Montana Public Radio Commentary: Philosophies on Philosophies

Philosophies on Philosophies

By: Carl Graham, CEO, Montana Policy Institute

With stimulus packages apparently designed to just stimulate government growth, “Quantitative Easing” that’s only inflating the next bubble, and institutionalized denigration of those holding differing opinions passing for political discourse, maybe it’s time to say a few words about central planning.

Huh? What the heck does central planning have to do with any of that stuff?

Well, it’s a good representation of those differing opinions that many of us have. It exemplifies the difference in philosophy between those who think government is the only thing we all belong to, and those of us who think government actually is the only thing that belongs to all of us.

Let’s face it.  Some people want to be planned for.  They like having membership in a club that can make the tough calls, do the intellectual heavy lifting, and take the heat for our collective misdeeds.  They’re willing to give up some latitude in their lives to not have to make those hard decisions, or maybe they think there are enough others out there who are incapable of making good decisions that somebody should help narrow their options.  And of course there’s no shortage of people who think they have all the answers and gee wouldn’t we all be better off if they could just impose their ideas on the rest of us in the form of central planning. It’d be so much more efficient and, even if a few eggs get broken it’ll still be a better omelet.

But history is littered with failed attempts by states (or more accurately elites) to centrally plan all or significant portions of economies.  From the French Revolution to socialism to communism, to even Plato’s philosopher king, elites have tried to tie all the pieces of society together in a way that provided for everyone by dictating the types and amounts of things (materials, ideas, labor, etc.) to keep the machine running.  All failed spectacularly.  Well, Plato’s wasn’t really tried but come on; can you really see your old philosophy professor with the pony tail and bong blisters in charge?

These attempts were all cloaked in good intentions but failed out of a combination of hubris and indifference: someone assumed they could know the unknowable about what people wanted and needed, and what it would take to provide all of those things in the right quantities and at the right places and times.  And because enough people didn’t demand the right to make their own decisions the ruling elites were able to use powerful and centralized governments to impose their “solutions.”

Let’s see: bank lending requirements, pay caps, government-run healthcare, mass subsidies, auto bailouts…the list is growing of things that someone somewhere thinks they know more about than millions of free people making free decisions about how best to allocate their resources to pursue their own happiness. As more and more decisions and resources are centralized in Washington, the gap between haves and have-nots is being replaced by a growing gulf between those who get to make decisions about we’ll live our lives, and those of us who have live with those decisions.

And that is why, I think, we’re seeing denigration passing for opinion and demonization passing for discourse. The stakes have never been higher, and there are two broad camps out there with fundamentally different visions of what this country should look like– both with strong historical philosophical roots and legitimacy. But both can’t be right, at least not at one time in one place.

I’m getting quite tired, for example, of hearing that those on the Left are stupid, uninformed, or evil.  Some certainly are some or all of those things, as are some on the Right. But just like ignorance, racism and extremism don’t define the vast majority of those on the Right; stupidity and malevolence don’t define the activating forces behind those on the Left.

Ignoring the vast malleable center for the moment – which we generally do anyway except at election time – most people fall into one of two camps, both of which have long philosophical pedigrees and solid ideological underpinnings.

Folks like me who believe that freedom and happiness flow from natural rights and having choices in our lives too often fall into the trap of casually dismissing as useful idiots or miscreants those who believe that rights are granted by governments which are in turn best led by intellectual elites attuned to the needs of the times.

It’s not necessarily gullible or malevolent to believe that some set of experts are better at adapting to the times than individuals and so they should be in charge for the betterment of us all.  It sounds nuttier than a Planters Peanut factory to me, but it’s not an illegitimate view and it should be argued against, not belittled.

Likewise, many on the Left generally dismisses the new grassroots conservative movement as not worthy of their derision and so fall back on manufactured stereotypes of racists and bumpkins to explain any popularity and successes these groups attain.

What many on the Left don’t understand is that there are sound ideological and philosophical underpinnings to conservative values as well. Founding principles and religious values are legitimate in the mainstream, and so the people who hold them must be tarred with illegitimate caricatures of bigotry or ignorance to marginalize them. That is, or should be, insulting to honest people on both sides of the argument.

