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This thread had begun as the reposting of a discussion with a conservative friend of mine on Facebook, whose willingness to engage in such civil discourse I respect and admire. She hadn’t intended to publish her thoughts in a forum such as this, however, and asked me to take her posts down. So, instead, I am converting this thread into an invitation to all: Let’s lay out the two (or more) sides of this debate, work together at discovering what underlying values we agree on, and what precise details are contested, and then examine that contested range of beliefs, values, and conclusions with a willingness to produce something together that is superior to what either side is capable of producing alone.

I will posit this for starters: We all value individual liberty. We all value striving to ensure that any member of our society who embraces personal responsibility, and makes an effort to succeed, benefits from that effort to the degree warranted by the combination of their effort and their ability. We all value, I presume, ensuring that we have the most robust, sustainable, and fair political economic system possible, producing adequate wealth, doing so in a sustainable way, and ensuring that anyone who works hard prospers by doing so.

Unless I’m mistaken, it would seem that the ends are not really in contention, but rather the means (though we often confuse the two). What does it take to achieve these goals? It should not be so difficult for us to use all of the empirical and theoretical tools at our disposal to address that question together, and narrow the range of disagreement to that which is legitimately disputable.

Following, in the comments, is my part in the exchange with my conservative Facebook friend. The questions we must confront, with this as a starting point are: Where is the common ground? What are the things upon which we can compromise without surrendering our deepest beliefs and values? What is the range and detail of consensus that we can arrive at, working together? How do we get past this deadlock of incompatable world views? And what elements of each really are the most functional, really do best serve the public interest?

Having lost my conservative counterpart in this debate, I need some new takers! Who can represent the position of less government in general, less federal government in particular, and more reliance on voluntary contributions to public welfare? (I sent Jon Caldara of The Independence Institute a message inviting him, or a proxy, to participate).

Please join in.

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  • There are really two intertwined questions: What is the optimum distribution of power between state and federal government, and what is the optimum role of government vis-a-vis the individual? While simple answers to both are tempting, both are subtle and complex questions that require much consideration, incorporating much information.

    One major ideological chasm exists between those who believe that any and all (or nearly any and all) government spending is bad for the economy and bad for Americans, and those who believe that government has a vital and expansive role to play in the protection and augmentation of individual liberty, the maintenance and management of the economic engine, and the production and extension of opportunity.

  • (In response to a post maintaining the standard conservative position of minimal government): I have to go back to my original statement that simple answers are tempting, but rarely optimal. A complex modern market economy requires a sophisticated regulatory architecture to function effectively and in the public interest, and such an architecture is cumbersome and expensive to run. These are political economic facts of the modern world, that students of law and economics are well aware of.

    The challenges you identify are real, but identifying the problems is not the same as identifying (or correctly implying) the solutions. The fact of “corruption” (exaggerated but real; in my experience, most pulbic officials are making a personal sacrifice to serve, not leaching off the public) does not imply that the need imperfectly fulfilled can be disregarded to greater advantage. Relying on human beings to be individually generous, rather than using agents of our colective will to increase economic robustness, sustainability, and fairness is self-evidently insufficient, as a glance at the distribution of wealth and opportunity in the world makes clear, when against that magnitude you measure the tiny trickle of individual generosity that addresses it. All economists recognize that you cannot address collective problems through indiividual voluntarism alone, just as paying taxes can’t be “give the government whatever you feel like giving”. If we did the latter, we woul d not be able to defend our country against other countries that taxed their citizens and funded a military, and, in just the same way, pretending that individual voluntarism is sufficient to address the challenges of poverty and the inequitable distribution of opportunity is a convenient myth, serviing a fundamentally disintegrative view of society.

    For instance, you talk about liberals wanting to spend “other people’s money.” But property rights are our invention, and we can refine that invention to better suit the purposes of our underlying values. Certainly, clearly defined and robustly enforced private property rights are useful for the creation of wealth through well-functioning markets, but are morally imperfect: Why, after all, does the person who inherits wealth passed down through generations, often earned by investment (or more dubious means) rather than labor in the first place, have a more profound natural claim to that wealth than the people whose underpaid labor produced it? There are things we can do, and some we have begun to do, to address these disparities, without undermining the foundations on which the wealth is produced in the first place.

    Public education, for instance, is arguably the biggest socialist experiment in human history. It is by far and away the biggest expense and largest burden of state and local government. But it does a great deal to provide opportunity to any and all, independently of the chances and injustices of birth. Few reasonable people of goodwill would suggest discarding it now, and many recognize the need to strive far more vigorously to ensure that it fulfills its promise.

    Simply falling back on the notion that less government is somehow inherently better, dispite the naked falsehood of this on careful examination, does not move us in the direction of greater prosperity, or greater liberty, or greater happiness. In fact, among developed nations, we are the least “socialist,” and also have the highest rates of infant mortality, the poorest public education system, the lowest levels of social mobility, the highest levels of poverty and violent crime, the largest percentage of our population incarcerated (of any nation, developed or not), the smallest percentage covered by our health care system, and the lowest levels of self-reported happiness (Denmark has the highest). We can do better, and doing better requires using all of the tools at our disposal to the best of our ability. The federal government is one such tool.

