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(The following is a final response to a conservative on a Denver Post message board, which could as easily be addressed to almost any representative of her ideology.)

First, I can’t tell you about “the liberal mindset,” but I can tell you about mine: I’ve spent my entire adult life studying, exploring, and experiencing the human condition with an eye to understanding it as well as possible, and using that understanding to improve the quality of our life as much as possible, with increased attention to the needs of those who have the least. I’ve spent about 14 years in various graduate programs -acquiring a couple of graduate degrees along the way- in service to that goal; have been a teacher (both college and high school), have worked with small children and the elderly, have done outreach work in blighted urban communities, have worked on issues concerning child and family welfare and mental health care, have been a Big Brother volunteer and crisis intervention hotline volunteer, gave legal rights presentations to detainees in deportation proceedings (in Spanish), initiated and chaired a community outreach network as a Jeffco High School teacher on my own time and my own dime, and organized a community effort to implement a volunteer tutoring and mentoring program in Jeffco Schools. I’ve also worked on farms, in offices, in factories, in “the field” (e.g., urban neighborhoods), in day care centers and a nursing home, have spent years of my adult life in Europe and Asia and Mexico (about 8 altogether) as well as almost every region of the United States, and did a two-year tour of duty in the US Army Infantry, all to better inform my understanding of the world, and to positively affect it.

My mindset is that we should apply our minds and hearts and hands to the challenges that we face, with as much knowledge and reason and goodwill and discipline as possible. That’s how I have lived, and that’s how I continue to live. And that defines the entirety of what I am advocating for.

So while you’re extolling the virtues of “capitalism” and decrying the folly of “socialism” and “communism,” I’m examining the real, more nuanced world in detail to figure out how to do the best we can, not by relying on sweeping ideologies and vague all-encompassing terms, but by recourse to careful knowledge and analysis, and a commitment to the practical, problem-solving approach that until the resurgence of fanatical right-wing ideology, had predominantly defined us as a nation (both Republicans and Democrats).

As for the “assertion” that you don’t agree with (see Do The Math) I’m making an empircal argument, not a statement of arbitrary opinion. The validity of arguments isn’t a matter of taste, but rather of reason. The only way to peal back the layers of the onion of both our ignorance, and of something better informed and better reasoned with which to displace it, is to make actual arguments, using actual information. That is my mindset: Start with the assumption of not knowing, and use our best tools, our disciplined processes for acquiring reliable information and analyzing it, to build from that foundation, in service to humanity.

I do not reduce the world to “liberal” and “conservative” ideologies; rather, as I said above, I think in terms of all variables. For instance, I’m a huge advocate of robust markets; I think market mechanisms are a wonderful social institutional tool, and can envisage many ways to use them that have not yet been implemented. Like virtually everyone trained in economics, I also understand their limitations, and the ways in which they must be articulated with other social institutional materials.

Some other things that I believe that resemble conservative views: I think it’s absolutely essential for any society to emphasize the importance of personal responsibility, regardless of the conditions into which one is born. I do not, however, consider that mutually exclusive of realizing the implications of social injustices due to chances of birth, and working to mitigate them out of a commitment to both fairness and functionality. I also believe that social institutions as they’ve evolved are imbued with a subtlety and genius (due to the lathe of time and numbers) that far exceeds what any cabal of the most brilliant thinkers could devise even over several lifetimes. That is a fundamentally conservative belief.

On the other hand, I recognize that it is through our improvements on the margins, both intentional and unintentional, that that landscape of subtle and complex social institutions has evolved, and continues to evolve. Therefore, while it is wise to respect what time and numbers have carved, it is also incumbent on us to continue to spin that lathe with some degree of consciousness and intentionality.

I don’t know many communists or socialists (there are very few in America outside of a last, lingering enclave in academe; what you are erroneously calling those names are really forms of modified capitalism as it has evolved, combined with a complete commitment to constitutional democracy), just people who do not reduce the world to one extreme or the other, who believe in applying reason to knowledge in an effort to do the best we can, and who do not reduce that challenge to any dogma of any kind, other than a combination of scientific methodology, universal goodwill, and hard work.