The thing is, if we don’t understand our opponents’ philosophies and what goes into their assumptions how can we tailor our arguments to oppose them and expose their fallacies?  And if we take the intellectually lazy position of ascribing ill intent or ignorance rather than understanding their arguments then we miss an enormous opportunity to debate issues on the strengths of our own arguments.  We’re seeing too much of that now, where informed and interested people are calling each other playground names instead of trying to persuade each other and educate those around them.

We would do our political system a favor, and maybe we could get back to watching boring beer commercials for a while if we spent a little more time listening and a little less time calling each other names.


Bridging the Conservative Divide – Part 1

Why have we moved so far to the left if we’re a center/right nation?

And we are a center/right nation. Yes, progressive websites regularly trot out polls asking loaded questions like whether people would rather see universal healthcare or babies dying on the street and old people eating cat food; or old people on streets and cats eating baby food. They’re all pretty much the same and the results are as false as the choices they offer.

Meanwhile in the real world, survey after survey shows that self-identified conservatives outnumber those who call themselves liberals by double digit margins.

Not surprisingly, these same surveys show majorities of those in the mercurial middle who place a premium on amicability over expression, and whose opinions more often swing on specific issues than political philosophies fill out a centrist column that is also moving to the right.

And just for the mandatory disclaimer to head off troll comments, the racists, mask wearing Marxists, and other fringe elements who self-identify with each side pretty much only matter to themselves so we’ll leave them out of our descriptions of Left and Right. They’re mostly narcissistic loud mouths and don’t belong in a serious discussion about serious people, even misguided ones.

So in a mostly conservative state that’s in a mostly conservative nation, why do we have a president and entire slate of state constitutional officers in Helena who come from the party of the Left? Obviously conservative beliefs don’t always translate into conservative votes.

The reason for that, I think, is that the Center/Right and, for lack of a better term, libertarian Right tend to either scare or disgust one another; while the Center/Left and, again for lack of a better term, progressive Left are much more effective at coalescing around central themes and voting as a bloc.

The anti-war Left, for example, was largely co-opted and nose-ringed by the Center/Left Democrats when their earliest and most vocal advocate Howard Dean was made chairman of their Party. You don’t – and won’t – see a Ron Paul elected by Republican insiders as that Party’s chair anytime soon. It’s not that they wouldn’t love to co-opt Paul’s more libertarian leaning followers. It’s that they think those guys are nuts who have no interest in being co-opted at any rate.

Those leaning more libertarian, meanwhile, think institutional Republicans are more interested in power than principle and care more about place settings than problem solving. Each is looking at the other through a soda straw that shows a piece of the picture but not enough to make out its true colors.

One result of this narrow view of each other is that the institutional Right doesn’t see much difference between the libertarian Right and the progressive Left on a lot of issues. The political spectrum actually circles around and meets on several key issues near and dear to conservatives, at least in their respective definitions of the problems. The libertarian Right and progressive Left have remarkably similar opinions on overseas wars, drug policy and civil liberties: think Iraq, medical marijuana, and the Patriot Act. That’s scary to traditional conservatives.

But what’s often lost is that where the libertarian Right and progressive Left sometimes agree on narrow policy outcomes with these issues, they’re completely at opposites on what the real problem is and how to fix it. That’s why it’s becoming increasingly clear (even to those who wish it were true) that the Occupy (fill in the location) and Tea Party movements are not chips off the same block. One is a kid rolling on the floor pounding its fists while the other is demanding an adult conversation.

The Left, meanwhile, can coalesce around seemingly disparate issues because they have a set of constant, predictable solutions in search of whatever problem they can exploit, or even fabricate. They want more government, more spending, and more control. Global warming, global cooling, overpopulation, poverty, wealth inequality, and ironically government corruption – all have identical solutions: more government, more spending, more control. They want to put government bandaids on top of government bandaids covering wounds that no longer exists, if they ever did.

Meanwhile, the libertarian Right sees the root of all evils as statism: too much government doing too many things and not leaving people to exercise their liberties, while centrist Republicans focus more on the practical impacts of unsustainable spending and economy stifling regulations. And that’s where the opportunity to bridge the conservative divide lies.

Those who lean right of center – either slightly or over on their ears – do share broadly agreed upon themes. You can reel in the most compassionate conservative or the most icy-veined libertarian by talking about things like free market economics, capitalism, and the founding principles of freedom, responsibility, and limited government. The trick is in taking those broad themes and distilling them into actionable policy options and building messages that bridge the divide between the practical and the principled.

