A somewhat inarticulate political question

by david

Nothing to do with the midterm elections. I refuse to be drawn into conversation about those.

So, here’s the thing. I was trying to figure out the difference between the political parties on a core, ideological level. And I hit on something that had never occurred to me, although it’s probably obvious: political ideology is almost purely a function of your concept of justice. Here’s a sentence that most Democrats, Republicans, and Libertarians would probably all agree to: Government authority and action should be restricted to areas in which the market can’t provide just outcomes. I don’t think that’s a particularly controversial statement. The difference between the three parties is in beliefs about a) what the market can do, and b) what constitutes a just outcome.

If politicians were honest, a) would be a simple matter: if you know how to recognize a just outcome, you’d be able to test the market, and determine if a lack of government involvement leads to consistent or persistent inequity. Of course, politicians aren’t honest, particularly when speaking about their convictions. Furthermore we don’t even really have debates, but instead we have almost universally-spouted rhetoric that suggests that markets are magic, and even a gesture to the contrary puts a person outside of the realm of rational discourse. So, I’ll leave a) aside since popular belief about what markets can do is also influenced strongly by millions of dollars in political communication each year.

But b)… b). That seems like the core of things. The more I look at the real differences between diehard conservatives and liberals, Hayekian free-marketeers and Keynesian pragmatists, Republicans and Democrats, I keep coming back to basic disagreements about justice. Simple formulations about what a person ought to expect, what responsibilities are part of citizenship, etc. The things that separate us almost all have a core component dealing with justice, even “social” issues like abortion, gun control, and civil rights. On the latter, all three parties (at least when speaking in public) have come to agree that there were no market solutions to Jim Crow, that it was a legitimate matter for the government to step in an enforce (would that we could come to the same agreement about gay rights: it’s inevitable that we will, but somehow we haven’t yet). So we seem to have at least one universally agreed-to example of social market failure where the government had a responsibility to get involved.

Note the past tense. Parties and ideological groups have huge differences in how to approach the problem of still-existing durable racial inequality. The liberal perspective is that the markets are still failing. Some conservatives are likely to espouse a belief that continued inequity in the market is the result of the actions of losing players in the market (i.e., black people, Latinos, Democrats), and not a sign that the market itself is still deeply flawed. Essentially, they argue that players in the market have to take responsibility for their own actions and their outcomes. At least I assume they would. I can’t argue their position, but that’s my guess. And if it were their argument, liberals would not disagree, but they’d shift some of the responsibility to other parties. Again, a question of justice, a question of line-drawing, of leveling the field of play. But ultimately, a real conversation.

All of this brings me to my question: would our political conversation be more valuable if we consistently debated just outcomes? If instead of going back and forth solely about details of legislation or candidate’s unsavory histories and all the rest, what if candidate debates included follow-up questions about intent, about vision, about the underlying vision of justice that the candidate makes his or her goal? And would you be more willing to hear the perspective of another side if the conversation wasn’t strictly about policy or politics, but about their idea of what’s just? I suspect people become more human. The Tea Party becomes understandable. Vegans become understandable. Ayn Rand disciples probably still remain mysterious creatures from another planet, but hey, there are limits to human communication…

I’m not suggesting that it’s a panacea. But I’m so completely worn out from all the shouting, that I feel like we have to try something different. Something that isn’t about politics and political personalities. Something more durable and important.