  • (An additional thought, not included in the Facebook exchange):

    The founding supposition that state and local government were inherently more responsive to individuals, and more conducive to individual liberty, than a more remote federal government, has been shown to be, at least, oversimplistic. In fact, the Civil War was fought over, and the 14th Amendment of the Constitution addresses, the fact that states can oppress, and the federal government can liberate, and protect individual liberties from, oppressive state governments, just as surely as states can protect individual liberties from an oppressive federal government.

    The U.S. Constitution, despite the right-wing revisionism that has since occurred, was not a document drafted to protect individuals and states from an overbearing federal government, but rather a document drafted to address the need to have a federal government with enough authority to function. The Constitutional Convention was called due to the inadequacy of the weaker Articles of Confederation to successfully bind the new nation into a single political entity, not to protect individuals against remote governments. The Bill of Rights, tacked on in order to get the Constitution ratified by a population wary of remote overarcing governments, was a compromise, rather than the main purpose.

    But, not only in the case of state-defended slavery and, after abolition, denial of civil rights to those who had been enslaved, do we see evidence that a more local government can be the tyrant from which people need to be protected, but also in international relations. How often do we justify our interventions in the affairs of sovereign nations on the basis of our defense of the rights of the oppressed citizens of those nations? But how can we, a remote hegemon, be more capable of protecting the rights of the citizens of another sovereign nation than that nation’s own government? Doesn’t this fly in the face of the assumption that the government closer to the people is the government which best defends the people’s liberties?

    Of course, the example of hegemony argues both sides: Not only is it true that a hegemon can sometimes liberate oppressed peoples, but it is also true that a hegemon is acting in its own interests, and so is rightfully suspect in its claims to be acting in the interests of the citizens of the country it is invading, attacking, or otherwise intervening in. But a hegemon is not a federal global government: It is a seperate nation, one that exists to serve the interests of its own citizens, not the interests of those who are subject to its hegemony. That even it can sometimes, to some extent, serve the interests of those who are not in any way its citizens is a particularly poignant example of the principle that more local is not inherently more liberating.

    There is an additional consideration regarding the optimal distribution of power between state and federal government: Economic efficiency. There are many economic reasons for the shift from more reliance on state governments to more reliance on the federal government, including economies of scale, the benefits of standardization (one large justification for the Commerce Clause, which indeed has had a huge effect on consolidating federal power), and the benefits of larger rather than smaller markets. So, while we are in reality no safer from tyranny when state rather than federal government predominates, we are relegated to less efficient and more costly provision of whatever public services we decide we want our government (at whatever level) to provide.

  • aoprodney:

    I think you first need define Conservative and Progressive. What are the goals of these two groups and if the same examine the methodology of reaching the goal from each group. Unfortunately I follow Conservative leaders like John Boehner. He doesn’t really seem to be for anything except the lowest possible taxes for his rich friends and power. If power is the aim of the current Conservative movement it would certainly explain people like Rush Limbaugh, Beck, Boehner and the republican party.

  • @aoprodney: I think, if we are to have robust and mutally informative dialogue, then we have to let each define their position for themself, and then engage on that basis. I don’t believe that most conservatives view themselves as advocates of policies that are inegalitatian and elitist. Let them argue their position, and then you or I can counterargue with ours, with some shared purpose of governing ourselves as much in the public interest as possible.

    Mutual villification gets us nowhere.

  • aoprodney:

    Vilification is not my intention, the intent is to express what I see based on the information given me by the political leaders of the Republican party and those that claim to be conservatives that are in the public communication arena. How do you build consensus by not supporting anything put forward by the other political party for almost 2 years now? I think these are valid questions that need response.

  • Look at it this way: Do you really believe that most rank-and-file Republicans argue “I’m a Republican because I want to protect the inequitable distribution of wealth, and insure that the uber-wealthy just get uber-wealthier, while the poor and middle class get squeezed into destitution”?

    What they argue, and believe, rightly or wrongly, is that the public interest is best served by the ideology that they maintain. They believe that those who don’t have, for the most part, just didn’t work hard enough, and that redistributing the wealth “of others,” as they see it, to those who were too lazy to earn it themselves is both unfair, and undermines the moral and material fibre of the nation.

    Some of their elected representatives believe this too. Others are cynical elitists who exploit ignorance while lining their pockets, and the pockets of those corporate interests they are in bed with.

    There are even, I would go so far as to say, some intellectual underpinnings to some conservative positions.

    Now, do I agree with the perspective I outlined above? No. Do I think that it reflects reality, either descriptively or morally? No. Do I find it odious, brutal, and dysfunctional? Yes.

    But it just doesn’t pay to argue against our own conceptualizations of an opposing viewpoint; we have to argue against the conceptualizations that those holding those viewpoints have. That doesn’t mean we have to concede their framing, or their narrative; we shouldn’t, because that’s half the battle. But we get nowhere until we say, “I understand that this is what you believe, and why you believe it; here’s why I think that it is mistaken.”

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