15 July 2010

Politics as usual

I get into far too many disputes over things that people are not supposed to talk about. Sex, politics, religion, and country music or the proper consumption of bananas.

But it amuses me that I manage to aggravate people of both sides of the traditional American spectrum so easily. Bring up economics, and you're bound to be rubbing up against a neo-Keynesian view of the world at the high end, and people who support vast counterproductive measures of protectionism and immigration controls. Bring up civil liberties and war and you're bound to piss off a neoconservative. Bring up abortion or gay rights and again, social conservatives stand annoyed. The shading on these issues and the level of importance that individuals attach to them changes. But by and large I view most of these as best governed by impersonal forces like markets with very strict protections over human rights overarching those markets (for example to prevent people from being sold into slavery or to have their property and livelihood seized against their will or without a contract to that effect).

That puts me at odds with people enough that it may be necessary to use a more complicated term to define my politics. I put it as a liberal-right-wing progressive. Based on that sort of analysis anyway, which I find persuasive enough to cover most issues (excluding foreign policy, which varies widely).

In general, the idea of liberalism was at its roots a philosophy centered around the importance of individuals and protecting as much as possible their wants, needs, and rights. It is less clear what the modern definition seeks, though at times these goals are aligned (as in the case of civil libertarians). I seek whereever possible to look for systems that restore power to individuals, or at least reduce power granted to authorities over them. Much of the Constitution is based on the premise that a government which holds wide and arbitrary power over its subjects will abuse that power and thus most of its subsequent amendments are designed not to limit freedoms of individuals but to abolish or restrict powers otherwise seized by governments to those that are absolutely essential to the proper functions of government (law and order, court proceedings, the mechanisms to design new laws through public support, etc). I do not share a view that it is necessary to expand government operations in all cases in order to preserve or expand individual liberties, though on occasion such a view can be sympathetic if properly understood (such as public goods or externalities). In general I defer to authority only where the rules are properly framed and willing to be explained if needs be. If those explanations are inadequate, then rules will be challenged and violated if necessary.

Right-wing, like liberal, holds a perverse modern definition. I think of this as a meaning implying that a form of social justice is that which permits people their just rewards for their toil and sweat and innovation. In examining education I have some sympathy for the function of people on the lower end of educational attainment through public schools (or ideally, just "schools"). But I have a lot more sympathy for what happens with the educational elites through schools such that they can be properly developed and motivated when they emerge from those systems. The same applies to economic competition for jobs and products. The best skilled or most efficient and so on should be allowed to prevail where possible. I'm not blind to the problems of misfortune. Those need to be dealt with, in part because they can, if left unattended, cause serious problems for those more successful (crime for example). But I prefer a system that encourages success more than one that puts a measure of minimal comfort in place, and in particular the systems that define what the minimal level should be for all people in a paternalistic way, such as those we often presently use. I think people can figure out what their basic needs are and how to meet those by following rational signals without much government interference.

As for progressive, the now ubiquitous insult most favored by conservative windbags who think Woodrow Wilson was a worse stain upon humanity than Mao Zedong, it's basically a simple meaning that such people prefer looking toward a better future rather than assuming that the past should instruct the present. The manner of approaching or achieving that desired future thus varies on the basis of these other moderating influences. A person who favors largely individuals over institutions will seek to, far from apportioning greater sway and power to the state remove such powers wherever practical-able.

So in the context of the debate over "liberaltarians" or the proper scope and mission of libertarians themselves, I'd still say we're better off staying neutral and homeless on many issues. In large part because there are often limited constituencies of support on those matters. But it does make sense to tactically strike out to fight the growth of government programs which might intrude on civil liberties just as easily as it makes sense to strike down those which might intrude on economic and property rights. Such tactical moves would permit alliances of convenience just as much as they permit people like me to annoy everyone at once.
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