April 27, 2007

America should embrace pragmatic politics

Many of the greatest policy coups in American political history have been the products of a leader’s willingness to transcend partisan ideologies in search of pragmatic solutions.

President Clinton—the consummate pragmatist—was able to pass historic welfare reform and free trade agreements over the objections of his political base. And President Bush’s centrist plan for immigration reform, if it comes to fruition, would be a shining example of the good things that can be done when the best ideas from every political corner are cherry-picked and turned into sensible policy, with the extreme and impracticable ideas left at the door.

When ideology, rather than pragmatism, has the last word in the crafting of government policies, proposed solutions tend to be excessive, overshooting the problems they were meant to correct and creating a host of new problems in the process.

And so the nationalist right, concerned about the negative externalities of illegal immigration, advocates breaking apart immigrant families with mass deportation. The libertarian right, concerned about the failures and excesses of the “war on drugs,” will occasionally produce books with titles such as Saying Yes: In Defense of Drug Use. The progressive left, concerned about the negative consequences of globalization and economic growth, publishes books decrying consumer choice and whining about the effects of “manipulative” advertising on hapless shoppers.

Each and every political faction is sometimes guilty of identifying a real problem and then driving off a cliff with it. Yes, secondhand smoke is bad for everyone—but should we ban smoking completely? Yes, the Second Amendment protects the right of American citizens to bear arms—but should we allow people to purchase deadly weapons anonymously and without background checks?

Senator Barack Obama has the right idea: He talks about moving away from the tired old debate about “big government” versus “small government” and moving instead to “smart government”—government that is exactly the size it needs to be to correct market failures, provide public goods, and create a basic social safety net.

This principled pragmatism is exactly the sort of domestic political framework that America needs. The principles are the “consensus values” of individual political and economic liberty, an assertive but prudent foreign policy, and the provision of public goods in a cost-effective way. This pragmatism is the willingness of political leaders to ignore the clamoring of their partisan base in order to pass legislation that puts these principles into action in a practical and efficient way.