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What Makes a Policy Possibility Worthwhile to Discuss?

I recently participated in a conference on immigration policy in Washington DC. One of the speakers forestalled criticism by saying that his recommendations were neither new nor original, and that that none of the ideas in the current discussion of immigration policy were new or original. When I heard him say this, I remembered that the policy possibilities in our reports are sometimes criticized for not being new or original. But we do not think that the value of a policy possibility depends upon its being new or original. We think that a policy possibility is valuable if it is worthwhile to discuss.

Exactly what makes a policy possibility worthwhile to discuss is another question. But there are some very old policy possibilities that are worth discussing. There are, indeed, many old ideas in other fields—such as history, philosophy, and mathematics—that are worth discussing over and over again. This is especially true in politics. And it also holds true for public policy possibilities. This is because public policy possibilities emanate from the values, beliefs, goals, and interests that people have. They may have been first proposed years ago. But people may not know about them or may have never considered them seriously. ‘Don’t involve yourself in expensive foreign wars’ is a policy idea that can be traced back to the ancient Greeks. But each generation has to rediscover it for themselves.

IF creates opportunities for people to engage in a thoughtful and civil exploration of governance concerns and policy possibilities that are sometimes as old as the hills, but are often fundamentally different from what our public discussion participants believe ought to be done. We value ideas and policy possibilities that address governance concerns that are ‘over the horizon’, that are more conceptual in nature and have a long-term perspective. But we also think that our current policies—or the ‘status quo’—are worth discussing. And we understand that what is status quo for one person may be uncharted territory for another—and that a major concern for one person may not even be worth discussing for another.

Many policy wonks in DC talk as if the only policy possibilities that worthwhile to discuss are those that advocate their own concerns, beliefs, values, goals, and interests. They are always quite ready to tell you what is and is not worthwhile to discuss. We aim to explore and developed a wide range of contrasting policy possibilities for public discussion. If one of our project panelists regards a certain governance concern or policy possibility as worthwhile to discuss that, from our perspective, makes it worthwhile to discuss.

I’m not quite sure whether this is a new and original idea, but I think it’s a good one even if it’s not.