Tuesday, May 12, 2009

The Political Pendulum

"We have no government armed with power capable of contending with human passions unbridled by morality and religion. Avarice, ambition, revenge, or gallantry, would break the strongest cords of our Constitution as a whale goes through a net. Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other."

— John Adams, October 11, 1798

There is a popular myth that extremism is the opposite of moderation. Moderation is not that simplistic, and neither is extremism. In reality, the opposite of extremism is the polar opposite extremist position. A moderate view is often an amalgam of parts of other views and is often just as fixed and uncompromising. Also, in many other instances a moderate view is something quite different, a pliable position, being swayed by any change in the wind. But that is only one reason moderation is not as simplistic as "the opposite of extremism."

Let us briefly review the brilliance that makes the American government what it is.

(thanks to notdemocracy for posting the video online)

Positions on moral, religious, political, economic, philosophical and any other type of issue can vary so widely it becomes necessary to use grand labels. Labels such as "conservative" and "liberal" and "extremist" help us fit a differing view into our lineup, often separating people along ideological lines in our minds. The fact that we often misguide ourselves and make unreasonable assumptions using such labels is inconvenient enough to ignore. We put such emotional investment into strongly held beliefs it becomes almost an autonomic response to pigeon-hole people who disagree with us. Even inventing alternate monikers (such as "progressive" or "centrist") smells of propaganda rather than an attempt to honestly distinguish between certain patterns of thinking so we can pretend to be more open minded than we really are.

Despite the enormous diversity and complexity of thought on such issues there do, in fact, appear to be some patterns. It is not intellectually honest to reflexively use the term "extremist" (or "fundamentalist") just because someone may be "conservative" but it could be perfectly fair to use the label "conservative". After all, there are certain ideals which most, if not all, conservatives share. These ideals typically begin with broad concepts such as individual liberty, which requires minimal government. These general ideas necessarily produce logical implications, such as a desire for low taxation, minimal government regulation, self-sufficiency rather than government reliance, private aid rather than public assistance, etc.

One result of the conservative precept of individual liberty is a powerful insistence on observing consequences. The conservative mindset is fixated with freedom to make one's own decisions, and this attitude requires any attempt to help people must pass the test of end results. If ideas or intentions do not achieve the purported results the conservative is very likely to discard the methods used to implement those ideas or intentions. Public assistance is one example: welfare programs do not encourage self-sufficiency or individual freedom, but instead typically result in trapping people in poverty. This result leads the conservative to conclude welfare is a bad idea despite its compassionate intentions. Trapping people in poverty is not the kind of help they need. This result doesn't help the people it is supposed to, but it robs them of the freedom to live their own lives.

The general reaction to this right-wing position on welfare is remarkably one sided. Regardless of the moniker one chooses (liberal, progressive, centrist, etc.) the criticisms of the conservative objection to welfare are almost a monolithic accusation of greed and selfishness, a lack of compassion. This odd phenomenon is not an isolated case. In fact, this near uniform reaction to conservative ideas occurs on almost every controversial issue. When one steps back from the details for a moment to observe the larger picture even larger patterns emerge. Despite the immense diversity of thought and agenda and effort there seem to be, astonishingly, only two main spheres of influence in American public life.

These two forces each pull in their own direction, which seem to be diametrically opposed to each other. One force, the conservative or the right wing, pulls toward individual liberty, the freedom to makes one's own decisions. The other, the left wing, pulls toward government control - which invariably diminishes individual liberty. America's founders understood this phenomenon.

The concept of a Social Contract is fundamental to the success of the American experiment. The men who invented the United States knew civilization could not survive by anarchy, neither by an all powerful government. They understood government to be a necessary evil to check human nature. The challenge was to find an appropriate balance between the two extremes. This challenge is probably best described by James Madison in The Federalist No. 51:

[T]he great security against a gradual concentration of the several powers in the same department, consists in giving to those who administer each department the necessary constitutional means and personal motives to resist encroachments of the others. The provision for defence must in this, as in all other cases, be made commensurate to the danger of attack. Ambition must be made to counteract ambition. The interest of the man must be connected with the constitutional rights of the place. It may be a reflection on human nature, that such devices should be necessary to control the abuses of government. But what is government itself, but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself. A dependence on the people is, no doubt, the primary control on the government; but experience has taught mankind the necessity of auxiliary precautions.

America's founders knew that to give control to government was to take freedom from the people, and vice versa. In modern conservatism, as defined by President Ronald Reagan, the ideal balance is with minimal government protecting the natural rights of the individual. These rights center on the freedom to make one's own decisions. In Reagan's view the ideal balance between freedom and the state was where this pendulum swings in favor of individual liberty, while still maintaining minimal government involvement in the lives of its citizens.

This conservative understanding of the Social Contract, as shared by our founding fathers, was that to give government more power was to increase government oppression of the people. Rush Limbaugh correctly describes this political pendulum as (paraphrasing) anything that is not conservative is, by default, liberal. Political momentum is in perpetual motion, with both major forces constantly striving for dominance. Hence, the political pendulum is always swinging one way or the other.

There are many signs available today indicating this political pendulum is swinging quickly to the left. These signs are not limited to the political arena; they affect all aspects of citizen life. And that should be expected when the most fundamental requirement for the success of the American Constitution is eroding: the moral and religious constraints of the people. Ironically, when morality is customizable and based on the fickle whims of individuals moral anarchy results. This does not mean an oppressive application of religion or law is the solution. But it should be acknowledged that the abandonment of religion and morality leads civilization ever closer to self destruction. Unfortunately an oppressive nanny-state application of law is exactly what our nation is embracing now. This may be the inevitable result of abandoning traditional western moral values.

Walter E. Williams has a good column on the cultural impact of such political battles titled Law vs. Moral Values. It's short but poignant. Have a read.