Good Fences Make Good Public Policy

Published Jun 16, 2013. By David Wendt.
Good Fences Make Good Public Policy

My old boss hated Grand Teton National Park. Having built his ranch with his own hands, he resented having to turn it over to the park in return for a cash settlement and a lifetime lease.

That ranch is now part of the park, and the park belongs to all of us. We who worked and stayed there can go back, without worrying about “No Trespassing” signs, to share memories of him and the good times we had there together. The old buildings are even being restored, thanks to a partnership between the park and the National Trust for Historic Preservation. The history of that ranch is now enshrined in our collective consciousness.

When we give up some of our individual freedoms, we become part of something larger than ourselves. It is this commitment to a larger way of thinking that truly sets us free.

Of course, we all want to be free of government interference in our private lives. But who among us would do away with the “rule of law,” which is what keeps us safe? That is what government by our elected representatives and appointed officials does; it enacts, executes and adjudicates laws. When we do suspend the rule of law, it is for a reason: for example, reconciliation, in the case of amnesty granted in South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission; or national security, in the case of interrogation of suspected terrorists.

In the words of the historian Louis Hartz, America was “born free” from the stifling confines of European wars and aristocratic traditions. America had a blank slate on which create our democratic future. We in Wyoming cherish that heritage. We perpetuated that experience of independence and self-reliance with life on the frontier.

On the other hand, this spirit of do-it-yourself individualism can all too easily give rise to an “anything goes” mentality. Don’t fence me in. Don’t tell me what I can or can’t do with my own land. I did it on my own; why can’t others?

In fact, the myth of the “self-made man,” so often invoked by conservatives, is a liberal myth. This is indicated by the title of Hartz’ famous book: “The Liberal Tradition in America.” True conservatism, as pointed out by columnists like George F. Will and David Brooks, involves respect for the norms and constraints that bind us as societies and cultures. These civilizing habits of behavior are the bedrock of our identity. By subordinating our ways of thinking and acting within this larger construct, we can find ourselves and our sense of community.

Our adherence to these larger norms – environmental stewardship, the rule of law, properly regulated and enforced private property rights, social cohesiveness — sets boundaries to our common interactions. In this sense, they limit our freedom of action.

By the same token, in matters of public policy, consequences matter. We cannot afford to throw caution to the winds in the pursuit of ideas that have no basis in reality. If we are going to make progress in responding to our common challenges, we need to anchor our policy conversations within certain agreed parameters.

This is an admonition to follow what the great German sociologist Max Weber called an “ethic of responsibility.” He contrasted it with an “ethic of ultimate ends,” which advocated principled action irrespective of real-life consequences.

Within this context, the ideas of controlling carbon emissions or entitlement spending for the sake of future generations do not seem that radical. These are urgent challenges. Time is short. We do not have the luxury of staking out positions that ignore the overwhelming evidence of science or responsible budget projections of bipartisan groups like the Congressional Budget Office or the Concord Coalition.

These policy choices are clear affirmations of an ethic of responsibility. No less than the larger norms which guide our collective lives, they attest to the reality that we are all in this together. Like the idea of wilderness preservation, they are votes for responsible stewardship

I think my old boss would be proud of the ranch now. It stands in silent tribute to him and others like him. It connects us all with that chapter of human history in the American West.

It is there because of a commitment to a common good. We can honor this commitment, and countless others like it, by embracing the web of connections that keeps us engaged with each other and helps us to take each other seriously.