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.


  1. Dang! That's a long post!! All I was able to swallow in my first try was where you summarized the basics of conservative ideology. It raised a question. If a value of individual freedom is the domain of conservatives, why is it that long-haired hippie holdovers are labeled "liberal." Why is it that politico-religious types who value societal conformity to moral rules are labeled "conservative."

    Why are the medicinal pot smokers considered "liberal" and the supporters of anti-gambling laws considered to be "conservative?" If personal liberty is the hallmark of conservatism, it seems that it should be the other way around.

  2. That is right, it SEEMS it should be the other way around. I briefly mentioned before, and intend to develop further, this disparity between the left and right as regards to their concepts of freedom.

    Basically, you'll notice in each case you mentioned, and several others I can think of, where hedonism is at stake the leftist promotes individual freedom and the conservative promotes order and social cohesion. In just about any other situation in human interaction (where hedonism is not at stake) the two paradigms seem to be reversed. Health (treating McDonald's like it forces people to eat there every day), economics (redistribution of wealth) and self preservation (welfare, gun rights) are just a few examples where it is conservatives who promote freedom and it is leftists who demand conformity to their rules.

  3. Oh, and don't forget to read Walter E. Williams' column Law vs. Moral Values. He unpacks the idea that traditions and moral values are a vital component of civilized society, which is basically what John Adams was saying in the quote at the beginning of this post.

  4. I don't understand. What is the distinction between "hedonism" and "individual freedom," other than rhetorical spin? Why is a person's desire to buy a Big Mac different than another person's desire to play the slots/smoke weed?

  5. Well, let's be careful not to over simply the issue. I'd like to see someone try to convince me gambling or smoking weed (not something everyone "needs" to do) is as vital to human survival as is eating. I could ask if there is any difference between "teaching people how to think" and "teaching people what to think" more than rhetorical spin. Or how about the difference between "friendship" and just using people for one's own gain, or "practicing law" and lying to people, or "self defense" and murder. The details make all the difference, if one cares to acknowledge facts.

  6. I'm no more enlightened after reading your response than I was before. Rather than answering my question (which was intended as a real question, not some sort of argument being disguised as a question), it seems to me that you just deflected it.

    So, please, explain why a person's desire to buy a Big Mac is different from another person's desire to play the slots or smoke weed. All of the arguments that I have heard to justify the prohibition of weed and/or gambling would equally apply to a prohibition of Big Macs.

    Sure, food is essential to living, but Big Macs aren't. From a nutritional standpoint, eating Big Macs is probably counter-productive to living.

  7. Well if this is a real question I'll be glad to address it. Please forgive me if there is any sense of condescension in this response, but this does seem to me a rather elementary issue.

    First, I think in all probability you likely have heard arguments for the prohibition of weed or gambling that do not apply equally to a prohibition of Big Macs: addiction.

    Personally, I'm still chewing on the idea of prohibiting addictives such as drugs or gambling, but these things demonstrably cause great harm in people's lives. Addictions, by their nature, have a tendency to compel people to go to any length and commit any act to get their fix, which goes beyond simply harming oneself - it directly harms others as well, which harms society.

    Big Macs, on the other hand are an entirely different thing and there is no evidence yet discovered showing any addictive qualities of this food item. It may be unhealthy, sure, but is there anything about a Big Mac that has the same power over people as the addictions mentioned above? Even food addictions are different from these things.

    No one, other than the idiot, is compelled to eat a Big Mac every day (I'll have to ask for evidence such a person actually exists -
    I don't mean to imply idiots don't exist).

    And why should we say a hungry person, for whom a Burger King is the only food source in sight, is acting like a hedonist in stopping there to get a Big Mac? What is this person has a hungry child, too? Details matter.

    But how do we justify prohibiting Big Macs, or fast food in general, if we cannot demonstrate the same social harm as caused by addictions? Do we say health concerns justify controlling people's lives when there is no direct consequence of causing harm to others?

    The question "where does it stop" is legitimate, even if it sounds like deflecting. So far, banning addictive substances or activities seem to be based on the direct social harm such things cause (committing robbery to get the money to buy drugs, or spending grocery money or rent/mortgage or committing robbery to play at the casino). The only justification I can see for prohibiting Big Macs is the health care concern, and to be effective this would require regulations on all food. If we are to reduce health care costs by this method it would necessarily mean government must take control of every aspect of our calorie intake - and good bye freedom.

    I think there is also here a distortion of the concept of hedonism, where one is devoted to pleasure as a way of life. Let us not pretend merely experiencing pleasure or occassionally seeking it in any form is hedonism. The difference is a matter of degree. We would do well to remember also the prohibitions of drugs or gambling are based on their addictive qualities, not the apparent fact such things are "fun" as if those laws were designed explicitly to prevent fun.

    From what I see, when leftists defend individual freedom it is typically in light of protecting the right to have a good time. No one is suggesting we don't have a right to a good time, but we also have other rights which are under assault by leftists, such as speech and religion (1st Amendment), self preservation (2nd Amendment), the right to keep what we earn (4th Amendment), etc.

