Good policy and enduring political alliances are built around goals, not paths
In a thoroughly excellent interview with Streetsblog, Rockafeller Foundation managing director Nicholas Turner urges a pragmatic approach to transportation:
… if you’re thinking about transportation … as being a tool that helps you get to a set of broader societal benefits, you want to be somewhat mode-neutral. My guess is that any attempt to move towards those social benefits would, obviously, expand public transportation, rail, bus rapid transit, walking and biking. But I think it’s important to get out of this mode-against-mode battle because otherwise you’re not really addressing the problem.
You can find the same form of argument — that we should focus on emission outcomes rather than particular energy technologies — from Sean here, among other places. And as I tried to document here, it’s a kind of logic Barack Obama deploys frequently.
Call it Goals, Not Paths. Define where you’re trying to go, the social benefits you’re trying to achieve, and then allow actors in an open, competitive market to find the best way there. Progressive goals; market-based means.
The way this is often expressed in the political arena is as an aversion to "picking winners." But we have to be careful. Three policy imperatives fall out of GNP thinking:
- The goals themselves must be mandatory and legally enforced.
- No particular path should be given new favors and advantages.
- Paths that presently enjoy favors and advantages should have them removed.
Too often, politicians (cough*McCain*cough) focus solely on No. 2. But in an environment where goals are weak, poorly enforced, and often voluntary, while certain industries have deep legacy advantages, it loses some of its force. If neither No. 1 nor No. 3 obtain, offering special breaks, subsidies, and mandates to particular paths can often be the second-best outcome — better, often, than doing nothing.
Still, I’ve always thought that enviros fight too often over No. 2, which places them in the scrum with countless other special interests (witness this summer’s disastrous drilling battle). I’d love to see what happened if enviros got more serious about No. 3 and tried to build some functional alliances with libertarians and other fiscally conservative groups.
But the big imperative should be to fight for No. 1. Get the goals in place and legally enforceable. The other battles are secondary.