Balancing good morals and policy in 2019

What do we do when good, well-intended policy has a tangible, negative impact on some groups of people?

If there is one critique our political culture in New York state has made ever clear, it’s that for every action an elected official or political party takes, there is a clear, negative impact on another group.

Why have we allowed our politics to devolve into these sweeping, broad, often shortsighted solutions that don’t yield a real benefit in the long-term?

As far as New York is concerned, I’ve railed in this space and on various other platforms against policies or legislative efforts — such as the Downtown Revitalization Initiative. In fact, despite the net good it does for communities in Upstate and the Finger Lakes — which see money that otherwise would be directed to communities Downstate — I’ve said numerous times that a thorough, balanced approach to investing in those Upstate communities would serve the whole significantly better.

It’s a new year, though, and that means a new batch of proposals for residents and taxpayers to evaluate as they brace for impact.

Everyone wants to cite a moral compass when it comes to policy.

For example, let’s look at the plastic bag ban. On the surface, it seems like a sensible idea. We have a plastic, single-use problem, for sure. Plastic is everywhere, along with Styrofoam. This is likely the first step of several, which will include driving our society away from single-use plastic. The end result is desirable, but the means by which we get there is flawed.

While a lot has been made of the government imposing its will on The People, the larger issue seems to be the way it’s sold. It’s factually correct that conservatives — and frankly, people in general — don’t want to be told by the government what they should do or how they should do it. However, when you talk to folks, the debate is much simpler than that.

Here’s an argument I’ve heard far too often: “Well, you should want to preserve the environment and so what if it costs some people more in the process??”

That argument carries over into a number of other policies too. The introduction of the moral element into policy takes the debate away from strength of policy and focuses it solely on the feelings associated with taking the moral high ground. And we see it on both sides of the political aisle.

People can cite moral compass while voting on a piece of legislation or while debating a topic. However, it doesn’t do much to further the cause or debate. Furthermore, it allows the opposing side to invoke the same thing, essentially creating a back-and-forth within the vacuum of a single issue or question.

Moral compass should dictate how we live our lives and, by that same measure, should ultimately decide who is representing us in elected office. Moral compass does not always create the best policy, though, because it does not weed out the negative human components of policy making. For better or worse, moral compass shifts with time. It moves, because people evolve, typically for the better.

Each generation should improve, but we should never fool ourselves into thinking that we’re perfect or completely, 100 percent morally stout.

There are far more impeding or concerning pieces of legislation that have been proposed across the board that have a tangible impact on all sides of the political debate. Plastic bags just happened to be the easiest choice to explain in this column.

The so-called Green New Deal is another example, though much larger and significantly more complex. The moral components of the debate are getting all the attention when a much more constructive debate could be had if they were not invoked constantly and used as primary arguing points for both sides.

The plastic bag ban will have a tangible impact on the people who run grocery stores and businesses in Upstate. Every time we reduce an environmental debate to, “Why don’t you want to save the planet? What kind of horrible person are you?” without looking at the other components of the debate, we’re allowing ourselves to become further entrenched in partisan, party politics.

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