Facts, values, and the policy world

Annotated contents

Policy analysts trained in various social sciences face a generally unacknowledged contradiction. Traditionally, mainstream social science has assumed that there is a gulf –a “dichotomy”– between facts and values, and that rigorous social science must be as uncontaminated by values as possible. But policy analysis, as reflection on the question “what is to be done?,” is intrinsically concerned with matters of value. Evasions of this contradiction have relied on various stratagems that have the effect of smuggling unexamined values into analysis.
This book demonstrates the damage that this contradiction inflicts upon policy analysis, and upon society as a whole. It resolves the contradiction by showing that values are every bit as amenable to critical analysis and reasoned defence as factual beliefs. It also presents key qualities of a policy analysis decisively freed from the “binary view” of facts and values
The introduction presents the binary view and the alternative to it. Part I then examines the effects, both obvious and subtle, of the dichotomy, effects seen both in the practice of policy analysis and in our broader culture. Part II shows how policy analysis is transformed when one embraces a consistently non-binary approach. The third part addresses some of the dangers of the approach being advocated, while the conclusion discusses the role of a non-binary policy analysis in a deliberative democracy.

This chapter presents the binary view (aka fact-value dichotomy). Traditionally influential in the social sciences, the view holds that positive and normative beliefs are fundamentally distinct, the first being testable against reality and the second being intrinsically subjective. The chapter critiques the view, yet notes that it will not be buried by critique alone: a coherent alternative is needed. In policy theory today, influential alternatives such as post-positivism and constructionism share the assumption that the key problem is excessive trust in our knowledge of objective reality. They thus leave untouched the binary view’s denigration of the status of normative claims. The Introduction presents a very different approach, based on the observation that our beliefs form a network, each belief being supported by others. Fact beliefs depend in various ways upon normative ones, and vice versa. One can thus say that no fact is merely factual, no norm is merely normative. Value claims need not be treated as subjective or axiomatic: they can be pulled into what Jürgen Habermas calls the “vortex of argumentation.”

PART I: The binary view: Effects and durability
Part One presents various effects of the binary view in the “policy world.”** These range from narrow –e.g. limiting thought on a particular policy problem–, to mid-range –shaping the practice of social science, to civilizational.
Part One also argues that the binary view is a very convenient one for many actors in the policy world, and quite durable, surviving even in intellectual milieux that appear hostile to it.

**Like the arts world, or the world of sports, this is not a physical place, but a set of activities. Almost everyone steps into the “policy world” at least occasionally, when we discuss or write about things that governments are doing, or might do, to address public problems, to prevent problems from arising, to preserve the good things in our society and world, and so on.
Within that broad policy world, there is a set of people engaged on an ongoing basis in some type of formal policy analysis. One can find them in government, academia, civil society organizations, and so on.

Chapter One: Some effects of the binary view
The binary view leads many writers to mask the normative content of their arguments. It also supports the belief that policy differences ultimately arise from “underlying value judgments” that are not subject to reasoned assessment. This leads to “end-of-the-line” thinking, the view that normative debate is fated to run into fundamental differences that are beyond rational judgment, “differences about which men (sic) can ultimately only fight,” as Milton Friedman put it. The chapter undermines this foundational pessimism through a discussion of Friedman’s influential illustration of an alleged foundational difference: between the lovers of freedom and advocates for equality. Contrasting Friedman’s position on those two goods with that of John Rawls reveals differences that are most certainly amenable to rational analysis.
The binary view also personalizes values, so that, in a normative conflict, the question becomes “Whose values will prevail?” Power and ego thus displace thought, and the foundation is laid for a narrow understanding of the policy analyst’s role in a democracy.

Chapter two: The quest for exogenous values
Policy analysis –reflection on what should be done- is inescapably value-centric, yet when shaped by the binary view it treats values as merely arbitrary preferences.
This chapter explores the strategies by which binary policy analysis has evaded this problem, all of which involve the search for an external “supply” of values that are taken as axioms for the policy analyst. These may come from the “preferences” of the elected politician, or from a supposed aggregation of individual choices, as in cost-benefit analysis (CBA). The chapter shows that both tactics are illegitimate. The first draws on a naive view of elected officials as somehow embodying the “preferences” of citizens (even on issues about which the public has not in fact thought). CBA, for its part, illegitimately equates market outcomes with the preferences of “society.” Its reliance on time discounting, and certain measures it uses to calculate the value of a human life, can also lead to morally repugnant conclusions, when applied to a matter such as the climate crisis.
These tactics, and others explored in the chapter, all lead to the “clandestine smuggling of moral values” into analysis (Dahl).

