Priority is one measure of sincerity

We may be true Scotsmen, but we have to live in the real world. We may protest our sincerity and point to the founding assumptions of our credo and the exceptions we’ve carved out and say, “see, we’ve got that covered. You have nothing on us.” But once we protest our sincerity, we’ve already conceded our sincerity needs protesting. And as suspect as the exercise is, we must judge the merits of that protest, judge our own sincerity. And priority–how we prioritize what we write about or advocate for or spend our life on this world pursuing–is one way to do that.

Take this argument that you’re probably tired of already. But since I’m using it (kind of) as a declaration against interest I hope you’ll indulge me yet again. I’ve said:

When it comes to hours and labor regulations, I favor the policy that creates more jobs, but bad ones, over the policy that leads to fewer jobs, but good ones.

And I stressed:

I’m talking primarily about hours and wages regulations. Safety regulations and regulations against “negative externalities” are a different concern.

And later I gave a nod to my support for “a stronger social safety net.”

Those assumptions and exception didn’t shield me from criticisms that “contrary to what I say,” health and safety regulations matter, or a social safety net matters. Should they have? I got huffy at the criticisms (and if you’re honest, you probably would have too, if the tables were turned). But my answer must be, “not necessarily.”

I chose to focus on wages and hours regulations, about which my views are more “market liberal” than not. I didn’t choose to focus on the health and safety regulations, about which my views are less “market liberal” and are more concerned with workplace safety.

I don’t think I’ve written even one post specifically about the need for better workplace health and safety regulations.

What about the stronger social safety net? More generous food stamp programs, Obamacare and improvements thereto, maybe a guaranteed basic income, or at least a more robust earned income credit–I “sincerely” support all those (though I have a lot of qualms concerning a guaranteed income.) I’ve written a little about some of those, especially Obamacare, at my solo blog. But are those things really on the table in the same way that, say, minimum wage increases are? Not really. Not that I know.

So yes, I’m “sincere.” But even a neo-gliberal like me can see that I don’t put my beliefs where my OPs are. None of which means I’m wrong or even that I could honestly hold a contrary view. But it’s a fair cop to point it out.


Image: “2 typical young bagpipes players along the main street of Edinburgh in Scotland,just close to the castle.” By  Moyan Brenn. Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License.

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Gabriel Conroy [pseudonym] is an ex-graduate student. He is happily married with no children and has about a million nieces and nephews. The views expressed by Gabriel are his alone and do not necessarily reflect those of his spouse or employer. ...more →

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24 thoughts on “Priority is one measure of sincerity

  1. My problem with the sincerity argument is that it changes the argument from “what is the best policy?” to “hey, let’s talk about *YOU*.”

    If we talked about *YOU* as a way to break into “okay, so the reasons that you don’t follow your stated best policy are good… do those reasons map pretty well to why other people also don’t follow your stated policy?” rather than the “YOU’RE A HYPOCRITE!” discussion, that’d be one thing. But they don’t.

    So, to go meta, I suppose I should be asking “well, what’s the goal here?” and “will our stated solutions lead to what we hope the stated goal is?” and try to figure out whether they will. (Hell, figure out whether they even *CAN*.)

    So maybe we can’t talk about these things without talking about our interlocutors personally (rather than as a starting point about what is possible or likely). And if we can’t, that tells us about the limitations of the discussions we’re going to be having about the for-real solutions for such things as wages, hours, social safety nets…


    • I think I mostly agree, Jaybird, but not wholly. Sometimes a smaller argument is part of a larger argument and to assess the smaller argument it’s important to know about the larger argument. The purposes to which the one advancing the smaller argument is relevant to the larger one. And looking at the sincerity of the smaller argument is one way to suss out the larger argument.

      That said, I do agree with you that our primary focus should be on the argument and not the person making it.

      (By the way, I’ll be out most of the day and won’t be able to re-engage until tonight or tomorrow.)


  2. Echoing Jaybird, I’m not sure what sincerity has to do with any policy related discussion, myself. Maybe I don’t understand your argument, but an appeal to sincerity strikes me as shifting the focus of the debate to some meta areas that are bad all the way around. On one level, considerations of sincerity prioritizes emotional commitments over arguments and evidence. On another level, it plays to preconceived views of what a “good Xist” already is committed to thereby granting cover for views which ought to stand or fall on their own. Both of those dynamics exist at the (meta) level of narrative, it seems to me, and while a narrative is important it shouldn’t take precedence over evidence and argument. Unless all you’re interested in is narrative and meta stuff, of course. But frankly, I think that’s what we already have way too much of.


    • Maybe if the discussion is only related to policy, then you (and Jaybird) are right, with the reservations I noted in my answer to Jaybird above.

