The Idea of the Public Good: Ideologies and Isms

Chapter 2. The Idea of the Public Good: Ideologies and Isms

Learning Objectives

·Define the public good.

·Identify the three kinds of political ideologies.

·Identify the five core values.

· Describe the difference between a liberal and a conservative, as well as how these terms have changed over time.

· Determine whether or not one ideology or political persuasion better guarantees freedom, justice, and democracy.

In Lewis Carroll’s classic tale Alice in Wonderland, Alice loses her way in a dense forest and encounters the Cheshire Cat who is sitting on a tree branch. “Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?” asks Alice. “That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,” replies the Cat. “I don’t much care where,” says Alice. “Then it doesn’t matter which way you go,” muses the Cat.

Like Alice lost in the forest, we too occasionally find ourselves adrift when trying to make sense of complex issues, controversies, and crises. Governments and societies are no different. Political leadership can be woefully deficient or hopelessly divided over the economy or the environment or health care or a new threat to national security. Intelligent decisions, as Alice’s encounter with the Cheshire Cat illustrates, can take place only after we have set clear aims and goals. Before politics can effectively convert mass energy (society) into collective effort (government), which is the essence of public policy, we need a consensus on where we want to go or what we want to be as a society a year from now or perhaps ten years down the road. Otherwise, our leaders, like the rest of us, cannot possibly know how to get there. There are plenty of people eager to tell us what to think. Our purpose is to learn how to think about politics.

Political Ends and Means

In politics, ends and means are inextricably intertwined. Implicit in debates over public policy is a belief in the idea of the public good, that it is the government’s role to identify and pursue aims of benefit to society as a whole rather than to favored individuals. But the focus of policy debates is often explicitly about means rather than ends. For example, politicians may disagree over whether a tax cut at a particular time will help promote the common good (prosperity) by encouraging saving and investment, balancing the national budget, reducing the rate of inflation, and so on. Although they disagree about the best monetary and fiscal strategies, both sides would agree that economic growth and stability are proper aims of government.

In political systems with no curbs on executive authority, where the leader has unlimited power, government may have little to do with the public interest.* In constitutional democracies, by contrast, the public good is associated with core values such as security, prosperity, equality, liberty, and justice (see Chapter 13). These goals are the navigational guides for keeping the ship of state on course. Arguments about whether to tack this way or that, given the prevailing political currents and crosswinds, are the essence of public policy debates.

Ideologies and the Public Good

The concept of Left and Right originated in the European parliamentary practice of seating parties that favor social and political change to the left of the presiding officer; those opposing change (or favoring a return to a previous form of government), to the right. “You are where you sit,” in other words.

Today, people may have only vague ideas about government or how it works or what it is actually doing at any given time.* Even so, many lean one way

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