But even that’s not enough. To reach that broad center that leans Right but is put off by the perceived lack of compassion in policies that call for people to take responsibility for their actions, or that is scared by the constitutional arguments for and conspiratorial sounding threats demanding devolved federal power, we have to find common ground on where we’ve gone wrong and how we get back to the basics of founding principles like federalism, limited government, and a true market economy.

And finally, we need simple, intuitive, and truthful arguments against the traditional statist Left’s arguments for more spending, more government, and more control.

Check this space for Part 2 that will offer suggestions for bridging the divide and countering the big government arguments with common sense ideas.

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Bridging the Conservative Divide – Part 2

In Part One I argued that the Center Left and progressive Left are much better at playing together than those of us on the political Right. Since they already agree on the solution, there’s little point in arguing about the problem. And their solution that is perpetually in search of a problem – any problem – is ever and always more government, more spending, more control.

On the Right, meanwhile, we see an apparent – I say apparent because I think it’s more style than substance – split between the centrists who have traditionally dominated the establishment conservative base and the new grassroots conservatives that tend to lean more constitutional and libertarian. And who also feel a much greater sense of urgency in changing our current course.

What is indisputable, though, given that we have a president in Washington and slateful of elected officials in Helena who are of the Party of the Left, is that this center/right state and country are not translating conservative philosophies and preferences into political power.

That has to change.

And change it will if we can concentrate on what unites the Right and replace the straw man arguments constantly erected by the Left with intuitive and easily stated concepts for making this a better place by following the recipe left to us in our founding documents.

Here are a few ideas.

First, polls show broad agreement around the concept that government is too big, too expensive, and unsustainable at current levels. If something can’t go on forever it probably won’t, as an economist once said, and we’re at a tipping point between continuing down the current path leading towards becoming a European-style social democracy, or returning to the principles of freedom, capitalism, and limited government that have made us unique in history.

There is also broad agreement that the system of special interest spoils, crony capitalism, and identity politics has broken the bank and is morally corrupt. The more government can pick winners and losers the less incentive people have to achieve and the less opportunity there is to climb the ladder of success. That’s unfair and it makes everyone except the connected few worse off than they otherwise would be.

The Left’s focus on equality of outcomes, whether it be incomes or feelings, also provides an opportunity to unite behind some basic conservative principles.

They are focusing on the split between the richest and poorest and calling for closing that gap through redistribution or a playing field that would be leveled through government intervention, i.e. holding some people back and giving others a boost.

But there is no such thing as a level playing field and there never will be. People are born with different interests, aptitudes, talents, luck, and a million other attributes that guarantee they will not approach life in the same way, work at the same levels, or aim for and achieve the same goals. The ability to set your own goals and decide how much effort to put into achieving them is essential to freedom.

And there will always be a split in incomes. The Politburo lived better than the average Russian, just as a Wall Street executive lives better than the average American. Tin pot dictators around the world live better than their subjects.

The important thing isn’t whether there is a split in incomes – that will always be the case under any system – but whether there are opportunities to rise. And nothing provides more opportunity to rise than a free enterprise system where people are equal under the law – the rules apply to everyone equally – but where what they get out of it depends on what they put into it.

So we shouldn’t let the Left get away with the simplistic and materialistic argument that money buys happiness and equal amounts of money make everyone equally happy.

Instead we should be focusing on the fairness of a system that rewards work and risk. If some people work more they get more. That’s fair. If you want to work less and live a simpler life that’s fine, too. It’s your business to decide how much you want to put into and how much you want to get out of your labor and whatever other assets you have, not the government’s.

And we should be pointing out that prosperity is good for everyone. Only rich societies can afford things like social safety nets, environmental stewardship, and host of other things that civil societies provide. These things aren’t made possible by equal incomes; they’re made possible by increased incomes that a free enterprise system makes possible.

And a free enterprise system – as opposed to the crony capitalism we’re seeing more of today – has a government that protects rights rather than creating them and allows people to reap the rewards of their earned success. That means limiting its role in our lives, it’s reach into our pockets, and acting as a protector of rights rather than a granter of goodies.

These are points that have broad appeal, don’t take an economics degree to understand, and can be easily passed on from one person to another.

Rather than concentrating on the few issues that divide the Right, we should be focusing on the ideas and principles that most Americans embrace as our unique heritage and advantage. Hopefully we’ll learn in time.

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