Friday, July 9, 2010

Left, left, left right left

It has recently been pointed out to me that my conversation is full of references to "the left" and "the right" (and this blog tends to reflect my conversational habits). I think the observation carried an implicit criticism (about my tendency to think in terms of simple, adversarial dichotomies?), and I might just give a few initial reflections here on the matter.

First of all, I realize that an individual's political and social views are very complex and cannot be reduced to a position on a one-dimensional (or even multi-dimensional) scale. I have used the word "conservative" to label my general position, but it is a word which is sufficiently flexible to cover a range of perspectives in a range of areas (not just politics).

I had a friend who was raised in China in the 1970s (the daughter of a general, in fact), and she was in a deep sense a conservative, though she was not interested in Western politics. She was educated in Confucian values and classical Chinese literature by her maternal grandmother, who had been a concubine, and yet she was also deeply affected by Maoist Communist ideas.

The point I'm making is that I know there is no simple left/right dichotomy. I am interested in how people think and form their values, and, if I tend to identify with "one side" of politics, I am not totally sure of my position and I remain respectful towards and sometimes fascinated by those with views very different from my own.


  1. That's an interesting subject actually. There's a difference between being "personally conservative" (as in, for instance, not taking excessive risks) and being politically conservative -- and even in the latter case, it's possible to be a fiscal conservative but a social liberal. Goldwater famously held that homosexuals had rights and their choices were nobody's business: pure libertarianism.

    I got in a big snit with myself about this liberal/conservative dichotomy last year when I got caught in the downdraft of the recession. Having never collected any form of public assistance, suddenly I was caught in a philosophical bind. I had paid taxes for 40 years, constantly grumbling about having to pay for every form of escalating government largesse -- and for the most part I still grumble. For what had I paid all those taxes, if now I needed help? Take the help? Or starve on principle? Pay for the freeloaders, but not for myself? I didn't exactly switch parties ... I still don't trust the idea of socialized medicine ... but.

    This led me to see the social problems behind the need to support the down-and-out. If our schools fail, it increases the ranks of the unemployed and the likelihood of crime. If our economy is run by the corrupt, it affects the distribution of prosperity. If our government wastes money, our children's economic future is at risk. If we tax too high, businesses pull the plug and head offshore. The rape of the middle class in our generation is astounding. We all thought we'd be retiring set for life -- grumbling all the way about tax-and-spend, bad schools, old-boy networks and why the jails aren't big enough to hold all the bad guys. But it looks a little different from the breadline.

    So I began to wonder -- given certain beliefs I've always had -- having been a one-lever R-voter since the 60s, yet wrinkling my nose at Star Wars and Iraq and guns-n-butter politics (and yet unable to drive east to west even once on I-40 and find Tennessee is paved straight through -- do our NUKES work?) am I still a conservative? It seems to me a lot of pieties go with that (and the opposite): if I am a fiscal conservative regarding government, must I also be the pro-business conservative who deregulated Wall Street and the banks sufficiently to let them lose half a million of my hard-earned bux and still smoke their macanudos? Or should I join the wild-eyed crazies who think Iraq was a massive money laundering operation? I'm beginning to get radicalized, ya know?

    As I look into the roots of liberalism and conservatism, I'm convinced I believe in nothing in the USA that goes by either name. They're both astray. Every time I vote Republican must I also vote for Pat Robertson and against abortion? Or simultaneously in the interests of Goldman-Sachs?

    In the mid-1800s, mostly in the Germanic countries of Europe, there was a succession of "revolutions" to strip the old monarchies of power. These uprisings pushed the power structure to change -- but did not entirely upend the status quo. The old families still held power and wealth, but no longer wielded it directly. They lived behind a facade of nominal democracy so that "the more things changed, the more they remained the same."

    The world still works that way. Every administration acts like the one before, policywise, despite their election rhetoric and regardless whose stars or stripes we voted in. The power structure remains the same.

    Meanwhile I may not live long enough to see any benefit from the socialized medicine I am certain I will need but not qualify for, as a long-time self-employed businessman with low SSA payments early in life and a set of mutual funds meant to make up for it, which now are practically worthless. I've decided it doesn't matter much whether I am Republican or Democrat. What matters more is: am I ever getting anything out, that I put in?

  2. I'm with you in most of what you say. Fiscal responsibility and other such boring principles still apply - because national prosperity is a sine qua non. And some kind of a safety net seems humane and sensible. You're getting radicalized, you say - really? In what way?

  3. I'm beginning to believe in more government, not less. LOL.

    In particular, I've always believed in free market economics -- laissez faire. I began to grumble a bit when the airlines were deregulated. The result was low ticket prices and more competition, but at the expense of both safety and customer service. Still, I bit my tongue. Then along came banking deregulation -- the Phil Gramm bill was almost pure laissez faire. It took about a decade to completely screw up the economy, as new financial instruments (derivatives) ultimately nuked the Boomer generation's retirement strategies through unregulated speculation. I'm willing to admit the market "works" -- we're in the midst of a "correction." Also known as the greatest recession ever, worldwide in scope. Also known as: where's our money? My bad. I bought into IRAs when my mattress would have been a safer bet. Now I'm screaming "where were the regulators" and "pass the reform bill."

    For me, that's radical. Y'see.

    I grumbled about unfunded government mandates such as gas mileage targets for cars (CAFE standards). The result was higher prices for cars, and only slightly better efficiency. Meanwhile my taxes pay for the bureaucracy to regulate the industry and I gripe about it. But studies have shown there is less pollution (in emission tonnage) than there would have been without regulation. On a strict cost/benefit analysis, the return on investment may even be negative.

  4. But negative as it may be, the cost/benefit analysis is not the entire story. If global warming is a fact, all that saved emission tonnage is beneficial -- and we should be doing more.

    So part of my observation here is, the market works -- laissez faire is a valid principle. BUT it doesn't correct imbalances fast enough. It's a FAIR market, but not an efficient market, time-wise. By the time we realize the negative outcomes allowed by market non-interference, the damage has been done.

    To me, that's radical. Y'see.

    And real people -- meaning ME (LOL) -- are feathers in the storm.

    We need a better way. Problem is, if government is corruptible by special interests, "more government, not less" is a recipe for disaster. Perhaps the mantra should be "GOOD government, not less."

    And possibly "extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice" needs some caveats, too. LOL.

    That's radical.

  5. I have the feeling the a big change is going on in the way people see government's role - but I can't see clearly where it's all headed. People like you and me whose starting point was a small government ideal will probably end up with something different (in terms of an "ideal") from what traditional leftists want. As you say, good government. And I tend to see this as a government that only spends on things which are seen as desirable by (nearly) everybody. Controversial spending is often bad spending - special interests, etc. And then there is the small issue of balancing budgets!

  6. That's a good principle: spend only on what everybody wants. Or what at least 51% of us want, for Pete's sake. Now, if we just know what we want ...

    Off topic: Go take a look at the Moxie Files. I wonder if you're gonna hate what I did to you today.

  7. Mark, I also blog on My Telegraph, a site related to a British national daily, as anatheimp. I posted a piece on 11 July called Not right, just right, which touches on some of the points that you have made here.

  8. Ana, I looked up the MyT piece - a nice defense of Enlightenment values.