Chapter three: The durable flotsam of the binary view
The binary view is so rooted in our broader culture that its “gravitational pull” can capture even those who seek to distance themselves from it. Social constructionism, for example, can be a promising starting point for a critique of the binary view. But one variant of constructionism that has been very influential in the policy world, that of Anne Schneider and Helen Ingram, paradoxically rests upon the binary view.
Similarly, Thomas Kuhn’s work undermines the commonsensical claim that we have easy access to “brute” facts, which is a vital support for the binary view. But many in the social sciences, and a number of leading policy theorists, have taken Kuhn’s concept of “incommensurability” to mean that paradigms are conceptual prisons from which escape is unlikely, and between which dialogue will probably be fruitless. The possibility of critical dialogue between people holding different “worldviews” and different normative commitments is thus discounted in advance.
The chapter also critiques variants of “historical revisionism” that appear to break with the binary view, but reproduce a key element of it, by insulating nationalist values from all questioning and positing them as a dogmatic basis for history curricula.

Chapter four: Convenient belief
This chapter draws on the insights of Douglas Amy to argue that the binary view is very convenient for many actors in the policy world. It can serve the interests of analysts themselves, and of politicians and various other “consumers” of analysis. The binary view can do this even if no one fully believes in it.
Serious ethical reflection, first, can threaten the analyst’s traditional role as purveyor of supposedly value-free technical advice. As for politicians: they often resort to technocratic justifications for their decisions. Yet politicians also frequently appeal to “values voters” with strident promises to “defend the family” and so on. These ostensibly opposed approaches both rely on the binary view, by exempting values from critical reflection.
An implication of this is that no scholarly argument –including this one– will fully dislodge the binary view from the policy world. Still, careful critique can weaken the defences of the view, and thus shake the allegiance to it of at least some policy actors.

Conclusion to Part I: A world on auto-pilot
This section asks: what sort of civilization “fits” with the binary view? It suggests that the view can find a home only in a world shaped by the apotheosis of “instrumental” or “means-end” rationality. The social world becomes structured by actors moving in contexts with clear and immediate short-term objectives: the CEO, the lobbyist, the politician, and, of course, the policy analyst.
Now being on “autopilot” is fine, so long as we are headed in the right direction. But we are not. Given the climate emergency, “staying the course” will be catastrophic. The binary view intensifies the risk that we will sleepwalk across a climate change threshold.

Part II: Non-binary analysis
Part II explores how policy analysis changes when we:

•Abandon the binary view;
•Understand that our beliefs form a network, that our facts and norms depend upon each other;
•Understand that this network doesn’t have a final foundation; and
•Abandon all forms of foundational pessimism, affirming that there is always something to talk about.

Chapter five: Forms of care
Any intellectual approach encourages those who follow it to “take care” in particular ways. A traditional analyst, for example, must take care to keep analysis independent of value and personal “preferences,” and not to “derive an ought from an is” (Hume). This chapter shows that a non-binary approach replaces such concerns with careful exploration of the fact and value claims that underlie any policy position. A non-binary approach should also lead us to pay close attention to the patterns of attention behind any piece of policy analysis, critically examine the types of trust that support the analysis, and assess whether such trust is warranted. A non-binary approach must be attentive to the ways in which language shapes our lived reality.
The chapter also argues that a non-binary approach protects even certain normative goods associated with the binary view, better than does that view itself. Max Weber, for example, argued that the clear separation of facts from values helps protect students from having professors foist their values on the class. The non-binary approach does not dismiss the concern, but extends it. It can also show that the concern reflects more than a mere personal preference (to which it is reduced within Weber’s framework).

Chapter six: Networks of belief
This chapter presents some implications for policy analysis of the networked nature of our beliefs. Networked beliefs can be held to a greater or lesser degree. This heightens the importance of who is “in the room where it happens.” In an unrepresentative policy-making bureaucracy, certain issues may be intellectually understood, but not viscerally felt, and thus vanish from view during the policy process. Further, we are never fully aware of just what we do and don’t believe. Objectivity can thus only emerge within communities of analysts, or citizens.
Finally: any particular belief, whether normative or factual, is sustained by other beliefs in our network, sustained more or less solidly. Any element in the network has its supports. On the other hand, any belief can be called into question, and may crumble in the face of serious scrutiny. In this sense, values can be true or false; so too can our understanding of our interests, including the “national interest.”

Chapter seven: Networks of beliefs and practices
This chapter extends the analysis of the previous one. The complex relations between our actions and our beliefs, and the intricate web formed by our actions and goals, both have important implications for a non-binary policy analysis. Since changes in our social milieu, for example, can affect our network of beliefs, our interests and even our habits, policy need not always attack “root causes” directly.
The chapter rejects policy approaches that assume a world neatly chopped into means and ends. Certain practices pursue multiple ends, and many important goods such as happiness or freedom are both means and ends. An analysis that assumes that we know precisely what people seek in a particular activity, such as work life, may thus neglect and undermine important human values.
Finally, the chapter returns to a point developed in previous chapters: conscious attention is a scarce resource. This points to both the essential nature of habits, and the potential usefulness –and danger– of policy “nudges.”

