I have a basic framework with which I view the world. I call my fundamental principals on both how to address the world's problems and even push successes further “Democratic Incrementalism to Benefit Society”.
I'll start with the “Benefit Society” part first. I believe that the primary goal of all policies, laws, morals, and ethics should be to benefit society as a whole going forward. While it often also greatly benefits society to give individuals rights such as free speech and it may possibly benefit society to give certain groups advantages, those concerns should be secondary.
Until recently, I thought that virtually all rational people subscribed to this concept. However, I was mistaken. For example, a friend of mine feels that the copyright of a book should be granted in perpetuity, even if it could be shown that society as whole would be worse off. His logic is that if you create Intellectual Property, it should be subject to the exact same rules as tangible property, because otherwise people were stealing something from you if they copied it. My view is that tangible property rights benefit society as a whole, whereas it's far less clear that long term copyrights have any benefit for society (and in fact impose a significant cost).
I'd like to comment on what I mean by the “going forward” part of benefiting society. There seems to be a growing, but not yet mainstream movement that believes there should be reparations for slavery. The basic idea would be that each black person would be paid something like $200,000 from a pool created by taking the required amount from each white person. While in some sense this could be said to benefit society by helping to right the wrongs of the past, this is not a forward looking approach to benefiting society. The distant past is gone, we need to live with it, and move forward from here.
So who gets to decide what benefits society? Well, that's where the “Democratic” part comes in. The masses get to decide what it means to benefit society. I consider our representational government adequately democratic for this purpose. A question that has been constantly asked through the ages is whether or not the masses are smart enough to know what's beneficial to society. Being one of the masses I'm pretty convinced that we are. Nearly 80% of Americans now attend college. There is information everywhere and I think the masses are very good at forming adequately sophisticated opinions. I'm thoroughly convinced that 300 million Americans are far better at deciding what's beneficial to them, their families, their communities, and this country than any possible alternative such as a group of elite telling us all what to do.
In a democracy, the majority opinion rules. Period! Well, except for little details like Bush being president when clearly he did not have the majority vote. So let me rephrase that by saying that in a democracy, the goal is that if there is a substantial majority opinion on some issue, then that opinion should rule.
One thing the rule of the majority means is that even if the world's experts form an opinion that they would like the majority of us to adopt, but that doesn't happen, then that's not the policy we should follow. For example, if the majority of Americans think that the Kyoto environmental treaty is bunk, then so be it, don't ratify it. Those who disagree can of course attempt to convince the majority, but until they do, things like Kyoto will slowly slide into obscurity.
The last part of DIBS is incrementalism. And the best example of why I think incrementalism is important is communism. Communism is, in my opinion, the single most elegant, powerful, non-religious idea ever. When I first learned about it in high-school I was totally taken in by the concept. Heck, I still am, except for one minor detail: it doesn't work. It has at best worked poorly and in many instantiations has been utterly catastrophic. Tens of millions of people were slaughtered in its name, and billions were oppressed and impoverished.
The point is not that experimenting with communism was a bad idea. On the contrary, the potential benefit in social harmony was enormous, so it had to have been tried. The bad idea was trying it on such a large scale, involving dozens of countries and billions of people. If the US and western Europe had also gone over to communism, the world may have plunged into a 2nd dark age, possibly for centuries.
If, on the other hand, only one or two countries had given it a try, the rest of the world could have watched, seen that it wasn't working particularly well, and moved on. Sure, the people of those two countries would still have been miserable, but they would've given up on the experiment after a while, with the rest of the world willing and able to help.
Looking at other potential grand projects, National Health Care comes to mind. The Clintons' program might have been (might still be) a good idea. I don't know. But what I do know is that to try that experiment nationwide would be mistake. If it doesn't work, we could all end up with really crappy health care (far worse than what we have now). I think that we should experiment with the concept in one or two states to start. In order to incent the states to take a risk, we could use federal funds to subsidize the experiment or otherwise benefit the state. Then measure, measure, measure. If the state, say Wisconsin, has a mass exodus of doctors, we might guess that the program needs some tweaking. If people and businesses flock to Wisconsin, and the costs aren't more than offsetting, it might be a deemed a success and more, larger experiments would be in order. Most likely, the indicators would be far more subtle, but they still might be measurable and quantifiable.
My enthusiasm for incrementalism begins with the question: how did the world end up where it's at? I don't mean relative to 9/11, or this specific government. I'm asking the question on a much greater scale. Did some great guru, tens of thousands of years ago have a vision that somehow planned our trajectory along the space/time continuum to the current state of affairs? I don't think so. We got here by trial and error. People over the millenia trying different things, by sheer chance, some of it worked, some of it didn't. That which worked was kept, that which didn't was forgotten.
If you loathe the current state of the world, it would make sense to assert that chance and evolution are bad, vision and planning are good (or at least it might be good if given the chance). On the other hand, I look at the world and I am awed. From my perspective the world, especially this country, especially San Diego, is complicated, fascinating, mind-boggling, stimulating, and just plain amazing. So as far as I'm concerned the trials and errors of the millenia, from which the mores, customs, legal framework, ethics, and productivity evolved all around me is simply miraculous. I wouldn't trade it for anything.