Wednesday, July 26, 2017

My Politics. Part I

People seem wired for a certain amount of drama. No matter how good things get, most people have to see the current times as challenging, or bad. The need to see things in a certain way or at a certain level justifies a shit ton of bullshit rationalization.  So, meta-level, this is how I see things:

The world is better than ever before. In the US, poverty doesn't mean what poverty means. The poorest people I know own computers that would not have been available to any government at any price in the 1970's. If you are reading this, you have access to a computing system that didn't exist not that long ago. You cannot believe you are poor if you have  access to a system that no one in your grandfather's world could have imagined. Measure. Do you have access to hot water, ice, food from multiple continents despite any season and more knowledge than you could mine in a lifetime? Then you are a god, beyond what any Roman emperor could access. and you live in a golden age.

There is an old saying about academic politics: The politics are vicious precisely because the stakes are so small.

Here's the deal. Since the mid/late 1800's, we have an ideal. We are all products of our culture and early education, so shift this 200 years in any direction and it might make no sense, but here goes:

  • People matter. 
  • Equality is important. 
  • Individual liberty is important. 
  • People can continuously improve. 
  • Society can continuously improve. 
  • A legitimate government serves the people, it does not rule the people.

And, for as long as this ideal has been held as pretty much universal, there has been a constant tension between liberty and egalitarianism. They are mutually incompatible. If you allow maximum freedom (liberty) there will be wild disparities in possession, friendships... anything you care to measure. Conversely, there is no way to have egalitarian outcomes except by controlling individuals. Yes, I am aware that there is an entire branch of political philosophy devoted to proving that there is no antagonism between freedom and equality. Any six-year-old can shatter those pathetic arguments.

A quick and dirty way to phrase this, imagine a basketball game: If you value liberty more than equality, you want the rules applied equally to the two teams. If you value equality more than liberty, you will believe that any score that doesn't end in a tie is prima facie evidence of unfairness and you will continue to tweak the rules until all games are ties.

In the dawn of the 21st century, we forget that "poor" used to mean "starving" not obesity. Not that long ago, poor people in  North America couldn't read, and now they have access to free Harvard courses. That a (personal example) an eight-year-old bottom of the line economy car can outperform the hotrods we dreamed about as children.

Bringing it home, people are tribal. They seem to need an 'us' and a 'them.' The less actual difference there is, the more vicious and heated the rhetoric needs to be. Communist, fascists and socialists were never enemies because they were different. They were always enemies because their policies appealed to the same people. They were similar enough to compete for resources. Civil wars are more vicious than other wars because of the similarities between the sides, not the differences.

And this big, scary divide in US politics right now? It is really simple. We agree on almost everything... except where we should strike the balance between individual liberty and equality. And because that is such a relatively minor point, tribalism demands that we get vicious about it.

Tribalism demands. We needn't obey. (Obviously) I'm heavy on the individual liberty side. We don't need to agree. We both want people to be happy. I believe that unfettered opportunity will have that effect for more people and, as an aside, that a few people pushing the envelope changes everyone's potential. If you believe stuff makes people happy and managing the output of stuff will make more people's lives better, you aren't my enemy. We just disagree.


Bryan Leed, Dayton, OH said...

The tip about free Harvard courses is priceless, I will definitely try that, probably the Intro to Computer Science first, but many others are very interesting. I am surprised by the wide variety of courses offered for free on this Harvard website! I will probably try a class about the history of China, too. Thanks for that Harvard tip!

Also new and fresh is the concept that we argue so viciously because we are already so close to being the same, the followers of any particular topic must fight for scarce resources, fight to keep followers from a limited pool of followers. That is something to ponder and discuss, for sure. I never heard of this before.

NoBite said...

I love the basketball game analogy. That really made an impact on me. Such a simple way to look at different world views. Thank you.

BTW, is there a way to send you a private email, Rory?

Vaughn Heslop said...

Interesting perspective.

barbara said...

@ "better world" - yes the poorest people today have access to things which would have seen magic to any medieval king; on the other hand, every poor miserable hungry medieval serf had access to some things which count today as a luxury, especially for people living in dense urban areas. like, that in the night it is really night, really dark - not illuminated everywhere. there was probably also a lot less noise. and, before the invention of train timetables and pocket watchs, the day was not dictated by the very strict time discipline which is normal for many of us.

I'm not so sure, if you asked a medieval serf, if he preferred to be a modern poor - or even a modern middle-class-person - if he wanted to change, given the possibility.

I feel there are different forms or aspects to equality, and it need not mean "the result is the same for every one". Taking the basketball example - in sports equality often means "the same starting position for every one", every team plays to the same rules and starts with score 0. Often it means also "opponents have roughly equal capabilities" - so you get male and female teams, you get different leagues depending on proficiency, you get teams in different age groups... because a match is more interesting when the outcome is not too clear from the beginning.

Equality in politics, I understood always "every one gets roughly the same starting position, every one gets roughly the same chances". I'm not sure if you can call a situation "liberty for everyone" if one kid starts a race with a skateboard and the other one has a Ferrari...

Paul McRedmond said...

"- until all games are ties." I think this describes the state of martial arts today.

Josh K. said...

Book sugestion, "Equal is Unfair" by Don Walkins & Yaron Brook.

There are three differeng meanings or how people think about equality.

I) Equality of Opportunity

2) equality of Outcome (your example)

3) Equality under The Law

The thing is you can't try to adress the first two without destroying the third.