About: Practical Philosophical Containment

About the Idea

From:  Kent C. Myers, Ph.D.

To:  Robert Steele

Subj:  Focus of Effort

You will do more for political reform by staying out of it and making public intelligence really work.

You are facilitating a process of public intelligence.  You can be a zealous advocate of the public intelligence process, and you can seed the process with sample content, but you are subject to its rules.  You, as the facilitator, are especially responsible for demonstrating appropriate behavior.  You must show no bias, other than a bias toward evidence, consideration of the alternatives, and continued learning.

The ideal decision-making CLIENT for a public intelligence function would be a governance function in pursuit of the common good.  The two functions would tend to draw each other forth.  There are a variety of ways that the ideal governance function might be generated.  While generating such a function is not the direct purpose of our program and not how we evaluate its worth, it is useful to consider how our public intelligence function may make a contribution.  Some have argued, for example, that partisanship distorts the governance function.  Perhaps so, but it is a structural feature of our politics that has not yielded to direct challenges since the pattern developed during the Washington administration.  But the public intelligence function may itself help to reduce the distortion in the governance function, from whatever source that distortion may arrive.

This is important because partisanship is not the only distortion to consider, and the elimination of partisanship, however unlikely that may be, would not necessarily reduce distortion.  In a simple case, personal financial corruption on the part of a public official might be reduced by an intelligence function that improved surveillance of potential conflicts of interest.  In another simple case, a public official might be ignorant because of poor staff work and had nothing better to rely on.  In a more difficult case, there may be a systemic bias toward “low cost” alternatives, such as coal burning, that have “high cost” externalities, and interests would be invested in the more limited accounting.  Creating better intelligence on holistic cost could remove distortions and make the common good alternatives more plain both to the public official and to the citizens.  Once plain, the public good would be more difficult to avoid.

We don’t need to have the ideal governance function in order for the public intelligence function to be effective.  Surely the knowledge that it generates will be avoided or denigrated by officials committed to distortions, and hence often rendered irrelevant.  But the knowledge will also will nevertheless expose distortions for more to see, which, through citizen pressure, will help drive the governance function toward the common good.  In those instances where the common good is genuinely sought by decision makers (such things are know to happen), the work will have been done and available through the intelligence function that has been waiting for such clients.

There is nothing automatic about undistorted intelligence, however.  While the producers of intelligence may be free of many of the pressures of public officials to distort, they will also be guilty of distorted thinking, whether intentional, or due to poor understanding, ignorance, or illusion.  A proven way to reduce this distortion is to generate intelligence from a crowd whose members are biased toward the common good and to relevant truth.  The members of the crowd are selected to engage in a process of inquiry and correction.  Participants must develop and maintain a reputation among their peers as pursuers of the common good and relevant truth, or else they are dropped from participation.

The intelligence does not need to be ‘just the facts’.  Judgment requires interpretations.  The function would serve the governance function by elaborating alternative interpretations that would be a plausible basis for wise judgment.  See for example how the Interactivity Foundation conceives of its work, as “staff work” for citizens that illuminates political issues without preconceptions regarding conclusions.   http://www.interactivityfoundation.org/Vision.html

Phi Beta Iota:  This is one of the most thoughtful, useful commentaries we have gotten over time.  It is most helpful in focusing oru effort, and this counsel, which is accepted, is being added to the About section of this blog to demonstrate the esteem in which we hold the author, and the sincereity of our intent in following his counsel.