According to the politics of responsibility, what matters most is the policy goal. Responsible politicians are not wedded to any particular means to achieve policy goals and are ready to change course if a particular approach is not working or is impeding progress on other, more essential, policy goals. They are ruthlessly empirical, willing to revise their thinking on societal problems as the evidence dictates. Being human, responsible politicians will have biases, both in terms of how they define problems and their preferred solutions, but to the extent that they’re responsible, they make it a habit to embrace the possibility they may be wrong. This takes humility and an appreciation of one’s limitations.
The politics of conviction makes no clear distinction between ends and means or cause and effect. The focus is on intention and principled action, i.e., doing the right thing because it ‘s the right thing to do. It’s not so much that goals don’t matter than the conviction that goals pursued in the wrong spirit will bear poisoned fruit. According to this worldview, the greater good is served by being good. Bad people cannot create good societies.
As a matter of definition, a person of strong convictions has firm beliefs about what is and ought to be. A politician of strong convictions tends to have firm beliefs about the nature of societal wrongs and what must be done to fix them. Such politicians tend to be passionate, persistent, prone to divisive rhetoric, and relatively immune to disconfirming evidence.
Of course, the responsible politician and the politician of strong convictions are ideal types, more opposite ends of a continuum than real people. That said, please let’s have more responsible politicians! This is not a left-right issue. It’s an approach to governing.
My message to politicians: be open and clear about your vision of the good society. Choose policy goals you’re passionate about. And then be ruthlessly empirical about everything else. In other words, promote and practice evidence-based governing. This is how the politics of responsibility and the politics of conviction are reconciled, at least to some degree.
Now for an example. As an imaginary politician, I care deeply about the environment, affordable housing, universal healthcare, maintaining a robust economy, the value of work, and the “American Project”: the idea of unity in diversity as we work together for the common good. Then I chill the passion to develop specific policy goals and proposals. And I make sure my proposed policies do not become an end in themselves but are easily scaled back, revised or reversed if they don’t work.
Note 1: Max Weber’s Ethics of Responsibility and Ethics of Conviction was the inspiration for this post.
Note 2: This is an exploration! I think I’m heading towards the light but there are still patches of darkness.