      But I’ll move the goal posts a bit and change the subject from policy issues to, say, whether to vote for someone (or as Mike Schilling notes below with the “low road” of politics). We may judge that person’s fitness for office by their sincerity or by what they prioritize. Again, I realize that’s moving the goal posts and different from what I was arguing in the OP and not a refutation of your point.


  3. In answer to questions about the importance of sincerity: it matters because the viewpoints and values common among people who hold a political position determine how their chosen policies are likely to be implemented.

    If a left-wing party that supports affordable housing and anti-poverty measures says, “We support a higher sales tax and lower income tax because the sales tax is a more efficient means of tax collection and produces better incentives, and tax rebates can be used to ensure it is no less progressive than the income tax”, I’m likely to believe them, because that’s in line with their value system in other areas.

    If a right-wing party pushes for a higher sales tax and lower income tax on the basis that it’s more efficient and encourages investment in preference to saving, and that party’s politicians and supporters are continually claiming that the rich are wealth-producers and job-creators, and that poor people are lazy and useless and get too much free stuff, then I’m likely to believe that the party will implement the sales tax in a regressive manner, because that’s in line with their values.

    Similarly, if a libertarian tells me that “x policy” is good for the poor, but 90% of the economic policies they back are ones that screw over the poor, then I’m going to be sceptical. It might be good for the poor, it might not, or it might be good for them if implemented in a certain way but not if implemented in another way. Given the values demonstrated in other libertarian positions, should I believe that libertarian politicians would implement “x policy” in a way that was beneficial rather than detrimental to the poor?

    The motives and objectives of someone proposing a policy have major implications on how they (or the people they support) would implement that policy.


  4. I think it’s a bullsh!t argument.
    Here’s why:

    Wages, hours, social safety net
    Which one needs attention first?
    I’m all for better jobs. Where I differ there is that I believe in subsistence wages rather than working five jobs and still having problems making ends meet.
    But I believe the safety net needs attention first. I believe the potential of helping a much greater number of people demands it.
    And I think the best place to start would be to repeal the part about making persons found guilty of drug crimes ineligible for food stamps.

    It’s not about sincerity.
    It’s really not about a policy issue.
    It’s about allocation of resources.


    • If I read you right, we’re mostly in agreement, Will H., not so much about whether the sincerity argument is a good one and probably not about raising the minimum wage, but about the question being one of allocating resources. In other words, I think I agree with you in the rough order we should address those things.


      • I could probably have stated that better were conditions somewhat different.

        At any rate, utilitarianism demands priorities.

        I think you’re feeding in to the misplaced argument of sincerity by addressing it.
        Generally, when policy interests become personal interests, it is no more a matter of public policy, but one of position advocacy. Of course, rent-seeking behaviors, etc.


        • (Sorry, I’ve been away a few days and just got around to answering your comment.)

          You might be right, especially about this: “I think you’re feeding in to the misplaced argument of sincerity by addressing it.”

          And yet….I do think there’s something to sussing out what someone’s endgame is, what they’re really arguing for, kind of what Katherine said above. As I said in my response to Stillwater above, going that route changes the goal posts a bit from what I said in the OP, but there’s still a “bigger picture” aspect to most policy arguments. And I think sincerity, or at least priority, can clue us in to what that big picture is. (Maybe I should have argued that “sincerity is one measure of priority.”)

          And when I say “there’s something to sussing out what someone’s endgame is,” I should stress that I mean only “something” and not “it’s everything that’s important.” I do think that arguments should be addressed mostly on their merits.

          (I realize your point is different. You’re not focusing so much on the techniques or arguments as you’re making a point about whether sincerity is worthwhile addressing at all and that by addressing it, I’m giving it more credit than it deserves. But I wanted to make my larger point clear because an honest reading could interpret me as saying that sincerity is always the most important feature of policy argument, and that’s not what I was trying to say.)


  5. I do think it’s funny how people say “you shouldn’t expect poor people to have to jump through hoops to receive benefits! Also we should raise the minimum wage so that low-income workers can provide for their families, because a minimum-wage janitorial or food-service position is totally not at all like jumping through hoops to receive benefits!”


    • I don’t think they say so in so many words, but I get your drift.

      That said, if the only policy on the table with any real likelihood of success is an increase in the minimum wage, then it *might* have more merit than my own jobs first argument supposes.


          • To get welfare benefits, I have to have worked in the past.

            Which means that work is a hoop.

            Unless you’re suggesting that “would you like fries with that” for fifty years is a worthy career to which we should aspire.


            • Unless you’re suggesting that “would you like fries with that” for fifty years is a worthy career to which we should aspire.

              I’d much rather argue that there are some jobs that absolutely nobody except teenagers and immigrants should do until we slowly replace them with automation.

              OH! Wait, maybe I see a disconnect. Are you using “welfare” the way that I would use “unemployment”?


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