Public ideas

Principles and values in public policy

In the pre-election period we can expect to hear journalists asking politicians “what is your party’s position on X?”, where “X” can be any issue of public policy – the top marginal tax rate, the level of unemployment benefit, or the number of refugees we will take from Afghanistan. The media can be cruel on politicians who respond by reference to principles rather than to specific measures, accusing them of vagueness and evasion.

But public policy is, or should be, built around a set of principles, which, in turn rest on a base of values, articulating a vision of the common good.

Writing in Eureka Street Greg Craven articulates the case for basic, public values that should be the foundation of public policy. He lists four he considers to be fundamental: “the dignity of the human being; the common good; solidarity; and subsidiarity”, and goes on to articulate just what he means by “solidarity” and “subsidiarity”.

He sources these values to “Catholic social teaching”. They are certainly to be found in various papal encyclicals, but they would be embraced by most Christian religions, other Abrahamic religions, other world religions and by those guided by humanist social morality. They seem to align fairly closely with the values, explicit or implicit, guiding traditional social democratic parties.

The case for cynics

“Cynicism” is one of those words whose meaning has shifted fundamentally, which means we have lost its original meaning.

In modern English it has come to mean “the belief that people are generally morally bankrupt and behave treacherously in order to maximize self-interest” writes Arthur Brooks in The Atlantic: Live like the ancient cynics.

He describes the ills associated with the contemporary notion of cynicism, and contrasts it with the original philosophy of cynicism, professed by Anitisthenes, a student of Socrates. He describes four original cynical concepts: Eudaimonia (“satisfaction”), Askesis (“discipline”), Autarkeia (“self-sufficiency”) and Kosmopolites(“cosmopolitanism”) – the last referring to the way we relate to others with respect, whatever their rank.

If that shows similarities to Buddhism it is no accident. Greek philosophers, he points out, were probably influenced by the Indians. (Both Socrates and the Buddha lived around the 5th century BCE.)