The Importance of Context

Harry Truman, in speaking about his frustrations with his economic policy advisers, once quipped “Give me a one-handed economist. All my economists say, ‘On the one hand…on the other…'”. Not only is this characterization of economics one of its more appealing features to me, but I think this “it depends” mentality needs to be adapted more widely in discussions of policy and politics. Too often, a culture of puritanical ideological dispositions with one-size-fits-all prescriptions for our problems dominates, when in reality, nothing is quite that simple.

Take taxes, for example. On one side, the drumbeat is that taxes must always be lower, as this will be “good” for the economy. On the other side, the drumbeat is that taxes (especially for the “rich”) must be higher, as this will be “good” for society. While these principles are fine as general rules, they become extremely problematic when they become the sole determinant of a policy decision, without taking into account other factors. For instance, tax cuts could be “good” for the economy, but it depends on the answers to several other questions, including “What are current levels of taxation, in a historical context?” “Are current levels of taxation “low” or “high”? How do we define those?” “Do current levels of taxation produce economic harms greater than any additional revenue generated?” “How would the economy respond in the short-run? Is this desirable, given current conditions?” “How would the economy respond in the long-run? Is this desirable, given expected conditions?” “Are the benefits of tax cuts of size x of greater utility than the costs (e.g. spending cuts, extra debt, etc.) of said tax cut?” “Are the opportunity costs of a tax cut (e.g. foregone investment, less debt, etc.) of greater value than the economic benefits of the tax cut?” Even more important are the answers to questions relating to values and goals. What are the outcomes we are trying to accomplish? Does the proposed solution help to generate that outcome? What can we consider as a “good” or “bad” outcome?

Politics boils down needed detailed discussion to basic slogans that are more easily understood by the public. This is good for getting people at least marginally involved in policy discussions, but the problem with this is that it can lead to solutions that are inappropriate for a given situation. You can generally be for certain policies based on certain principles, but I think it is unwise to glue yourself to specific policies based on principles without allowing for situational context to inform the creation of your solution. The same can be said for ideological labeling, which too often gives people the impression that ideas and solutions are always mutually exclusive from one another for a given person. For example, if someone either describes themselves as a “conservative” or a “liberal” (or is generally considered to be so), it is often assumed they will always be for specific policies all the time (e.g. lower taxes for the former, or universal healthcare for the latter) and never for things considered contrary to their ideology. While this isn’t entirely unrealistic (as many people do adopt such blunt thinking that consistently fits certain labels), it is not always the case, and certainly doesn’t have to be the case. A person can generally describe themselves as a conservative, but advocate for “liberal” positions on certain issues for specific situations (or even hold “liberal” positions on certain issues more generally). For example, a person can generally hold the belief that lower taxes are “good” for society, but support raising them or not cutting them in certain situations (e.g. if the’re already “low” as defined, to balance the budget, etc.). General support for a specific set of ideologies need not (and I argue should not) exclude any support for things considered contrary to their basic principles. A rigid adherence to principle is not efficient, nor optimal, for policy solutions, and divides people in ways that make it difficult to work together constructively. This is precisely why I think that there are really at least two different types of beliefs that ought to be recognized: general beliefs and principles, and positions for specific situations (that might seemingly run contrary to one’s general beliefs and principles). Not only does this describe reality a bit more accurately, but it should become ingrained in our politics. Instead of “I believe this which automatically= specific policy position”, it should be “I believe this in general, but it depends for specific issues and situations”.

To sum up: context is important. Without it, we cannot respond appropriately to certain problems, and if people are seen as strict adheres to principles regardless of the specifics of a given situation, divisions increase, and compromise is rendered impossible. Unfortunately for us, that far too often seems to be the case in the stunted world of modern politics.