The elements in the equation you’ve blithely dismissed are simply empirical facts (the equation itself is the application of reason to those facts). The data is abundant, clear, and overwhelming. It’s up to you whether you want that to be a part of what informs your beliefs or not.

Your assertion about what is motivating liberal politicians (many of whom I personally know and like; and, as a former candidate for the Colorado House of Representatives, one of whom I was) is nothing more than a piece of blind ideological self-rationalization, designed to dismiss the beliefs of those you disagree with. It has nothing to do with reality. Politicians, from all ideological points on the spectrum, are, like the rest of humanity, varied and complex human beings. Some are motivated more by self-interest or greed or a quest for glory, some more by a sincere commitment to the public good or a feeling that they have something to offer that would gratify them personally to be able to give, most by some subtle blend of the two. This is true of politicians from all parties and ideologies, just as it’s true of people in general, pursuing other careers.

The only people being duped are those who think that they will make Americans more free by removing the imperfect but absolutely essential governmental check-and-balance on the otherwise unconstrained fifth estate of corporate power, answerable to no one other than corporate officers and major share holders and driven by no value other than their own material profit. All that does is to reduce the accountability of those with the power to make decisions which profoundly affect us all, and increase the impunity with which they can infringe on individual liberty and welfare in service to their own interests.

If you want to argue that one party is more cynical than the other, I think a far, far, far stronger case can be made that the Republican party leadership is far more cynical and far more committed to the interests of a small elite than is the Democratic Party leadership, because the policies of the former have contributed to the most obscene concentration of wealth and power that this country has seen since the days of the Robber Barrons (late 19th century). In fact, statistically speaking, we have now surpassed the degree of concentration of wealth that we had at that time, and that we look back upon with a certain degree of shame (before the first progressive movement addressed the disparity, and implemented such things as child labor laws, woman’ suffrage, child abuse laws, and anti-trust laws). (The statistics are easy to find; look them up).

There is nothing compassionate about refusing to make the public commitment and invest the public resources necessary to addressing problems like child abuse and neglect, or poverty, or homelessness, or mental health problems, or toxic waste in our water, ground, and air. There’s nothing compassionate about leaving those most centrally located in our complex economy with the opportunity to game our markets for personal enrichment at public expense, as is really the norm rather than the exception (due to “information asymmetries”), and requires a very complex regulatory infrastructure to prevent. Facing those obligations costs money and requires government infrastructure, something we’ve learned over the decades, something that has developed as an adaptation to necessity, and something that people who know absolutely nothing about economics and law are eager to dismantle, unwittingly striving, as humans so often have in the course of our history, to impose on humanity an unnecessary and tragic suffering, not just in the form of the current suffering that you would refuse to allow us as a society to address, but also in the form of the future consequences for all of us.

There isn’t a single modern, developed, prosperous nation on Earth that does not have such an infrastructure, and have it to a far greater degree than we do. Not one. No country has ever become prosperous following the ideology that you insist is necessary to the growth of prosperity. In fact, “the administrative state” emerged immediately prior to the most dramatic growth in wealth production ever seen in the history of the world, and was a part of every single nation that has participated in that expansion of wealth. And we have precise economic models explaining why. That’s what you and your ideological fellow travelers are trying to dismantle.

In a survey conducted by The Economist magazine in 2008, 80% of American economists favored Democratic over Republican economic policies. Even the most conservative economists agreed that the Republican “Pledge to America,” and particularly the commitment to retain the Bush tax cuts for the richest Americans, would increase rather than reduce our deficit, and undermine our economic vitality. And yet irresponsible Republican and Tea Party leaders kept repeating the fiction that the opposite was true, a fiction that virtually no one who ever studied economics agreed with. (I changed “absolutely no one…” to “virtually no one…” because you can always find one or two crackpots to say anything).

