Political first principles

Okay, so I got into a discussion on-line yesterday. Yes, I know, my New Year’s Resolution this year was to stop arguing politics on the internet, but this discussion was at least reasonably cordial, considering that one of the people arguing was a Tea Party conservative, and another of them was me. Anyway, my friend asked me what, in my mind, the true principles of politics were. His argument is that there exists absolute truth in all arenas–religion, science, psychology, politics–and that it’s our job to figure it out. The corollary, I suspect, is that God knows what that absolute truth is, and will reveal it to us (or has revealed it to us), if we search for it in the right places. And another corollary, I suspect, is that the absolute truth in politics is found in that divinely inspired document, the US Constitution.

I don’t think that way. I’m generally suspicious of truth claims. I think basic human subjectivity leads us inevitably to confirmation bias. I love Lincoln’s Second Inaugural. He speaks of the most contentious political issue in American history, slavery:

One-eighth of the whole population were colored slaves . . . localized in the south. These slaves constituted a peculiar and powerful interest. All knew that this interest was somehow the cause of the war. To strengthen, perpetuate, and extend this interest was the object for which the insurgents would rend the Union even by war, while the Government claimed no right to do more than to restrict the territorial enlargement of it. Neither party expected for the war the magnitude or the duration which it has already attained. Neither anticipated that the cause of the conflict might cease with or even before the conflict itself should cease. Each looked for an easier triumph, and a result less fundamental and astounding. Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces, but let us judge not, that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes.

Preceding this famous passage came perhaps the most powerful four words in the history of Presidential speech-making: “and the war came.” And 600, 000 young men died. Because of a political dispute, growing out of a theological dispute, built on the foundation of a cultural clash.

So that’s my first principle. That, that war that came, that dispute blowing up into violence and death, that’s the worst case scenario. That’s what can happen when politics fails. That can’t be allowed to happen again. People say our politics today, in 2015, is broken. It’s not. Damaged, certainly; frustrating, unquestionably; insane, at times, sure. Comical, absolutely. But not broken. When politics is broken, soldiers die. And children suffer.

Second principle: policy is more important than politics. Politics is about power, the acquisition of power, the wielding of power. In a democratic republic, politics is about winning elections. Policy is about what we do with power, once we’ve attained it. Bad policy is policy that hurts people, that makes people’s lives worse; good policy is policy that helps people, makes their lives better. But we never quite know, do we? What policies will achieve, what unintended consequences can result. And we’re all biased, all subjective. We look at evidence, at statistics, and we draw differing conclusions. It’s rare for all the evidence to be on any side of any dispute. And we’re human beings; we love anecdotal evidence. We don’t actually do very well with abstractions and objectivity; we want to hear a good story, and we want to feel something.

One great example is food stamps. I’m a liberal, and I think food stamps are a perfect example of a federal program that works. I think it’s a spectacular success. I think there’s strong evidence that it’s a program largely free from waste and corruption, and that it does a terrific job of feeding poor people. But then came Jason Greenslate, an able-bodied surfer dude, living on food stamps in California, and uninterested, apparently, in getting a job. Fox News ran with it, and suddenly food stamp fraud had a poster boy. And let’s face it; both sides do this. How many internet memes feature some conservative legislator somewhere who said something comically sexist, racist, or just plain stupid? Or misrepresent something Sarah Palin just said? We humans love to extrapolate general principles from single examples. And outrage is a particularly easy emotion to provoke.

We all want policy to be even-handedly administered, fair, effective, cost controlled and free from corruption. Policy really does matter, and solid, reasonably objective evidence, for or against some policy initiative, really does exist. It’s just hard to find. And no policy uniformly benefits everyone, and never once harms anyone. We’re weighing harm against benefits, every policy, all the time. Heck, every government program, at every level, costs some money, and that requires taxes, and that means money out of someone’s pocket. That’s always true.

Third principle: both conservatives and liberals are necessary. Both sides are essential, both perspectives have to be listened to, and all policies require the cooperation and some measure of compromise between both (or multiple) sides.

I know this is simplistic, but really, isn’t the heart of liberalism something like this: ‘here’s a social problem, and it needs to be fixed, people are suffering. So here’s a program that can, and probably will fix the problem.’ And the heart of conservatism is something like this: ‘hold on there. Maybe this problem isn’t as bad as you think. We’ve put up with it so far pretty well, haven’t we? How much will fixing it cost? What unintended negative consequences might result? Let’s not just jump in there. Let’s study it out, and see if there’s another solution that won’t require the resource of government, which are, after all, finite.’

You’ll see lists from time to time of a whole bunch of really effective and popular federal programs–Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, the federal highway system, universal education, the GI Bill, rural electification, civil rights legislation, and so on. And then someone will say ‘every one of these program was proposed by a liberal, and opposed by a conservative.’ But that’s what liberals do; propose government programs to fix problems. And that’s what conservatives do; ask how much it’s going to cost, ask if there’s not a better solution. I think it’s true that every popular government program probably was proposed by a liberal and opposed by conservatives. But it’s likewise true that every disastrous, expensive, bureaucratically unwieldy, inflexible, screwed up government program was likewise proposed by a liberal, and opposed by conservatives. We need both impulses. We need both approaches, both points of view.

Where both sides can come together is over reform efforts. It’s in the best interests of liberals to have government work effectively (and it certainly can, and does, a lot). So when a program gets bureaucratically ossified or ineffective or unnecessary, liberals and conservatives can and should work together to fix it. Problem is, mostly, they don’t, for reasons having to do with politics. It’s easier to score political points by pointing out the failures of the other side than it is to work constructively with political opponents to actually get stuff done. That’s kind of where we are right now, nationally, and shame on everyone for it.

If you do that too much, both conservatism and liberalism can devolve into ideologies. Again: confirmation bias; it’s very easy for people (especially zealously inclined people) to think that they’re completely right and that the other guys are just being obstinate or stupid.  I think both sides can spin-off extremists. Of course, as a liberal, I tend to think that ‘movement conservatism,’ or ‘Tea Party conservatism,’ or whatever you want to call it, is a terribly dangerous and wrong-headed movement. It’s one thing to say ‘we need to keep an eye on government,’ quite another to say ‘all government is always bad always.’ But politically correct liberalism (especially identity politics) can be just as risibly wrong-headed.

Anyway, I wonder if this is a conversation we should be having. What do we have in common? Where do we differ? What policies work, and what policies might work if reformed sensibly? Because we have a great big country. Great and big. It’d be nice to keep it that way.



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