Good Ideas, Bad Ideas, and How to Tell the Difference

There’s a lot of interesting talk in the comments of my Alan Gura report about how one defines good ideas, bad ideas, and who gets to decide this? I think it would be unfair to suggest the old Justice Potter Stewart, “I know it when I see it” approach, because every good idea is someone else’s bad idea. If there wasn’t a certain amount of relativity here, there would not be conflict. Suggesting one’s ideas are the right ideas, and someone else’s are the wrong ones, just because that’s clearly the case, is intellectually shallow. So how do we find truth, to the extent that it exists?

Conflict actually offers a way to separate good ideas from bad. That’s why Freedom of Speech is the first right in our society. Ideas are debated in the court of public opinion, which, at least ideally, allows good ideas to prevail over bad ones. But in order to separate good ideas from bad, you need to have some kind of framework. Otherwise you just have conflict for conflict’s sake, which advances nothing. That framework needs to be effectiveness, or “Do your ideas work?” In that framework, ideas that work and further a movement’s goals are good ideas, and ideas that don’t work, or don’t further a movement’s goals are bad ones. Having your ideas work is what lends them credibility, ultimately. Let’s just take a look at this example from the comments:

Sebastian, I understand your point, but how are we to judge what is a “good idea” vs. what is a “bad idea”? As I recall, Heller was roundly condemned (at one point) by the NRA as a bad idea, and it’s turned out to be a shining victory.

At one time I thought Parker was a bad idea, because I felt the chances of it winning were slim, and that it would create negative precedent to overcome. But Alan Gura was willing to go around on blogs and make the case for it, and the victories racked up built up his position, and weakened NRA’s position. I’d not agree with NRA today if they were still against a three branch strategy for the Second Amendment. Alan Gura’s ideas prevailed because he convinced people they were good ideas, and then created a track record of those ideas working to advance the movement.

I will take the example of Gary Gorski that I used in the previous post, who has his own ideas on how to conduct Second Amendment litigation. He’s responsible for the infamous Silveira case, which reenforced the collective rights view in the 9th Circuit. He’s also been a passionate advocate against Alan Gura’s strategy, and has even attacked Alan Gura personally. One can pretty easily conclude that Alan Gura’s ideas are good, and Gorski’s are bad, because Alan Gura’s ideas have a track record of winning and Gorski’s do not.

It is ultimately through argument and persuasion that we try to separate the wheat from the chaff, but any idea or strategy that is advanced eventually must be able to meet the hard cold test of succeeding in reality, and ideas which can’t answer basic challenges, deal with fundamental questions of practical implementation, or which fail when put into practice, have to be considered bad ideas and pushed aside as ineffective. I can’t think of any other way you keep a movement progressing forward.

8 thoughts on “Good Ideas, Bad Ideas, and How to Tell the Difference”

  1. … how are we to judge what is a “good idea” vs. what is a “bad idea”?

    My God, doesn’t anyone study basic philosophy and the history of science anymore?

  2. Not “study” so much as “generally learn.” Good grief! That kind of knowledge allows everyday people to make some sense out of the world around us. Basic probability, basic reasoning, basic logic, etc. It’s just basic knowledge that we all should know.

    My god, has our educational system failed, and big time. And that educational system of course starts in the home.

  3. Interesting Carl. I hadn’t really realized it when I banged this out, but I essentially reworded the scientific method didn’t I? If you consider an idea or strategy a hypothesis, and the realm of public opinion and politics to be the experiment.

  4. Except, of course, as Mises already pointed out back in the 1930’s, I think, the Scientific Method doesn’t apply to History, Political Science, and Economics.

  5. (Parenthetically, I’m amused to note how someone, who does not know me, assumes that I’m some sort of idiot, and that the education system has failed me. With those powers of observation, you may have a great future in administering Obamacare.)

    Having worked in research labs in an earlier life, I’m probably a bit more familiar with the scientific method in practice than the average bear. It’s a great thing where there are physical data points that can be measured and conditions that can be controlled. Temperature of x, pressure of y, and so on. If at x temperature and y pressure the compound under test always reacts thusly–then we have “science”, so to speak.

    The scientific method is less useful in places, such as politics, where this sort of controlled experimentation is difficult-to-impossible. Not useless, but less useful. The value is limited because the areas where we can conduct experiments are more limited.

