence - indeed, the whole reason action on climate change has been slow in coming has been an insistence on gathering more evidence.

The implication of these arguments is that when we govern on the basis of beliefs, public perception or intuitions, we ignore scientific facts to our peril. Perhaps that peril will come in the form of our actions being ineffective, perhaps it will come in the form of a rude future awakening when we see that our wills and desires are no match for reality. More often than not, the accusation that one is acting on reasons other than facts is accompanied by the allegation that ulterior, often commercial or even conspiratorial, motives are actually influencing policy choices. Instead, we are told, we should want our policies to be evidence-based, supported by the best information as to both their necessity and ability to accomplish the tasks for which they are designed, to be proven cost effective and efficient, and to be implemented only as a matter of last resort (hopefully, society or markets can work out the problem on their own without government intervention). Anything else will lead to waste, redundancy, or worse - poor economic performance. In other words, governing from facts is good, governing from the gut is bad.

I think this is a naive and ultimately false dichotomy, and one which I think it would be dangerous for partisans and politicians to enforce upon their opponents. For one, the idea of undeniably true facts existing on one side and all else being non-rational superstitious nonsense on the other is a bit overdrawn - just what is or is not a ‘fact’ when it comes to governance is a controversial matter and one for which we should welcome a healthy skepticism. Many facts are disputed, unsettled or in competition with each other. For example, it’s a fact that global warming is occurring and that we are contributing to it through our use of energy, but it may also be a fact that a large segment of the Canadian population would be unable to weather a rapid increase in energy prices that might accompany the kind of radical policy that would be required to achieve a low-carbon energy system quickly. How can we balance these priorities, what rubric can we utilize for proper accounting of which is more true or more immediate and pressing? (Don’t bother looking, there isn’t one). Governing (properly, in my opinion) is in part about weighing the balance of competing truths, not taking the one truth and running with it - how many times in the past have ‘facts’ produced policy that were not only ineffective in accomplishing their task, but also disastrously cruel and inhumane?

Furthermore, government is not only about maintaining peace and order; it is also about building the society we have reason to value. But because the society we want isn’t necessarily the society we have, facts may not always exist to buttress our claims about how to achieve it. Sometimes we have to act on hunches, intuitions, or otherwise un-evidenced images of what could or should be the case, not always what is. Governing is a gamble, it is uncertain and characterized by chance - sometimes policy will be effective, other times it will not. Does better knowledge of the way things work increase the likelihood of the former rather than the latter? Perhaps, but making decisions is not social engineering - there will always be some uncertainty and risk in outlining a vision for the future and choosing a course of action to achieve it. If we reduce governance to action on a conservative factual basis we exclude the possibility for a progressive, emancipatory politics - one which makes mistakes at times but also one which can change the order of society for the better.

But what about blatant disregard for the opinions of experts or past experience, the crafting of policies that are clearly cynical attempts to play to the less educated and less politically conscious members of society so as to bolster political support for one’s party? What about the populist rabble-rousing, the anti-science insistence on equating creationism with evolution, or climate scepticism? Doesn’t a defense of governing from the gut expose a soft underbelly in which a dangerous relativism or anti-rationalism can creep in and infect the body politic? To this I would say that there is always the possibility that politics can get corrupted by forces which manipulate the good will and intent of the people for private ends and it is important to be vigilant and on the lookout for when and where this may be occurring, but to impose a dogmatic structure of fact-based versus cynical governance is overly vigilant and itself potentially oppressive. People have good reasons to value different things and those things may not always be correct - who are we to say what is allowed in the sphere of true and right and what must stay outside? If you are too quick to criticize a political opponent as acting outside of facts, then it won’t be long until the same criticism is levelled against you.