If you want to know what I propose we do differently, here is my complete and in-depth suggestion: A Proposal: The Politics of Reason and Goodwill. If you want more insight into an economically, sociologically, historically, systems-analytically informed paradigm through which to understand the complex nature of the social institutional landscape, go to the following page, and look particularly at the essays in the first box, labelled “the evolutionary ecology of natural, human, and technological systems”: Catalogue of Selected Posts. If you want to see comprehensive arguments about the empirical and logical flaws in Libertarian (“Tea Party”) philosophy, see the box in the page linked to just above that is devoted to that topic. If you want to see an in-depth explanation of why most of the general criticisms of “big government” are historically, economically, and constitutionally misinformed, see both the series of posts on “Political Fundamentalism”  (“Constitutional Idolatry”, Liberty Idolatry, Small Government Idolatry), and the posts ““It’s a Wonderful Life,” American Political Edition (Parts I-V) and A Political Christmas Carol, all in that same box.

Many on the right frequently assert that scholars and journalists tend to be liberals, but then fail to ask why that would be so. Why would precisely those people whose profession it is to collect, organize, and analyze information tend to be liberal? One possible explanation is that actually knowing economics, history, law, and the realities of how our social systems function, leads one to an understanding that we are fundamentally interdependent, rather than a mere collection of individuals, and that our fate is intertwined. That is not to say that all “liberal” ideas are good, or that there is not a body of blind ideological belief within liberalism as well, which I oppose as adamantly and passionately as I oppose its counterpart on the right. It’s only to say that if we were to dump all of our ideologies and dogmatic beliefs, and simply set out to understand the world in which we live and do the best we can to govern ourselves and interact with the world in the wisest and most compassionate ways, you would end up following the procedural and attitudinal ideology I am advocating, that you are calling “liberalism.”

No set of platitudes is sufficient to the task of self-government. No blind dogma and false certainty is up to the task. We need to do actual systems analyses, employ actual knowledge and expertise, deal with actual complex challenges, work as a polity of reasonable people of goodwill exercising the wise humility to realize that what we think we know is generally at least imperfect, and more often than not just plain wrong. And then, on the foundation of that humility, go to the trouble of understanding these complexities and subtleties, and of continuing to create systems through which our collective genius is best liberated and coordinated and mobilized in service to the human endeavor.

Please, try to take this prescient warning from Sinclair Lewis to heart: “When fascism comes to America, it will be wrapped in the flag and carrying a cross.” We have flirted with that danger throughout our history, but never more recklessly than today. True goodwill demands of us not only good intentions, but also good intentions wisely executed, an admonition I direct as often to those on the left as to those on the right, for too many of us across the ideological spectrum lack sufficient commitment to one or the other (or both) of these valuable components.

Buy my e-book A Conspiracy of Wizards

  • mountainbeaver:

    Well said…for the most part. I believe you could have shortened this to one paragraph by saying it is in our nature to be good samaratins and help out one another. Where “left” and “right” ideologies factor in is determining how much government gets involved and forces us individuals to comply with that worthy cause. For me personally, I prefer to make that decision on my own, working with non-profits, without government forcing me to, via taxes, regulations or laws.

    Please try to take this to heart from George Washington: “Government is not reason; it is not eloquent; it is force. Like fire, it is a dangerous servant and a fearful master.”

  • MB: You follow “well said” with a sweeping dismissal of all that was stated and argued, offering no counterarguments in return. The history of “helping one another out” via private charities, prior to government taking over the task, was a dismal one, due to the fact that we aren’t just good samaratins by nature, but also self-interested by nature. In order to overcome the free-rider problem, contributions to any public good that we identify has to be accomplished by something other than just whoever feels so inclined, because those who pay-in under that regime bear the whole costs for a diffusely spread benefit. Washington was right, but speaking with an emphasis determined by his historical context, and with an implication that does not refute the utility of government, but only identifies the challenge of using it well.

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