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Where Do We Make Public Policy Choices?

IF public discussions are intended to help you think through the public policy choices you make.  But it may be hard to see where and when such choices might actually present themselves.  It may be difficult to see how you could actually influence “public policy.”

To a large extent, we can blame this difficulty on Aristotle.  He isn’t just famous; he continues to influence how we think about many things, politics and “policy” included.  You’ve probably heard at least a little about him.  He was a student of Plato and teacher of Alexander the Great.  He was famous for walking as he lectured.  He was a great collector and analyst, of everything from starfish to constitutions.  And he was certainly a great thinker, on topics ranging from biology to poetry.  (One of my teachers called him “unexcelled, perhaps unequaled, as a philosopher.”)  Unfortunately, when great thinkers make mistakes, their mistakes live on along with the things they got right.

So it is with Aristotle’s conviction that the realm of politics was best thought of as wholly separable from all other human activities.  The idea that politics is a unique sphere of activity lives on, deeply ingrained in our culture.  We mostly continue to think of politics, public policy, and government as things that relate to officialdom, constitutions, and the state.  In the process, we can easily forget not only that “politics” and other social processes, groups and institutions interact in countless ways, but that their defining essence—collective thought and action–is the same.  Making and implementing decisions that affect others is what most of us do, most of the time.  Understood as collective thought and action, politics is not, as the old saying goes, “local” but rather “everywhere.”  So, too, is public policy.

So when you discuss an IF Discussion Report, don’t think only of the choices you might later be called upon to make as a “citizen” of your town, school district, or nation, think also of the collective thought and decisions you’ll be engaged in as a member of the local Elks, your PTO, your extended family, your church, or your firm.  Think about the issues facing the conventional political communities to which you belong, of course.  But don’t let your imagination stop there.  You are also a “citizen” of innumerable other collectives, as well—any or all of which may have to think through and make decisions about concerns like those you discuss as a participant in an IF Public Discussion.

Your IF discussion is a chance to explore an area of concern and possibilities for addressing it, yes.  But remember that it is also a chance to explore these from the perspective of the various “publics” to which you belong.