Pubdate: Mon, 25 Apr 2016
Source: Ottawa Citizen (CN ON)
Page: A6
Copyright: 2016 Postmedia Network Inc.
Author: Tyler Dawson


It's in vogue to argue that governments should make their decisions
based on the finest available evidence. After all, what are
parliamentarians to do to earn their $170,400 annually if not study in
committee, read reports and reflect upon the evidence that informs
their decision making?

While this seems, fundamentally, like a good way to do government, it
rather sidesteps an integral part of politics: principle. It's hard to
be simultaneously principled and rely on good evidence - sometimes,
our hypothetical policy drafter's beliefs are congruent with the
evidence, but not always. But it would make for a better society if we
were to stand more firmly for principle and less upon the evidence.

(This would have the added effect of making politics and political 
debates a bit more exciting. Quoth Homer Simpson to newsman Kent 
Brockman: "Aw, you can come up with statistics to prove anything, 
Kent. Forty per cent of all people know that." The same is almost 
true with studies of various kinds on practically any topic 
imaginable and it's especially tedious.)

After all, the finest available evidence suggests that safe injection
sites save the lives of injection drug users. But Mayor Jim Watson
doesn't like them, doesn't want one on city streets and darn the evidence.

But here's where it gets dicey: Watson has not actually articulated a
particularly principled objection to safe injection sites, though
there probably is one. More to the point, there are a whole host of
policies that, while good for people and society, are wrong on
principle; one could make that argument with safe injection sites. For
opponents of those sites, to squabble over the evidence is to lose the
argument. And so, principles to the rescue!

There's a cost to arguing points on principle - they're complicated,
generally. Justin Trudeau's "a citizen is a citizen is a citizen"
aphorism is fundamentally true, but challenging to communicate. Ditto
for the NDP's objection to bans on the niqab, a principled stand that
cost them dearly.

"Idealism is fine, but as it approaches reality, the costs become
prohibitive," noted American conservative patriarch William F.
Buckley, Jr., which rather sums the point up nicely.

And indeed, sometimes principles are hard to defend. Cigarette smoking
should be allowed everywhere - apartment buildings, offices,
restaurants and bars - and the government shouldn't have any say in
the matter. There's a principled policy: property rights are
important, therefore, the government shouldn't tell business and
property owners whether people can use tobacco on their premises. But
the evidence suggests that smoking bans are an effective way at
getting people to cut back on smoking and it reduces exposure of other
people to second-hand smoke.

Or the entire thing can be flipped on its head by arguing for a policy
from a point of principle instead of using the evidence from research.
All drugs should be legal because who am I or who are you to tell
anyone what to put in their body? That, in some ways, should be all
the argument requires - research, years of evidence from how brutally
unsuccessful the war on drugs has been doesn't necessarily need to
factor in.

The whole thing is much less of a problem if your embrace of evidence
also happens to be philosophically consistent. But there's not a
politician alive who'd oppose smoking bans, nor are there many who
wouldn't profess to value property rights. There's a disconnect.

Sometimes, holding philosophically consistent positions - or ethically
upright ones - requires dumping the evidence. This isn't always a
problem, but it becomes an excuse and a crutch in some circumstances
both to justify inaction and stave off action and reform.

Thirty-four per cent of voters know that.  
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MAP posted-by: Jo-D