    The reason for this is because we can’t truly experiment in the realm of politics and public policy. In most instances, we can’t hold all the variables static while we vary the one we’re testing. In politics, everything flows. I change this, but she changes that and he changes something else–all at once. Outcomes are not necessarily repeatable and data generated is of questionable quality. This is why some areas, such as economics, are so damn much fun to watch.

    I think Sebastian’s method is as workable as any other, but I do see issues. It seems to me that at some point it will require “authority”–someone, some group, something–must become the arbiter of “what works”. Who are we going to look to for that judgment? Or do we throw ourselves on the wisdom of the crowds, as in Wikipedia.

    What measure do we use to decide that something has “worked”? Success in the realm of politics and public policy can be a lot less obvious (and take a lot longer to determine) than success when synthesizing a chemical compound.

    Because it worked once, does this make it the best or even only way to reach our goal? For example, Alan Gura developed a strategy that “worked” in Heller. However, that same strategy may not work when an incorporation case finally makes it to the Supremes–because the other variables have changed. The makeup of the court, the political climate surrounding the case and so on are not the same as they were.

    And just what is our goal here? Ask 50 gunnies and I expect you’ll get 50 definitions of where they want this to wind up. I’m a Second Amendment absolutist. However, I don’t think everyone ought to be able to own a nuclear weapon. When one reads the history of the Amendment, it becomes pretty clear what the Founders had in mind. But I’d bet one or more of those 50 would “extend” it to say that you should be able to own anything you want. Does that make their goal better–or worse, or less worthy–than mine when it comes to our activism? Oops, there we go needing that “authority” again.

    I think that a better strategy is to work multiple parallel avenues attack. Should one play out, resources can be moved to those that are still moving forward. Putting all our eggs in one basket is hazardous. To some extent, we got lucky with Heller (and yes, I understand that the prepared have a tendency to be lucky). It was a 5-4 decision–as close as it could have been to a loss. We may not fare so well next time. It would be best to be prepared with fall-back positions.

  6. But Alan Gura was willing to go around on blogs and make the case for it, and the victories racked up built up his position, and weakened NRA’s position.

    I had the impression that going and doing it built up Gura’s position and weakened the NRA’s, not so much the blog arguments. NRA signed on only after trying, and failing, to capture the case by consolidation, and after trying, and failing, to moot the case by a hasty Congressional repeal of the DC gun ban (which I’d have welcomed any time previously, but they sped up at the very time they could have slowed down). And, really, how much credit does the NRA deserve for not trying to spike the case once it came time to file amicus curae briefs?

    I’m sure there are blog conversations I didn’t see during that time period, but I still think the blogosphere arguments are only half the story. It’s good if Gura’s not holding a grudge, but I don’t see how we can plan future successful strategy from a sanitized history of success.

  7. Gura was Levy’s creature that had his own plan, which worked.
    The goal was limited in scope. Levy and Gura did not have as a goal the same that many of us have.

    Their goal was simply to get SCOTUS say that the 2 A is an individual right. With that decided then the DC ban was obvious a violation since it did not allow handguns at all.

    Incorporation is still an issue and not all rights are incorporated and there are issues larger about federalism that impact incorporation.

    The 10th amendment was meant as a check on the power and authority of the federal government. However with the Civil War and the need to get the states to accept that Black Americans were to be accepted with the same rights and privileges as white men, Incorporation as a concept can into play.

    However the 10th was meant to restrict the federal government to it designated constitutional authority and all else was reserved to the state and the people respectively.

    The ability to have a tax was given to Congress and they used that authority to regulate machine guns.

    But the 1986 law is not grounded in Constitutional authority.

    I agree that basic rights like the first and the 2nd should be incorporated.

    I believe that free men should be able to own anything they want as long as it is not another person. Private people own nuclear generator plants and could easily own nuclear weapons id they had the many and ability. The reason people don’t is that they don’t think it is a good idea with the inherent dangers.

    Back in the 1950’s and earlier student were taught about explosives since that is useful knowledge for farming and mining.

    There were always a few that killed themselves and others through stupidity
    Later the attitude change that we were not responsible enough for to own or use explosives. That urge to restrict what people can do led to the banning of fireworks in many places.

    I am extremely wary of any authority to decide what I can own or do. Free men and women are limited only to their own duties not to infringe on the rights of others and endanger them.

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