Sunday, May 6, 2012

Listen up

The state of political discourse in the United States continues to deteriorate, with right and left trading insults instead of arguments and moderation going the way of bell-bottom jeans. Congress is paralyzed and the country seems to be split into two hostile camps, with the Tea Party on one side and Occupy Everything on the other, and no middle ground where reasonable people who want to solve the country’s problems can meet.

It’s a depressing picture, and there’s plenty of blame to go around. I think it’s a waste of time to try to figure out who started it or which side is more unreasonable. Unfortunately, that’s what most of the discussion seems to be about. It’s a lot more emotionally satisfying to score points and get high-fives from like-minded people than it is to engage in real discussion of the issues and try to discern the correct policies to follow.

I could try to raise the level of debate by droning on about quality of evidence and standards of argument, but instead I’m going to try to irk everybody on both sides by pointing out that nobody has a monopoly on truth. In doing this, I’m not arguing for a mushy, content-free centrism. I’m not going to try to sell you “everybody is a little bit wrong and a little bit right” and leave it at that. I have distinct political views, and if you’ve read many of my posts you know what they are. I think there’s a right answer and a wrong answer to most questions about social and economic policy, and I think they are empirical questions capable of resolution.

But I also think that policy decisions often involve trade-offs and compromises between legitimate interests and that opposing views, even if mistaken, can alert us to things we need to consider. Shutting them out hampers the pursuit of truth. Most of all I think that in discussing complex chaotic systems like a human society, a little intellectual humility is called for.

So put down your megaphone or your brick and listen up. Below are some things liberals and conservatives need to understand. The list is not exhaustive and you can carp about my phrasing and quibble with labels. (I’m using liberal and conservative in their commonly accepted meanings in American parlance, nothing complicated.) And yes, these are superficial propositions, designed to get people thinking and talking. Now listen up.

Three things conservatives are right about that liberals need to recognize:

1. Personal responsibility (or lack of it) is a key element of any social pathology.
Most liberals know this, even if they won’t admit it. They know that you can give some people an adequate income and they will still prefer to steal, that mere possession of weapons is not what makes people violent, and that if you don’t hold people accountable for their actions there will be no restraint on their actions. Liberals demonstrate that they know this by loudly calling for accountability whenever the miscreant is above a certain income level. But they are squeamish about accountability for the socially disadvantaged, which is patronizing and short-sighted.

2. Taxation reaches a point of diminishing returns fairly quickly.
This one ought to be obvious, both as a thought experiment and on the historical evidence. Up to a point, you can raise taxes and get more revenue, but pretty soon the rich start to wonder why they should go to the trouble of starting another company and creating another five hundred jobs when ninety percent of the money is going to go to the government. Or they understandably start looking for ways to hide their money. High tax rates deter enterprise and drive the rich away—remember when all the famous British people were living outside the U.K.? You can argue about exactly where the point of diminishing returns is, but what you can’t do is go on trying to solve problems by creating entitlements and answer every query about paying for them simply by saying, “We’ll tax the rich until their eyes water.”

3. Deterrence works.
Deterrence works on the streets; ask New Yorkers. When they started locking people up for jumping the turnstiles and spray-painting the walls, the streets got safer. And deterrence works on the international level, too. When Qadhafi saw what happened to Saddam, he coughed up his weapons program pronto. The problem for liberals is that deterrence is ugly. Deterrence requires a credible threat, i.e. occasional exemplary violence, and that’s not nice. Liberals think, in the face of all the evidence, that people are basically nice and that if you are nice to everybody they’ll be nice to you. Conservatives know better.

OK, now that I’ve got the liberals steamed up, it’s your turn, conservatives. Here are:

Three things liberals are right about that conservatives need to recognize:

1. Tolerance is a virtue.
We all used to live in tribes, and tribal loyalty used to be a survival mechanism. But in this globalized, urbanized society we have to share space and resources with a bewildering variety of aliens. For the whole thing to work, everybody needs to be equal before the law, and everybody deserves respect as an individual. Conservatives know this, but it’s all too easy, in a reaction against the grotesqueries of political correctness, to revert to a lazy tribalism and indulge your hostility or contempt for people you don’t like. This is a moral failing and a political one as well.

2. Patriotism is not a substitute for thought.
Patriotism is, you might say, the modern version of tribalism. But it’s an improved version; particularly in the United States, patriotism means loyalty to a concept of nationhood that transcends ethnicity, admitting anyone who embraces the ideas of the Constitution to citizenship. And that's a good thing. But patriotism is not license. It’s one thing to say that we have to rally round the flag when we go to war; it’s another to cut off debate about whether we ought to be going to war. And the virtues of our concept of nationhood do not entitle us to do as we please wherever we please. We are still bound by moral strictures that outrank an executive decision or an act of Congress.

3. The richer you are, the better you can afford to pay taxes.
This one has to be considered together with the above remark about diminishing returns, of course. But a moment’s reflection shows that if you start with a billion dollars, you have a lot more left after paying a third of your income to the government than if you start with fifty thousand dollars. And if you can’t make do on two-thirds of a billion dollars, you need a lifestyle adjustment and I mean right now. Yes, this is an argument for progressive taxation, which conservative purists abhor. And I hesitate to make it because of the slippery slope which leads to punitive taxation, a concept liberals find impossible to resist. The only admissible object of taxation is to cover the government’s expenditures. And insisting on a flat tax as a principle makes for clarity. But when income inequality is spiking and a world-scuppering debt crisis looms, I’m OK with a reasonably progressive tax system with rates capped at a point somewhere shy of the deterrent level.

There you have it; if you see something you don’t like, tough. It’s time to stop congratulating yourself on the loftiness of your values and get down to business figuring out how the world works and how you and your fellow citizens can cooperate to solve its problems.

Sam Reaves

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