Monday, March 1, 2010

Looking around from the center

There's something to be said for the point of view held by those of us in the political middle. There's balance here. A perspective that cannot be appreciated by those who have chosen to ally themselves with a particular faction--especially those who take extreme positions within said faction.

From time to time, I've referred to something called the Nolan chart. It's a diagram attributed to David Nolan--founder of the modern Libertarian movement--in which the traditional "left/right" political spectrum is replaced by a two-dimensional plane with four corners representing four distinct areas of political and economic thought. Occupying two opposing corners are the traditional schools of American politics, "Liberalism" and "Conservatism." The other two corners are occupied by "Libertarianism" and "Statism"--though the "Statism" corner has been labeled at various times as "Populism," "Communism," "Fascism," "Socialism," "Collectivism" and many other "isms" that have been imagined to be the polar opposites of "Libertarianism."

Nolan believed that "Conservatism" focussed too much of its attention on economic freedom at the expense of personal liberty and that "Liberalism" had the opposite problem, focussing its energy on personal freedom while suffocating free enterprise. Libertarianism claims to value both economic and personal freedom. Its philosophical opponent, "Statism," valued neither, suppressing both personal and economic liberty for the sake of the "State," "Collective," "Populous," "Community," etc.

My position on the Nolan chart is in the center (though not the exact center). I value individual liberties and can appreciate the benefits that can be enjoyed within a free market system. One might conclude from this statement that I lean toward libertarianism in my political philosophy and one wouldn't be entirely wrong.

However, when it comes to economics, I do not believe in laissez-faire capitalism--a completely unfettered, unregulated economy. I'm too familiar with human nature not to expect people to do everything they can to satisfy their natural sense of greed up to and including taking unfair advantage of other people. To borrow a phrase from a libertarian friend, the government's role in the economy is not to run it but to establish the rules under which it operates. Well, rules need to be enforced--policed, if you will--and this is often referred to as "regulation." I have no problem with this. What I do have a problem with is the notion that there is something inherently noble about the free market system. That free enterprise can be counted on to solve all of our problems and police itself when unethical practices erupt. This is a foolish notion. The free market can be counted on to do only one thing and that is what's most profitable. And what's profitable isn't always what's right. Take a look at what the free market has done to healthcare in this country. People who purchased health insurance in good faith are having their coverage dropped when they try to make a claim. Why? It's not because the insurance executives want to hurt or even kill people, it's because claims hurt profits. The insurance company executives are simply looking out for the interests of their shareholders. That's their job. And as long as the rules that are in place allow them to drop coverage when a claim is made or deny it based on preexisting conditions, they will continue to do it. Healthcare legislation that is currently festering in Congress addresses these very issues because insurance company executives have made it abundantly clear that as long as the law doesn't require them to behave differently, they will continue to act in the interests of shareholders at the expense of the health--and sometimes the lives--of their customers.

Now, while this causes the blood of ethical people to boil, I want to go on the record as saying that this does not mean that the free market is "bad" or "evil." The free market is amoral. But it does lend itself to working in the interest of those whose goal in life is the acquisition of wealth and often, as has clearly been demonstrated time and time again, people will go right to the edge of the law in their quest for more and more wealth and they will always make sure that their actions are "technically legal." Some laissez-faire capitalists like to claim that it is regulation that causes unethical behavior because it presents a temptation to do what is wrong and to skirt those laws. I find that to be a ridiculous notion. Especially when one considers that laissez-faire capitalism is a purely academic concept. For as long as economies have existed, there has always been some form of regulation to keep it in check with the values of the people participating in it.

While I wouldn't call myself a statist, I don't think that government is inherently evil. The vilification of government is quite popular these days with the "tea party" movement. But, like the free market, governments are neither good nor evil, they are amoral--Merely a collection of laws and buildings. The people who run government, however, are imbued with a moral compass, whether that compass is pointing due north or running on an ethically challenged tangent determines what those people in government do with the public's trust. I don't automatically assume that government can't do anything right but in reality there are some things that the government manages without much complaint from the people. The government maintains our roads and highways. It insures that our water supply is clean and flowing. I enjoy making use of public parks and libraries. I rest easy at night knowing that there are police officers and firemen on watch to keep the peace and ensure our safety. Whenever I see these Tea Partiers on television complaining about the government, all I can think of are the government services that they probably take for granted. It's important to note that many of the services that I referred to are provided by state, county and municipal governments and a lot of vilification is being directed at the Federal government. Well, I agree that the federal government is bloated and wasteful and there are a lot of things about it that need to be fixed, privatized or dissolved but, again, I do not share the sentiment that it is inherently evil, nor do I think that those who run it are evil, regardless of which major political party is "in control." They might be wasteful, incompetent, feckless, even stupid... but not evil. And the federal government isn't entirely useless, we've just kept demanding more and more from it than it was ever intended to provide and to add insult to injury, we've all been too selfish and unwilling to pay for it. And since our government is a reflection of those who give it power then when we point at it and complain, ultimately we're pointing at ourselves. Regardless of whether or not we voted for the latest gaggle of idiots in office is irrelevant, they represent everyone, not just those who voted for them and, as such, we all need to accept the responsibility, dare I say, collectively.

One thing that I've noticed in the political discourse that I've observed and participated in is that those with the most extreme views seem either unwilling or unable to even comprehend the possibility that other factions have their good points. Extreme "conservatives" are convinced that nothing good can come from "liberalism." Extreme "liberals" look at "conservatism" and see nothing but the absolute worst in humanity. "Libertarian" extremists seem to view any form of government action as a direct attack on their personal freedom and might even consider complete anarchy as preferable to even the most rudimentary government body. Extremists are so far removed from the plane that they can't get a clear picture of just what it is they say they are against. And being unable to see clearly, they are left only with their imaginations which leaves them little more to think about the other factions than their worst possible and most paranoid nightmares.

That's why I like it here in the middle. I have a better view of all the political philosophies than I otherwise would, were I to ally myself with any one of them. I don't concern myself with the extremists in the corners--they're often completely out of touch even with their own parties--because the people that I can connect with are those who occupy sections that approach the center. It is from this perspective that I can see the value--the good points--of each of these political philosophies. The straight-talk and vehement commitment to personal liberty held by libertarianism. The practicality, caution and sobriety of genuine Conservatism (not to be confused with the paranoid, self-serving, power hungry "neoconservatism" embraced by the GOP). The optimism, sense of working for the public good and championing the downtrodden that Liberalism USED to stand for. And yes, respecting the need for a participatory government that serves the people and protects our rights.

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