Doing Good, or Feeling Good?

So often in the world of politics and policy, we are left with the ultimate choice of whether to do what is good, or what will make us feel good.  Sometimes, those two options interact, but more often they are at cross-purposes.

Such is the state of affairs in the critical debates on the table today – guns, budgets and debt.

With the re-emergence of Gabby Giffords in the wake of the Newtown tragedy, it is now clear that gun control supporters are attempting to re-ignite the emotional element of gun control, which was ripe in the days following the tragedy but had ramped down recently.  And the fact that Giffords is both a victim of a horrendous attack and, along with her husband, a gun owner claiming to embrace the second amendment, makes her entrance into the debate very powerful.

As this last election proved, you underestimate the power of purely emotional arguments at your own peril.  During the presidential campaign, the emotional appeal was to “fairness,” (or “social justice” as the left calls it in house) in the form of higher taxes on the rich, who, we are told, have been gaming the system forever at the expense of everyone else.  That emotional argument was won quite easily by the left, to the tune of $600,000,000,000 in new taxes on the figurative 1%.

Now, the left is playing on the emotions of the same low information voters who helped put President Obama back in office for four more years, attempting to defy the logical argument that criminals are criminals because they don’t obey the law, and thus stiffening the laws and adding new ones is not likely to lead them to suddenly become law-abiding, while it will certainly weaken the defenses of the 95+% of gun owners who do obey the law…and thus create a less safe society.

No, we’ve got to do something is the cry, and the gun grabbers are pouncing on their best opportunity in many a year to make sure that something is as many new gun control laws and banned weapons as possible.  Using only arguments that will make their supporters and unwitting allies feel good.  Never mind that history has consistently demonstrated that gun control does not lead to crime control, which after all is the single legitimate goal in this whole debate.

You want a solution to gun violence?  There is only one proven answer: increasing concealed carry permits (and enforcing state laws that apply to the practice of journalistic “outing” of concealed carry permit holders).  But that won’t make us feel good.  More gun laws will.

Likewise, the emotional argument being made on the automatic spending cuts called for in the coming sequestration   The left will increasingly renew granny being shoved over the cliff in a wheelchair, and the right will raise the spectre of defense cuts that reduce us to a shrunken and vulnerable military power in rapid decline.  Both sides are likely to play down the actual facts behind their arguments – e.g. how many government workers will lose their jobs, what irreplaceable services will be eliminated or what vital weapons systems will get axed.

Some arguments – mostly the ones on the right like increasing armed security in schools, balancing the budget and restructuring entitlements – are not conducive to emotional argumentation.  And notice those seem to be the ones that don’t carry the day.

At the same time, the right has used purely emotional arguments of their own, such as when the Iraq war had gone south, and those who dared to criticize our involvement and/or strategy were accused of “not supporting the troops.”

Emotion should be required only when your argument is not sound, or you don’t really believe what you’re saying.  Unfortunately, that fundamental truth is no longer relevant, if it ever was.  Emotion is the mother’s milk of politics in a digital age in which people can be whipped into a frenzy almost instantly.

All sides in politics use emotion to varying degrees.  But, as we learned on election day and in the tax debate, and are likely to soon find out in the gun control fury, when reliance on emotion replaces rational debate, the nation is playing with fire.