Infernal Ramblings
A Malaysian Perspective on Politics, Society and Economics

Practicality, Not Idealism

Written by johnleemk on 4:33:09 am May 12, 2007.
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One thing that consistently irks me about the political paradigm in most countries is that all you have to choose between is the right wing and left wing.

Many people have found this simplistic dichotomy irritating. For instance, right wingers often preach economic liberty and social subservience, while left wingers preach just the opposite. For those with a consistent stance on individual freedom, choosing a party can be horrifically difficult, as illustrated by the 2007 French presidential election.

There have been different reactions to this unwarranted and difficult-to-dislodge dichotomy between right and left. One common one has been the rise of a libertarian movement.

Libertarians basically have a consistent stand on liberty — they want both personal and economic freedom. This often puts them at odds with both right and left wings.

Others still have famously attempted to "triangulate", taking the best of both right and left wings. This has occasionally worked, but has also led to some less than desirable outcomes. Still, the most famous triangulater presided over eight years of incredible economic growth in the United States.

The conventional right and left wingers, along with the libertarians, are often very ideal-based. Their policies and initiatives stem more from a sense of what is right or wrong based on their ideals; there is rarely much thought given to whether these policies are practical.

On the other hand, the centrists who follow the "Third Way" of people like former US President Bill Clinton are often vilified for not having any ideals. They may be the epitome of pragmatism, but their lack of idealism makes people find them discomforting.

The true problem, though, is that even the pragmatism of these Third Wayers and triangulaters is based on ideals and wishful thinking rather than on any solid practical views. For instance, as economist Paul Krugman noted, in the mid-1990s Clinton was fixated on the problem of middle class layoffs, when in reality those getting hit the worst were the lower classes.

Quite often, the policies advocated by any of those who fit in the existing political paradigm — even those in an expanded political spectrum covering libertarianism and the Third Way — are simply not founded in any practical thinking.

This is especially true when it comes to economic policy. Economists are consistently and persistently ignored by politicians, despite having sound advice and the logic to back them up, simply because politicians and their idealist supporters don't want to accept reality.

Some ideals are of course necessary to be in politics. You can't serve the people if you don't believe in serving them. But at the same time, a surfeit of idealism should not be allowed to overpower practical thinking.

A vast revamp of how we approach education, for example, is necessary, but the left wing doesn't want inefficient public schools to be wiped out and the right wingers or libertarians would prefer not to have any public funding of education at all. The logical solution is school vouchers, but only a few right wing politicians have embraced this idea — and this is mainly grudgingly because they can't abolish public funding for education, rather than because they believe it is good for the education system.

When it comes to politics and government, the only ideal requisite should be a desire to serve society and the individual. Everything else should fall subordinate to this goal, be it corporations or unions, conservationists or polluters, abortionists or fundamentalists. The only relevant question is, "Does this policy benefit society more than it harms it?"

This sensible utilitarianism greatly clarifies the role and purpose of government, and it also gives us a proper sense of perspective on how to approach the problems of the people. This is a far superior approach to the irrational demagoguery of idealists, whatever political persuasion they may be of


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Infernal Ramblings is a Malaysian website focusing on current events and sociopolitical issues. Its articles run the gamut from economics to society to education.

Infernal Ramblings is run by John Lee. For more, see the About section. If you have any questions or comments, do drop him a line.


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