Chapter eight: Decision contexts
Real world “decision contexts” –spaces in which one or more people arrive at a decision on some question– can be problematic in a number of ways. Decision-makers can be inattentive, or rushed, or believe that the job of analysis is merely to provide justifications for a pre-fabricated choice. The chapter uses passages from Plato and Shakespeare to illustrate such problems.
A healthy society requires healthy decision contexts. One (delicate) task of the responsible analyst is to try to nudge particular contexts towards that ideal. This requires abandonment of the “subservient analyst model”: in a healthy public service, the analyst should not accept as unquestioned axioms the beliefs, whether normative or positive, of elected officials.
All this poses a particular challenge to the young analyst: they must find a way to harmonize their need to earn a living with a desire to take pride in their work. In this imperfect world, there will inevitably be times when they feel torn being doing the safe and “prudent” thing, and doing what they believe the interest of the public, perhaps even of humanity, requires.

Chapter nine: The analyst in context
Jürgen Habermas likens modern bureaucracies and markets. In both “systems,” true communicative action is unnecessary: market decisions can be “steered” by anonymous price signals, while bureaucratic decisions are steered by power. Were this true, there would be little space for the non-binary policy analysis advocated in this book. But Habermas’s depiction is overly simple. In practice, while the consistent pursuit of a non-binary approach can lead to tensions, this will not always be the case. The “forms of care” exercised in a non-binary policy in fact characterize any thoughtful analyst. In many contexts, this will be greatly appreciated. In other cases, the analyst is not so fortunate.
In trying to improve the quality of their particular decision-contexts, analysts need to be lay anthropologists and sociologists, seeking to grasp the folkways of the strange culture in which they have landed, and its structures of power and influence.
A healthy society also needs alternative spaces of reflection, in which analysis is addressed not to official decision-makers, but to citizens as a whole. By producing well-founded and “usable” knowledge, such civil society spaces can support and improve the health of the official decision process.

Part III: Caveats
The practice of policy analysis can have serious impacts –for better and worse– on people’s lives. So it is irresponsible to advocate for a particular approach to the practice without acknowledging potential risks of that approach.
Part III considers two dangers of the non-binary approach advocated in this work: the magnification of expert power, and an exaggerated optimism concerning the power of dialogue.

Chapter ten: Experts and expertise
Chapters 10 and 11 consider potential dangers of a non-binary policy analysis. Various thinkers have identified threats posed by experts and expertise. One is the emergence of technocracy, or expert domination, which Weber viewed as an inevitable byproduct of bureaucracy. As the bureaucratic elite is generally drawn from a narrow segment of society, technocracy can reinforce class and racial bias in state decision-making.
On its own, a non-binary approach will not resolve all the problems of expertise, as these are rooted in the nature of society as a whole. Indeed, by emphasizing the centrality of ongoing deliberation on positive and normative matters, it runs the risk of favouring the domination of a new type of expert, experienced in what Alvin Gouldner termed the “culture of critical discourse.”
Still, if supporting structures are in place, a non-binary approach can alleviate some problems of expertise. It encourages the development of alternative spaces for deliberation, in which experts engage in serious dialogue with ordinary citizens. Because it emphasizes the intricate interplay of positive and normative questions in any policy debate, it can challenge the monopoly of influence of narrow expertise (such as that of economists on questions such as the minimum wage).

Chapter eleven: The limits of dialogue
A central theme of this book is that “There is always something to talk about, if we’re willing to talk”: dialogue is not destined to founder when it reaches “ultimate values,” as foundational pessimists claim (chapter 2). Yet we must avoid “dialogic utopianism,” an exaggerated optimism concerning the power of dialogue. Open-minded discussion will yield many fruits, yet not always result in full agreement, because of the “burdens of judgment” (Rawls).
Nor can dialogue allow the policy analyst to embrace a pure “facilitator” role and evade the question of truth: truth judgments are unavoidable even in a dialogue-oriented policy approach.
There may be tensions between various goals of policy consultation. A participatory process structured to help us find truth on an issue may differ greatly from one that seeks to arrive at a decision that citizens, or some particular group of citizens, can embrace as their own.
Finally, the chapter draws on insights from Johan Huizinga and Thucydides to stress that people inevitably engage in dialogue with mixed motives, which can have problematic effects.

This chapter opens with a brief review of the book. It then offers last thoughts on a core claim: a non-binary approach leads to a richer understanding of the role of the policy analyst in a democracy. A responsible analyst cannot allow themselves a “normative slumber”: a critical normative awareness is not an outlook to be held in storage, dusted off only when needed. It is always needed.
The analyst has no ethical obligation meekly to accept the normative premises of elected officials. No democratic constitution proclaims that the “preferences” of those officials are to reign supreme, that elected leaders are to decide matters without reflection and challenge. The subservient analyst model (chapter eight) does not emerge from democratic theory: it is a corruption of it, because it undermines one of the key premises for a healthy democracy, the widespread practice of deliberative judgment.
Nor should the analyst view the “will of the people” –however that is discerned– as sacred. When majority opinion supports discrimination against minorities, for example, or refuses to accept the seriousness of the climate crisis, the analyst must challenge that opinion as best they can.