Sunday, November 02, 2008

Rationality and politics

I've been trying to reconcile the current political environment in terms of a consistent framework. In particular, I've been interested in dissecting how issues have been divided between the so-called left and right in the United States. My premise is based on ideas set down in my previous post on the genetic basis of political orientation. In that post I proposed that the political thesis of the right is that the wealth should be distributed according to a person's direct contribution while the left's premise is that wealth should be distributed equitably regardless of standing in the community. I think these are fair definitions based on historical notions of the right and left. What I want to do now is to see how current issues should be divided between these positions in a perfectly rational world.

Let me first summarize some positions currently held by the US right: 1) low taxes, 2) small government, 3) deregulation of industries, 3) free trade, 4) gun rights, 5) strong military, 6) anti-abortion, 7) anti-gay rights, and 8) anti-immigration. I would say positions 1) through 4) seem consistent with the historical notion of the right (although regulation can be consistent with the right if it makes markets more transparent), position 5) is debatable, while positions 6) through 8) seem dissonant. The left generally but not always take the opposite positions except possibly on point 5), which is mixed. The strong military position was understood as a right wing position during the Cold War because of the opposition to communism. The rationale for a strong military waned after the fall of the Soviet Union but 9/11 changed the game again and now the military is justified as a bulwark against terrorism.

The question is how to reconcile positions 6) through 8) and we could add pro-death penalty and anti-evolution into the mix as well. These positions are aligned on the right because of several historical events. The first was that many of the early settlers to the United States came to escape religious persecution at home and this is why there is a significant US Christian fundamentalist population. The second is slavery and the Civil Rights movement. The third is that middle class whites fled the cities for the suburbs in the 50's and 60's. These people were probably religious but a genetic mix between left and right.

In the early 20th century, the Republicans were an economic right wing party while the Democrats under FDR veered to the left although they were mostly Keynesian and not socialist. The South had been Democratic because Lincoln was a Republican. The Civil Rights movement in the 60's angered and scared many suburban and southern whites and this was exploited by Nixon's "Southern Strategy", which flipped the South to the Republicans. This was also a time of economic prosperity for the middle class so they were more influenced by issues regarding crime, safety, religion, and keeping their communities "intact". Hence, as long as economic growth continued, there could be a coalition between the economic right and the religious right since the beliefs of both sides didn't really infringe on each other. Hence, culturally liberal New York bankers could coexist with culturally conservative southern factory workers.

Let me now go through each point and see if we can parse them rationally. I will not try to ascribe any moral or normative value to the positions, only on whether or not it would be consistent in a right or left worldview. I think low taxes, small government, deregulation and free trade certainly belong on the right without much argument. Gun rights seem to be consistent with the right since it is an anti-regulatory sentiment. Strong military is not so clear cut to me. It certainly helps to ensure that foreign markets remain open so that would help the right. However, it could also enforce rules on other people, which is more left. It is also a big government program, which is not so right. So my sense is that a strong military is neither right nor left. Abortion is quite difficult. From the point of view of the woman, I think being pro-choice is consistent with being on the right. Even if you believe that life begins at conception and I've argued before that defining when life begins is problematic, the fetus is also a part of the woman's body. From the point of view of the fetus, I think it's actually a left wing position to be pro-life. Gay rights seems to be clearly a right wing position in that there should not be any regulation on personal choice between consenting adults. However, if you view gay behavior as being very detrimental to society then as a left winger you could possibly justify disallowing it. So interestingly, I think being against gay rights is only viable from a left wing point of view. Anti-immigration is probably more consistent with the left since immigrants could be a competitive threat to one's job. A right winger should encourage immigration and more competition. Interestingly, anti-evolution used to be a left wing position. William Jennings Bryan, who was against evolution in the Scopes Monkey trial, was a populist Democrat. He was worried that evolution theory would justify why some people had more than others. Survival of the fittest is a very right wing concept.

I doubt that political parties will ever be completely self-consistent in their positions given accidents of history. However, the current economic crisis is forcing people to make economic considerations more of a priority. I think what will happen is that there will be a growth in socially conservative economic populism, which as I argued is probably more self-consistent. Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee is an example of someone in that category. The backlash against Johnson's Great Society and anti-poverty measures was largely racially motivated. However, as the generation that lived through the Cold War and the Civil Rights era shrinks in influence, I think a slow rationalizing realignment in the issues among the political parties may take place.

Addendum (11/4/2008)
I think it is appropriate to add on Election Day that I don't think either of the two major American political parties fall into the right or left camp as I've defined it. There are elements of both right and left (as well as a royalist bent) in both party's platforms.


Anonymous said...

In that post I proposed that the political thesis of the right is that the wealth should be distributed according to a person's direct contribution ...

Aside from doubting that that's their thesis, the problem is that that's not the way our economy works.

The rich are mostly collectors of economic rents (particularly land rents, but also rents collected from other government-granted monopolies like patent and copyright). Since rent is never received for a productive contribution, we can see that the rich by and large really are parasites. Just not for the reason Marxists espouse.

Carson C. Chow said...

Great comment. The one thing that I didn't make clear in my post was that I used the terms right and left to define whether or not you hold the view that distribution should be by contribution or by need. This seems to be what is genetically coded, not whether or not you are a Republican or a Democrat, which currently defines left and right. I also did not imply that those in power or rich were on the right.

I agree with you that the ability to collect rent is the main reason the rich can stay rich and I would say that it is antithetical to either left or right as I defined above. There are cdrtainly other internal and external forces that can dominate the genetically predisposed left or right worldview and the ability to exploit the system to is certainly one of them.