Philosophy, Public Policy lifecycle and the farm laws

Note: You may notice that this post is dated older than when this website was created. That is because, this is a cross post. I had originally posted this on my old blog here. I am cross-posting it here in the spirit of collecting everything I have written in one place.

I blame the recent failure of the farm bills on the ignorance of the government in how different philosophical frameworks map to different stages of the policy lifecycle.

Moral philosophers ponder the ethics of a situation through different philosophical frameworks. The two that are most prominently used are deontology & consequentialism. For simplicity’s sake, without writing down the dictionary definitions of consequentialism and deontology, here is an operational definition of both. Deontologists say, “Principles & values matter”. Consequentialists say, “Consequences matter. Ends justify the means”.

For instance, say you told a child their drawing is good even though it was obviously bad. In this scenario, the deontologist would tell you, “Principles matter. Lying, especially to a child, is wrong in principle. So you are ethically wrong”. Meanwhile the consequentialist would say “Consider the consequences of your actions. Lying to that child could very well encourage them to draw more and become a great artist in the future. We can assume in general artists are good for mankind. So by the means of lying you created good consequences. Ends justify the means. So you are not ethically culpable.” You might wonder who is right here, the deontologist or the consequentialist? I don’t think categories like ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ are appropriate here (except maybe to argue that the deontologist/consequentialist actually don’t come to the aforementioned conclusions if they applied their frameworks correctly). Both the deontologist and the consequentialist has followed his/her framework and given you a ‘right’ perspective. Keep in mind that these are just descriptive frameworks and are not prescriptive. It is your responsibility to weigh the different perspectives and make a decision. The specifics of the situation (like the specific personality of the child in question) would play a role in how you weigh these different perspectives.

In the public policy lifecycle, I believe the consequentialist perspectives of economists must be weighted much higher when it comes to designing policies. This is probably why consequentialism is explicitly built into step 5 (“Project the outcomes”) of Bardach’s eightfold path to policymaking. Let us also not forget that deontology in policy design effectively leads to paternalism. To quote Kelkar and Shah, “Where paternalism begins, …, we are down to value judgements. When one person wants to use state coercion to give shoes to poor people, and another wants to use state coercion to give shirts to poor people, there is no rational way to settle the disagreement.” So deontology in policy design is a bad idea.

With that said, I believe deontology must be weighted higher in the latter steps of the policy cycle when it comes to implementation. When implementing a policy, there is a clear ‘right’ way to do it. Ideals of the democratic process and a respect for the constitution must become paramount. If that means the policy will take longer than expected to be implemented, then so be it. This is not the right part of the lifecycle to be a pure consequentialist.

With regards to the farm bills, I believe the consequentialists did a good, albeit not the best, job of designing it. The bills were a step in the right direction towards “free(ing) the farm trade from all illicit market restrictions”. Where the government failed was in the deontology of implementation. To rush a bill that would affect the lives of so many, in the middle of a pandemic, without even a proper debate (See “The Way Farm Bills Passed in Rajya Sabha Shows Decline in Culture of Legislative Scrutiny (”) was deontologically wrong. The fact that the bill made sense from a consequentialist perspective can’t be a good defense against the government’s culpability in failed implementation from the deontological sense.