02 October 2011 by Published in: rants No comments yet

I’d like to review a few things you may have been taught in high school civics class.  First of all, Thomas Jefferson was a liberal.  “Liberal” policies included:

  • Laissez-faire capitalism, unregulated trade, Wealth of Nations
  • Limited government, strict constitutionalism
  • Strong private property and ownership rights
Thomas Jefferson is widely heralded as one of the spiritual founders of the Democratic Party.  Meanwhile, Alexander Hamilton was a conservative.  His “conservative” policies included:
  • Expansive government powers, open-ended constitution
  • Powerful government banks and economic regulation, higher taxes
  • Generally more pro-peace than the opposition party
Hamilton is credited as being one of the spiritual founders of the modern Republican party.
Does any part of this seem strange to you?  That we think of both individuals as “founding” the groups that are today most like their own opposites?  Today it is the Republicans and other fiscal conservatives that argue for a political system most Jefferson-like, and the Democrats that argue for a system most Hamiltonian.  Why, then, do we consider Hamilton the conservative and Jefferson the liberal?
The one thing that the one thing that hasn’t changed is the constituency.  Back in Jefferson’s time, lasseiz-faire capitalism and strong property rights perhaps favored the individual against the big powers of government, whereas Hamilton’s policies were more business-friendly.  At some point in the last 200 years, we’ve done a 180 on the ideology, but liberalism is still the bastion of the underclasses and conservatism the philosophy favored by businesses.  In spite of the fact that they’re exactly the opposite philosophies that they used to be.
Modern liberal Arthur Schleslinger described it as follows:
When the growing complexity of industrial conditions required increasing government intervention in order to assure more equal opportunities, the liberal tradition, faithful to the goal rather than to the dogma, altered its view of the state.
In other words, if you throw out the actual ideology, along with anything any of the original proponents of either view actually said on the matter, together with all their arguments in support of such positions, and you view politics as merely a way of elevating the interest of a pre-selected group over the interests of a disfavored group, you can draw a line connecting the modern political view to its classical version, even though they are complete opposites.
Perhaps viewing politics as a shell game that simply couches collective interest in political language is a completely practical notion.  But insofar as that is true, it is a sad reflection on political corruption, not an ideal political methodology.
If it is morally correct for Margaret to pay taxes to to provide for James’s welfare, then it remains morally correct independently of how much we like Margaret and how much we hate James.  Morality, like justice, is blind.  If we change the rules because while they used to favor our friends, they now favor our enemies, we are using the same logic that has been used throughout history to justify racism, sexism, and all forms of hatred and discrimination.  We cannot say, on the one hand, that Rule A is good when it benefits the upper classes, but bad when it benefits the lower classes.
It comes a great surprise to many people when I argue against certain legislative steps in opposition to my beliefs on the issue at hand.  Although I support a free and open internet, I oppose legislative attempts at Net Neutrality.  Although I am against drug use, I support legalization.  Although I support science, I oppose many types of federal science funding.
The political discourse in this country is at approximately the following level:  you advance your political views of each issue at each level of government, independently of the underlying legal mechanism or its implications.  We ask a politician if he supports gay marriage, say, with the expectation that he will basically vote as such, with the assumption that each person should try to advocate his own views in federal statute as a matter of course.  If you vote against the “Think of the Children Act of 2011”, obviously, you must be against the children.
This is reasoning is roughly on the same level as deciding which credit card to open based on the really cool signing bonus.  Of course, this is the way many people actually think–which is why lots of credit card companies offer silly things, quite effectively, to put you in debt.  “Vote for this bill to get funding for education!” says the offer.  But of course the real impact of the legislation might be much different.  Perhaps it shifts funding away from states and municipalities and makes schools more reliant on federal funding for their continued operation.  Perhaps it sets up new bureaucracies and oversight agencies.  Perhaps it stretches the Commerce Clause to a new and novel level of hilarity.  All of these might be valid reasons to oppose the bill–or not.  It’s up to you.  The point is, the two-second sound-byte summary of the bill is roughly on par with the 0% Intro APR.  It’s not the real issue–it’s a marketing gimmick.  Acknowledge it as such.
Politics can be tricky at times, because we all hold deep opinions about certain issues.  But ask yourself, not just what you believe is right, but whether it is right to codify that belief into law.  And whether the proposed venue of codification (federal, state, local) is proper, and whether the legislative mode is proper (legislative, judicial, executive).  And then whether in a few years or a few generations the situation could have changed to the point that the law you supported has unintended consequences or adversely impacts other parties, which you must try to hold on equal footing with the other players, in spite of the fact that you personally may not have much kindness for the affected group.  Then, and only then, can you have a truly informed political position.  Everything else is the wrong solution to the right problem.

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