Fixing the debt, in principle

It's important to have principles in politics. That claim is not that controversial. There are, sadly, some people who take their own intelligence and insight far too seriously, and think that they're operating on some higher plane by professing cynicism for principles and ideology and declaring their love of pragmatic and hard-nosed realpolitik. Those people are not really saying anything coherent.

That's a digression, though, because this post isn't about people who don't appreciate principles enough. It's about people who weigh them 'too much', or at least in the wrong way, in particular by putting too much stock in a wrong interpretation sub-claim that it's important to stick to your principles. I call this a sub-claim because it's not really any advance on the original, in that they're not really principles if you don't stick to them reasonably closely.

And it's true! You should stick to your principles. If you don't then it's not actually possible to form a coherent case for the policies and ideas you advocate. Advocating a policy and justifying it by reference to some principle - say, adherence to natural law - is good, but it doesn't make sense if you don't actually believe the truth of the principle, which you don't if you won't apply it to other cases.

But there's a difference between adhering to principles which you espouse and having principles which are simple and, consequently, lack nuance. It's possible to stick to principles without ending up like the Tea Party or the Greens. The extreme and uncomplicated solutions those groups bring to problems are not a feature of 'sticking to principles', they're a feature of their principles and the fact that they're extreme and uncomplicated. There's no reason you can't have a much more subtle principle, which allows for clashes of values and can deal with tradeoffs, and then stick to that principle.


In that light, Matt Yglesias' hounding of Fix the Debt is a little misguided:

I'm saying that a group that genuinely believed deficit reduction was the most important issue on the planet would love the cliff. A group that doesn't love the cliff has some priority other than deficit reduction. Sometimes Fix The Debt says the thing they prioritize is the need to avoid unduly rapid austerity. Hence they claim to worry that "the sudden and blunt nature of deficit reduction in the fiscal cliff would have a devastating impact on the economy."

But here, again, there's a problem of consistency. If you believed that avoiding short-term austerity was the most important problem you'd favor kicking the can further down the road. But they say that's actually the very worst policy option around.

So it's not a group dedicated to avoiding premature austerity at all costs and it's not a group dedicated to deficit reduction at all costs either.
Thinking that deficit reduction is important and thinking that unduly rapid austerity is bad are not at all mutually exclusive positions. It's misreading what "priority" means to suggest that such an issue must be qualitatively more important to such a degree that literally any solution is acceptable and urgent, totally irrespective of its side-effects. I think that becomes clear in the last sentence I've quoted here. Fix the Debt probably wouldn't suggest that it was dedicated to cutting deficits "at all costs". Clearly it's dedicated to cutting deficits in a manner that doesn't "have a devastating impact on the economy" - just like they say.

This isn't to endorse Fix the Debt as a good organisation or even as a particularly transparent one. It's certainly suspicious that the "core principles" of this organisation include things which are not really related either to fixing the debt or to avoiding sudden and blunt cuts - most egregiously the insistence that rates be lowered. So maybe Fix the Debt really is a disingenuous group pretending to believe in certain principles so it can pursue other goals. But that's not because it's a principled inconsistency to want to reduce the deficit in a way that's slower and subtler than sequestration will do it. Principles can have complications and layers, and it's unhelpful to suggest that only extremist purists are ever sticking to their principles while everyone else engages in grubby and deceitful politicking.

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