Saturday, November 28, 2009

Altruism, Liberalism, Etc.

Recently I've gotten into some very interesting and sometimes intense discussions with folks whose political opinions differ from mine, including the indomitable Dr. OZMG. Unlike some of my conservative brethren, I will at least entertain the notions that a) I'm not always right and b) there might be good ideas to be had from the opposition. Call the entry for this evening an exercise in intellectual curiosity, not political conversion.

Over two years ago, I sat down before this machine and hacked out my vision for a positive future. It is primarily space-based, as is my wont, but its emphasis was on increasing individual freedom and capitalism in an effort to make the necessities and luxuries of life more available and affordable to all. You can click on the link for the details.

The point, however, was to look at the other side's vision of Utopia. What follows is contradictory, but is based on inputs and comments from OZMG, D2, Doc, and others.

One might start with basic premises, like "What is the purpose of a good society?" or "How does one define a good society?" The primary words that I hear described as priorities are justice, compassion, individual freedom, dignity, equality, and peace.

Given the contexts, I believe these words are meant to convey the following:
  • Justice: Individuals receive what they deserve (pay, respect, legal rights) based on fundamental individual rights.
  • Compassion: This is a favorite of OZMG, and I totally get it (though we seldom practice it on ourselves). Ideally, individuals should have some feeling for the suffering of others and, based on that empathy, take constructive action to alleviate that suffering.
  • Individual Freedom: This overlaps with a word I use, but while I focus more on economic and political freedom, the liberal definition tends to focus more on freedom of social expression and lifestyle choices (e.g. homosexuality).
  • Dignity: This is a particular favorite of one friend of mine. She generally means by this the dignity the individual seeks or deserves through productive work or self-determination.
  • Equality: While conservatives tend to emphasize equality of opportunity, liberals emphasize equality of results, both economic and social. The desire here is for less dramatic economic differences between rich and poor, more social equality afforded to (again) homosexuals, minorities, or other groups perceived to not have power under the current structure.
  • Peace: This is relatively straightforward--absence of violence or conflict. Again, I dig it, and I can relate. We all could use a lot more of it, especially our troops overseas. Peace under a liberal definition also usually implies domestic tranquility: lack of domestic violence against individuals or social groups and (one might hope) peaceful resolution of political conflicts.

Admittedly, these definitions are filtered by a conservative, but I used to be a LOT more liberal, so let's just assume for now that my definitions are correct, and that these are the guideposts that people who disagree with me wish to use to order society. The next question becomes, in my mind, how do you implement these ideas in the real world of our current political structure?

Using my reductive definition, "justice" means that everyone gets what they deserve. If I understand my liberal friends correctly, a truly just social or economic system would ensure that the same groups of people (minorities) do not always end up poor, but eventually reach a point where they enjoy a standard of living equal to others who have been rich...or at least richer. The current methods generally applied to achieve justice and equality are income redistribution in the form of taxes on the rich and direct welfare or transfer payments to the poor. Another angle being tried is judicial activism, where judges who more strongly support economic equality are promoted to the bench to ensure the outcomes liberals want to see happen.

On the subject of compassion, I too would like nothing better than to see the weak lifted up and the strong to show mercy. And as a social phenomenon, there are things you can do to encourage compassionate acts. Shame, shunning, and social taboos are excellent weapons against bad behavior, bullying, discrimination, etc., and have met with some success. There are some challenges with acting strictly from a sense of compassion, one of them being a willingness on the part of some individuals to take advantage of the compassion of others. Also, there are times when compassion requires what others call tough love. "Yes, I care about your suffering, and I am willing to help the symptoms of it; but you, too, must do your part to change the behaviors that led to the bad circumstances in your life." The liberal resolutions to this, I believe, focus on therapeutic means and government (federal, state, local) efforts to alleviate the social circumstances (poverty, broken home, discrimination) that cause an individual's life to turn out badly.

Individual freedom, again, is something that I have no objection to in principle. There are many social taboos that have loosened considerably in the culture over the past 40-50 years, such as condemnation of abortion, cohabitation, promiscuity, illegitimacy, and homosexuality. Let's say, for the purposes of this essay, that these are unavoidable trends and that punishment by shame, shunning, or taboo are counterproductive. The argument from the left seems to be that these issues of lifestyle or personal choice should not, in fact, be socially punished but celebrated. Okay, great. But when any or all of the behaviors result in declines in standard of living or personal happiness, what is to be done to mitigate those outcomes?

The argument for dignity, again, is an economic one: individuals should not be "left on the street," as a friend so baldly put it, when they are deprived of work or health insurance. They should have the right to a decent job capable of supporting themselves and/or their families. If businesses can't or won't automatically provide jobs (a topic for another day, I assure you), then it would seem that government becomes the employer of last resort. This assumes, of course, that the government has something for the unemployed person to do that is in within their skill base. And, conversely, if the person is not interested in the dignity of work, the government (or someone) must determine what level of support is appropriate to keep the unemployed healthy and whole to avoid the indignity of poverty.

The establishment of peace, internationally and nationally, seems an obvious activity for any government. Ideally, the government establishes the conditions that reduce tensions between nations and individuals. At home this would include much that has been mentioned above, such as increasing economic justice and reducing discrimination. Internationally, this means reducing the number of reasons other nations might dislike us and increasing the number of reasons to like us. This is a very American approach to things, and I happen to practice it in my own personal life. However, I am also painfully aware that there are some individuals (or nations) who, no matter what the well-meaning person does, will never be satisfied. Indeed, these same individuals/nations are so keen on pursuing their own interests, they will deliberately take advantage of the well-meaning person/nation's desire to do well to further their own. I am still awaiting to see a resolution to this problem, especially when the self-interested person or self-declared enemy takes blatant hostile action.

What I've posed here are my best takes on the positions of those I disagree with politically. I'm trying to think like them and see the positive sides of their opinions, but I do have questions, and they're embedded throughout. Comments welcome.

No comments: