There’s what you want to accomplish and there’s the best way of accomplishing those goals. It seems there’s often little disagreement on what people want to have happen; help the poor, protect the environment and encourage growth, for example. It seems obvious that policies should be chosen that best implement these goals; negative income tax, Pigovian taxes and subsidies on basic research, in order.
It is ironic that most policy debates get heated and start sounding like disagreements about normative goals when they’re just arguments about what policies are best at attaining common goals. The passion should be in normative fights, not normative-sounding fights. Positive analysis of policy’s effects are more or less boring, but its these discussions that I see become most heated (e.g. the stimulus debate).
Perhaps this is because those debating suspect their opponent is hiding some agenda. They suspect their opponent doesn’t really share their normative goals. They think the opponent’s “so-called” positive analysis of the policy in question is tainted by a desire to see policy not work.
What’s funny about this is that if policy analysis is done in a transparent way, one should be able to discern if the analysis is flawed. Why question the motives of the arguer when the argument can be criticized directly?
This line of reasoning only works for positive analysis of policy. Normative goals come from the ether and there’s no reason to think people will agree on goals. So perhaps there’s a different phenomenon explaining the passionate disagreements over policies. People simply confuse positive analysis for normative. They associate certain policies — minimum wages and rent controls, subsidies for “green” technologies and direct R&D, in order — with normative goals. Any opposition to those policies is prima facie evidence of opposition to their objective.
If this is the case, its really annoying. Knock it off, please.