You keep using those words…

…and I’m not sure what you mean. In fact, if the debate on the Panic post is any indication of the matter, we appear to be differing over the nature of the terms.

In his fantastic book, The Conscience of a Liberal, Senator Paul Wellstone discuss the nature of our country’s politics. Are we “left, right or center?” Wellstone cited all sorts of data on the issue, ending with his belief that our country is “Center-Left.” In effect, when asked about the issues, American’s lean Center Left.

When asked to self-identify, American’s appear to have interesting answers. Lewis cited the poll where in 60% of American’s identify as conservatives (page 16). Yet Fifty Five years ago, President Eisenhower was identified with so-called Liberal Causes. What happened?

In fifty-five years, Liberals got a bad rap. Even Saul Alinsky mocks them. What does liberal even mean anymore?

For that matter, what does Conservative even mean anymore? Frequent readers (and friends) have identified them as fiscal conservatives, social conservatives and straight up conservatives. Even I’ve said I have a fiscally conservative approach–and I don’t think anyone would confuse me for a potential Republican voter. (That being said I have voted for one big ticket republican before. It was a local election, and I voted against my union endorsed candidate for president because he was a tool. So is his son…but that’s a post for a different time.)

I have heard various pundits (and read a number of op/ed pieces) that suggests that the main difference between the Left and Right is a question of basic human character: Leftists believe that people have a tendency towards benevolent/generous behaviors while Rightwingers believe that people tend towards selfish/greedy behavior. Therefore, leftists don’t have an issue with “big government” because, with the right (leftist) people in power, government will work for the betterment of society. Rightwingers will want to limit government because they only have their own interests at heart. Thomas Frank discuss this on Bob Edwards Weekend.

What’s your take on this idea?

On like the Belief article, I’m going to post my first thoughts here. As an aside, I am still working on the belief post…Flickr ate it.

I’m not sure about this. I first this heard Thom Hartmann and David Horowitz debate this on Air America, and it appeared that they agreed on the issue. Hell, they were more explicit, using terms as “good” and “bad.” Then on Bob Edward’s show, Thomas Frank made the argument that because conservatives think that people are inherently selfish, they wreck government agencies so that the private sector can fix it. Agencies have too much power, so the concentrated power inherent in the private sector somehow limits bad people being in control. At least, I think that was the argument.

Obviously, political philosophies are significantly more sophisticated than, “people are good/people are bad.” However, I do think that there may be some merit in this idea. I do believe that provided a level playing field and all the information, most people will do the right thing. The less level the playing field, the harder it is to be altruistic; however, I have seen families living in abject poverty reaching out to their neighbors to help them.

And yet, at my job I have seen horrible things that people have done to each other. I have met kids who have been failed so thoroughly by society that they never had a chance to be anything but “bad.” I have also seen a few kids, given all the opportunity in the world, turn out to rotten to the core. Some would even use the term evil to talk about these kids…

All in all, I think that how people see others–inherently good, bad, smart, stupid, selfish, whatever–helps form the basis of their political ideology. It doesn’t explain all of why I believe what I believe, but it is a good start to it.

3 thoughts on “You keep using those words…

  1. Hunh. Interesting. I have to start by taking issue with the idea that liberals think people are good, and that therefore government run by good people is good. Oh, my, no! I’m horribly cynical, as you know. I’m a liberal when it comes to government not because I believe in the nobility of human action, especially in the government, but because I believe that while humans can incredibly noble, on a general basis, humans are pretty ignoble. To me, government is literally a social contract: a communal agreement to better the lot of most. If humans were innately noble, then there would be no need for organized government. The wealthy would automatically care for and support their less fortunate brethren. This is not the case, though, and all of recorded human history attests to it. Once one person or group gains advantage, driving their subservients to penury, slavery, and even death.

    The great aspect of the democratic social contract is that it gives to poor union powers: the ability to establish demands and conditions necessary to avoid bloody revolution. It is a general insurance contract, where everyone pays or contributes to insure no one person pays alone, or goes without aid.
    From my point of view, conservatives seem to endorse the idea that the wealthy will magnanimously use their power and money to better the lot of those below, and that therefore by bettering the lot of the rich, we will indirectly better the lot of everyone. Oh, to be sure, they seem to usually cite the magical market to effect such arcane ends, so that the action of bizarrely generous individuals won’t be a necessary citation to support their ideology. This doesn’t ultimately change the locus of positive change as being the rich, though.

