Ignoring values (is silly)

A certain article on the Huffington Post is making the rounds on Facebook among those opposed to the current actions of the GOP regarding healthcare. The main point is that the author cannot argue for caring about other people on the basis of their being people.

This cuts right to a common problem in popular discussions about most political problems right now: we have lots of arguments getting from a value to a policy, but the values themselves are left untouched, despite their being the crucial starting point.

I’ll move to the question of minimum wage because I think it more easily illustrates the point. Let’s say Larry thinks we should raise the minimum wage, and Ronnie thinks if anything it’s already too high. Larry argues that the minimum wage right now at full time is not enough for someone to get by on, so it should be raised. Ronnie argues that minimum wage creates a market inefficiency and thus should be chopped.

That Larry and Ronnie don’t necessarily disagree on the descriptive facts (minimum wage is not enough to get by on, and it also creates market inefficiencies) should indicate that the problem is not the descriptive facts of the matter. The disagreement is on the values driving the decisions, and that disagreement has to be settled first. The relative importance of making sure everyone can get by, everyone working can get by, unemployment is minimized, GDP is maximized, etc. has to be settled first. (Unless one option satisfies all of the values — in these cases the value question can be skipped, but they’re pretty uncommon unless you stumble upon a close cluster of values.)

My particular position and the progressive series of compromises going rightward illustrates the importance of settling the value question. In this case, the main value driving my position is that everyone should have enough to get by and their individual freedom maximized. An anarcho-communist system (as far as I know — the descriptive matter is less important for the sake of this post) maximizes this, and with such a system the concept of wages isn’t really there to have a minimum. Given capitalist, a move over to universal basic income makes sense, and with such there’s no need for a minimum wage, so then my ideal minimum wage given capitalism and a UBI is $0. However, if there is not UBI, then (again, as far as I know) people are best served with a higher minimum wage than the US currently has. So with the one value a wide range of incompatible policy options are optimal depending on the other givens.

Now, we may or may not agree on the goals. Usually there’s more than one in play, complicating the matter. I saw a clip from Hannity last night and, despite the usual anti-conservative rhetoric suggesting the otherwise, he made repeated appeals to helping the poor, unemployed, and uninsured. As it turns out, apparently a lot of conservatives aren’t monsters. Rhetorically, getting that first matter sorted out as the goal makes the following discourse much clearer. Getting the further goals into play and sorted out also helps. One may place more or less value on, say, keeping resources out of the hands of the undeserving, and who is deserving a further question.

For example, drug testing welfare recipients and pouring money into immigration control is, economically, stupid. However, that may or may not be the point. If the goal is to save money, then obviously don’t do those things. However, if spending a little extra is worth keeping money out of the hands of the undeserving, and either of those groups are considered undeserving, then that it costs a little extra isn’t an effective argument against it.

One more example: abortion. In this one, I see people even putting values onto each other. Every now and then I’ll see someone say everyone agrees that killing people is wrong outside of self-defense, and the whole disagreement is the fact of the matter of whether a zygote/embryo/fetus is a person. However, the famous violinist argument even goes as far as to use an adult person as an example of someone it’s okay to deny access to your body to. (For the unfamiliar: Consider a famous violinist was deathly ill and to survive required being hooked up to your body for a few months, using you as life support. The one making the argument says you’d be within your rights to deny him access or allow access and later change your mind.) Clearly some people value bodily autonomy over a dedication to the lives of persons. For these people, the personhood argument is a waste of time; the heart could beat and brain be fully functional at 1 week.

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