    Of course, for the sake of acknowledging reality, I must admit one could make a legitimate case that western society is hedonistic, and so our perspective on "healthy" pleasure is skewed. But that is all the more reason to acknowledge real distinctions too, rather than help blur the lines. Personally, I'm just not ready to give up on such matters.

  8. "Fast food as addictive as heroin"


  9. Sorry, the URL should have been http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/health/2707143.stm

  10. "could be", "controversial findings"

    However, other experts expressed doubts over whether people can become addicted to food.

    "It's a set-up for a late-afternoon binge rather than addiction," she said.

  11. The point is an "addictive substances" standard is no standard at all. People can be addicted to anything. Addictions are highly individualized. With gambling, for example, there is no substance ingested at all.

  12. "addictive substances or activities"

    Sex addiction, porn addiction, work addiction, thrill addiction, power addiction, etc.

    I think the fact that people can be addicted to anything becomes a self defeating point. It implies everything should be treated as an addiction and yet this clearly is not appropriate.

    Likewise, no one is suggesting all gamblers or all pot smokers are addicts, yet there are enough cases of the addictive reality to treat those activities as "inherently addictive". Can anyone show me this same situation with Big Macs other than by using opinion or agenda-laden "controversial findings" (I don't mean to suggest laws banning gambling or pot are not also agenda-laden; that's what laws tend to be)?

    It should be pointed out that "individual liberty" and selfishness are often inappropriately treated as synonymous, as though the opposite push for "equality" was not itself a selfish endeavor. Likewise, the fact that anything can be construed as selfish (or addictive) does not automatically mean it is. Implications being what they are, let's not treat them as facts just because they "could be" true.

    And if "individual liberty" and hedonism can be considered the same thing, so what? "Can be" doesn't mean "is". I prefer to acknowledge the fact that degree is relevant, with the admitted danger that our modern idea of individual freedom may be quite different from and more selfish than what our founders thought it to be.

  13. You left out "shopping addiction, day trading addiction, smoking addiction, plastic surgery addiction, Crackberry addiction, commenting on blogs addiction..." The list goes on and on, because it is limitless. People can be addicted to anything.

    You said, "Can anyone show me this same situation with Big Macs other than by using opinion or agenda-laden "controversial findings" (I don't mean to suggest laws banning gambling or pot are not also agenda-laden; that's what laws tend to be)?" That part in the parenthesis is huge. In fact, it's my entire point. I bet even if you disagree with my "everything is addictive" assertion, you'd accept that nicotine is addictive. However, the science that supported the conclusion that nicotine is addictive was labeled "junk science" "controversial" or "agenda-laden" at first. It was only after smoking became politically unpopular that people stopped giving it that label.

    "all is vanity, a chasing after the wind."

  14. If assertions that fast food is addictive could survive the tests of time and logic I would accept them. They haven't done that yet so we'll have to wait and see. The "can be" argument has no value to me, since anything "can be" what we make it and requires little to no evidence. A "likely to be" argument is something I find much more interesting, but requires more effort.

    However, I won't be easily swayed on the comparison between hedonism and individual liberty, even if it means I'm debating against myself on a contemporary vs. traditional view of the concept.

  15. So, I guess we're back to where we started. I still don't see the difference between the notion of "individual liberty" and "hedonism" (other than the usage of the word "hedonism" implies disparagement of the activity being discussed), and you remain convinced that there is a self-evident difference.

    Sounds like 14 comments full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

  16. I suppose individual liberty would include hedonism, but should not be treated as the same thing. Our founding fathers wrote of individual liberty in terms of making a living doing something one chooses. It was in the context of being a part of a community, with the idea that to survive one should do something that contributes in a positive way to society (the old idea of capitalism). In our modern playboy culture I acknowledge "freedom" is often used as nothing more than code for a self-serving attitude or life style. But then, the point of this blog to remind people of what freedom used to mean.

  17. Changing the subject slightly, but still related to your original post:

    You began the post with a quote from John Adams in which he said that our form of government was inadequate for an amoral or irreligious people. In light of the trend identified in the article at the URL below, what form of government do you think is appropriate for an amoral and/or irreligious people?


  18. Great question. I wish I had an answer. I could at least offer two suggestions: anarchy or despotism.

    We are constantly reminded we have no right to impose our beliefs or way of life on others - apparently even having a conversation about religion amounts to "imposing" your beliefs on those who happen to listen in. So, just to be consistent, if we live in an age where morality is customizable (because religion and its moral code are becoming increasingly irrelevant in our society) why should we think such a society won't naturally devolve into either anarchy or despotism?

    In my opinion there have been too many instances of academics and politicians treating ordinary people like stupid and incompetent boobs who don't know how to function without their elitist guidance to presume anything other than oligarchy or anarchy will result from their instruction. Besides, there is no reason to believe these wizards of smart know any better than the rest of us how to maintain civilization.

  19. Hmmm....so if a society follows Karl Marx's advice ("Religion is ...the opium of the people. The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness."), then Stalin is the leader that is suitable for them? How ironic!

    Quote cut and pasted from: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Opium_of_the_People