    For me, it isn’t a matter of the more generous left versus the more greedy right, it is far more elemental. It seems to me that the leftists are those that realize their own potential to decline in status so precipitously that they would need public support to survive as an actual threat. They seek to insure against the possibility of their own decline. Conservatives are the opposite: they look to maximize their potential for advantageous advancement, rather than insure against a loss of fortune. For them the focus isn’t about the risk of falling behind, it’s about maximizing the benefits of advancement. For the conservative, government isn’t about a general contract to limit risk at the expense of profit, but instead to maximize profit at the expense of a general elevated risk.

    These philosophies can be refined, though. The general effect of liberal philosophies seems to be one that limits risk and possible profits through government programs and regulation, with the benefit that no-one can get too hurt by society. It seems that this philosophy is focused on the short term, regarding current citizens as the primary contractees. In this, it ignores the demands of the unborn and future growth. More importantly, liberalism seems to imply a faith that government can be an efficient means to regulate society.
    Conversely, conservatism addresses the future profits to be made, at the risk of short term loss. It is up to those present now to make what they can, and to let the future remain flexible. The necessary corollary is that risk increases accordingly. For conservatism the ideal seems to be that market forces would provide the most efficient means to regulate society.

    Note that in both these examples, I spoke of efficiency, rather than justice.

    Given this, I can explain why I’m a liberal. Do I want to help others? Sure! I’ve taken a homeless guy to lunch. I’ve supported community drives. I like charities. This said, I don’t think any individual efforts will ever be a successful method to address poverty and suffering. If the simple human ability to recognize suffering and address it were sufficient to eliminate it, poverty would have vanished millenia ago. To hope that a free market will magically create enough love to eradicate suffering is no more reasonable than waiting for a fairy godmother. A general social contract to limit the risk of abject suffering is reasonable and possible, and falls within the sphere of the Liberal.

    As for my conservative friends: I cannot argue with your social conservatism. Well, I could, but in this case I won’t, but will instead generally address economic conservatisms.

    The free market has a remarkably low amount of pixie dust. The “free market” is not only not free, given how contaminated it is by marketing and geographical limitations, it is typically closer to a toxic monopoly. If we’re going to make claims about reality and hard core “conservative” realism, then we must first look at general market forces, like distribution of shareholder risk (liberal insurance,) or the psychological effects on consumers of having a fall back plan.
    For me, liberalism isn’t a philosophy of good or bad, it is recognition of economic realities. I think most people should be free of government interference and censure, but I interpret this in a negative sense. The government ought not tell me what I can’t do, but instead affirm my rights. Yeah, I’ve got a right to live, which has equally interesting implications for the death penalty and abortion rights. (I’m anti-death of a sentient being, especially when our justice system is o very bad at convicting innocent people, but I’m not sure a fetus counts in any meaningful sense as sentient.) I’ve got a right to make good…but I think that it should be balanced by a right to not starve to death. I don’t give a fuck about what you call your marriage, or what gender you married. Mine’s going just fine without your input, thanks. I’m sure your marriage can do just as well without mine.

    I think people have a right to spend their money as they like, but that it must be balanced against everyone else in terms of that general insurance policy we engage in as a society.
    I think trying to (further) outlaw illegal immigration is as about as useless as outlawing abortion. As long as we have a country where people can give their kids a better life, then the best of our neighbors will do whatever it takes it improve the lives of their children. This might make them bad immigrants, but it makes them good parents. That sounds like the sort of person I don’t mind as a neighbor.

    I think ideas like health care and social security fall under the blanket of the social contract.

    Finally, I need to clarify something about the wonderful free market. I like it. I’m a big fan. But we need to clarify as a people just what the hell it can do. Contrary to some conservative beliefs, the market does not have magical powers. When you buy something, you are typically buying the most visible element of that thing. For example, if you give money to teachers in exchange for higher test scores, you must be careful to recognize you’re not buying better teaching: you’re buying an attempt to generate higher test scores. Anything else is speculation. With trickle down economics, by giving the wealthy more money, you aren’t buying economic growth, you’re purchasing investments that will make the rich richer. If this leads to capital investment in industry, then great! The purchaser has no right to expect this, though. Investing in treasury bonds might be as reasonable, and in no way aids the lower classes.

    In summation, I’m a liberal for economic reasons. I think it reasonable to limit growth along with risk, and to care for everyone against the eventuality I might someday require help. Is there more to it? Sure! For now, though, this will be sufficient.

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