Discussing Politics

Under most circumstances, I do not care for discussing politics. (You can see this by how few conversations I initiate on the subject.) This is due not only to today’s acrimony, but because we don’t discuss politics correctly.

Ninety-nine percent of the time, we argue the top-level issues of the day: pending legislation, the latest riot, scandals, welfare, foreign policy. This is not our fault; these are the subjects that TV and the internet put under our noses. But disagreeing over them is a waste of effort if we actually disagree on the underlying issues, things such as human nature, what our goals as a nation should be, how we define fairness, and so on. Our stances on high-level issues arise out of these fundamentals, so it is here that any real discussion should begin.

Below, I share my stances on the fundamentals. By way of introducing them, let me say that no nation has, or ever will, realize them perfectly. That is simply not possible. They are a vision, the ideals toward which I think humanity should continue to strive. I realize that other nations and cultures may not share them, but I would argue that they are among the noblest ideals that mankind has at least tried to bring together in one place.

The rule of law. We should all live under the same set of fair laws, justly enforced. Nobody should be above the law—not even a politician who is advancing a goal I favor.

A personally-held right to life. By implication, we must have the right to personally take part in protecting that right, which directly implies the right to own reasonable means of self-protection.

A personally-held right to liberty, and by extension, a personal right to act to protect that right. Liberty is not mere freedom—the ability to do whatever we want whenever we want. It is rather freedom coupled with self-restraint out of consideration for others. Liberty requires that a people have a sufficiently similar set of morals (and sufficiently high morals at that), for if they do not, then the conflicts that will arise will be too great for liberty to survive.

An individual right to own property. People must earn life’s rewards through performance, and be able to enjoy them. Otherwise, there is no incentive to work and achieve. This implies capitalism, with all its benefits and problems. (In contrast, centrally-planned, command economies provide demotivation and poverty for almost everyone.)

A fundamental right to self-determination (i.e., the Declaration’s “pursuit of happiness”).

Our representatives should be elected by secret paper ballot. (And by the way, we should implement some of David Chaum’s ideas for verifiable-yet-secret ballots. And keep voting off the internet.)

Government must be limited. It is better when limited by a document than by a person, because individuals are more easily corrupted than systems. Therefore, political power is best when spread out among many people.

On the negative side, I oppose anarchy, and I oppose totalitarianism in all its forms.

As a result of the above, I support the Constitution of the United States in its original interpretation, and the Declaration of Independence, and the fundamental principles they lay down. Our Founding Fathers had a better understanding of human nature and the nature of government than anyone since, and deserve our respect for that achievement. Not only did they give us the blessings of liberty that we still largely have, but they accurately predicted the ways in which a nation could/would go off the rails when in decline.

Up or down?

Jonathan Haidt has done some fascinating research into how people arrive at their stances on moral issues. His findings bear directly on the problem of our divided society, explaining much of the gap between Left and Right. At the core, Haidt postulates a set of foundational but largely subconscious values, where individuals place differing amounts of importance on each particular area. Haidt’s value areas (the first 5 anyway), are the following:

  • Care/harm
  • Fairness/cheating
  • Loyalty/betrayal
  • Authority/subversion
  • Sanctity/degradation

We each have our visceral feelings on care, fairness, loyalty, etc. Subsequently, our actual moral stances on specific political and cultural issues arise out of these low-level views. This is an important psychological/sociological finding in and of itself.

One might wish such research could provide solutions to the issues that divide us, but so far none have emerged. This hasn’t stopped some follow-on researchers from trying their hand at synthesizing solutions however. For example, Kate Johnson and Joe Hoover comment on the sanctity/degradation axis here: Do conservatives value ‘moral purity’ more than liberals?

The sanctity/degradation axis is significant, as it is a primary separator of liberals and conservatives in the United States. From moralfoundations.org, Haidt’s definition of this axis is:

“[The sanctity/degradation axis] underlies religious notions of striving to live in an elevated, less carnal, more noble way. It underlies the widespread idea that the body is a temple which can be desecrated by immoral activities and contaminants (an idea not unique to religious traditions).”

In describing this axis, neither Haidt nor anyone else can avoid invoking images of higher versus lower, clean versus dirty, noble versus base. And despite the question in Johnson and Hoover’s title, Haidt’s research proves that conservatives do care more about sanctity and purity than liberals.

So what is Johnson and Hoover’s suggestion for bridging the growing divide in America? Their quote:

“Perhaps by focusing on values we all share, such as care and fairness, and avoiding the purity rhetoric that divides us, we may be able to communicate our needs with the other side to work toward a common goal.”

There it is: avoid the purity rhetoric. Sounds simple. Of course the burden of changing would fall on conservatives, as they are the ones that care about this particular value.

Aside from the fact that Haidt himself has observed that people rarely budge on their fundamental values, this suggestion unfortunately fits well with the spirit of our age: At an individual level, the very idea of striving upward to some higher standard has never been less popular. (After all, that would require the existence of a higher standard, and that idea is becoming anathema also.) We lack shared, noble goals for our country’s future. This lack of any uniting vision is a key part of why we are fracturing into groups that cannot relate to each other.

But consider the alternative, which Johnson and Hoover did not propose: What if our leaders lifted up those now unconcerned with personal purity, showing them the advantages of living a life that strives for higher things? This could be in areas such as the arts, entertainment, our general level of discourse, or education. What if we were led to care more for others—not just for their mere economic status, but for their personal lives, perhaps even building back some of the social capital our society has lost?

Just a thought.