Mixtures of Good and Bad Ideas

Now that both Paul Ryan and Barack Obama have unveiled their respective plans for our national budget, at least in broad outline form, the airwaves will be filled with talk of “good ideas” and “bad ideas.”

My experience suggests that if I wish to engage someone who disagrees with me on a given issue, the surest way to insure that our conversation ends abruptly is for me to hold tenaciously to the questionable proposition that all my ideas are good and all his ideas are bad. I have always tried to present a strong rationale for what I considered to be my good ideas. But, as I have listened respectfully to the ideas of someone who disagrees with me, I often found that some of my initial ideas were bad in comparison to some of his good ideas. And in the best of conversations, my partner also made adjustments in his initial views about good ideas and bad ideas.

So, in the heated budget debate that is upon us, it is reasonable for those on both sides of the aisle to present strong rationales for their respective proposals. But I hope, possibly naively, that each politician will be open to the possibility that those on the other side of the aisle have some ideas that are better than their initial ideas. Such openness will be necessary to attain bipartisan consensus.

In the book Mutual Treasure that Michael King and I edited, King calls this give-and-take between those holding opposing views the “seeking for mutual treasure.” Many will not want to embark on such a mutual quest because they are convinced that there is absolutely no treasure to be found in opposing views. But you can’t predict beforehand the results of a genuine conversation. If politicians on both sides of the aisle are willing to engage in respectful conversation, they may find some treasure in the opposing views, without sacrificing their own treasures.

As this budget debate heats up, I would like to reflect on one aspect of Obama’s comments when he unveiled the outlines of his budget plan, his pointing to the importance of both our “individuality” and our “connectivity” as Americans.

To be sure, much of our economic progress throughout our history can be traced to giving self-reliant individuals space to be creative and innovative. Such space needs to be maintained.

However our history also reveals strong elements of “connectivity” between individuals, wherein we embrace an obligation to care for those who are less fortunate than we are, including those who, for various reasons, cannot compete in a “free-market” economy. From my own Christian perspective, promoting such connectivity is central to the command of Jesus that we love others.

It is tempting, but false, to suggest that one of these emphases is the exclusive preoccupation of one of our major political parties, while the other party exclusively embraces the other emphasis. Besides, that presents a false choice. It has to be both/and, not either/or. I hope that persons of good will on both sides of the aisle will embrace the proposition that there are aspects of both our “individuality” and our “connectivity” that need to be embraced, so that the ongoing debate can focus on what those particular aspects are and on the challenging question of the “balance” that needs to be created between these two important emphases.