Finding Common Ground and Starting the Debate

We’ve seen two different viewpoints, two very different perspectives, on the current state of the union. You can see from today’s posts how heated and diametrically opposed the two sides are in our present political climate, and honestly, I don’t actually believe the posts I wrote would do much to convince someone on either side.

And yet, there actually is some common ground between the two sides, although some of this common ground may be believed more by one side than the other, and each side holds similar views of their own and the other side. Both state their faith in the greatness of America as the beacon of hope in the world, as a place where you can be anything you want to be, though Republicans are more adamant about it (and tend to deny the opposition their similar belief). Both sides claim that the opposition’s policies are bad for the economy; both want to protect against terrorism in different ways. Both accuse their opposition of needing to wake up to the “real world”, and implicitly, that their own position is rational while the opposition’s is emotional. (On the one hand, Democrats are emotionally attached to the plight of the poor while Republicans see the poor as a necessary side effect of capitalism; Republicans are emotionally attached to their limited-government, free-market principles while being allegedly blinded to their limitations.)

Both sides claim to have America on their side, claiming that most Americans believe in their principles (though the Republicans seem to have more credibility) and that they have America’s best interests at heart, and accuse the other side of being pushed by interests out to squash the message of their own side by spreading misinformation – “big corporations” in the case of the left and the “liberal media” in the case of the right – and this explains the focus on media bias, since if the media weren’t biased everyone would obviously believe their own side.

But perhaps most importantly, the difference between the parties comes down to a difference in priorities, and at least at first glance, these priorities aren’t incompatible with one another. Republicans are concerned with limiting the size of government and maximizing the freedom of business to serve as the engine of the economy; Democrats are concerned with ending poverty and the equitable distribution of the wealth. You will even see Democrats claim that their desire to reduce the influence of the military is partly a reflection of limited-government principles, and Republicans claim that unrestrained capitalism will actually make the poor better off (the familiar “trickle-down economics”). Both sides do recognize the force of the other’s priorities, at least under certain circumstances; they just differ on which to side with when there’s a conflict. Democrats claim that helping the poor is a moral prerogative while one can’t be dogmatically opposed to all government; Republicans claim that the total amount of wealth in the system is more important than how it’s distributed.

Here’s where the conflict comes. At least in theory, the Republicans are right to claim that, if the wealth were perfectly evenly distributed, no one would have any incentive to work because they couldn’t get ahead of anyone else. (There are a few problems with this theory, but we’ll assume it for now.) Similarly, if the government took 100% of your income, you wouldn’t have any incentive to work because no matter how much you earned, all of it would go to the government. (This is a simplified version of the problem with applied communism.) Therefore, any wealth inequity produced by capitalism should be allowed to stand, or else you’re robbing the capitalists’ incentive to keep producing more wealth. Any effort to smooth out wealth inequities results in a reduction of the total wealth coming out of the system, although Democrats deny this. Further, any government interference, such as a tax, in the machinery of capitalism reduces the profits earned by the firm producing goods, and accordingly, reduces the amount of product produced by the firm.

So a limited government, in this model, is a precondition to the smooth workings of business, which may or may not naturally create a gap between rich and poor. A gap between rich and poor is, therefore, one possible consequence of limited government, or at least limited government in certain areas. (The argument applies more broadly when you argue, as Republicans are wont to do, that in general, people following their natural inclinations without government interference, only government protection, results in the best overall outcome for the economy.)

It does not follow, however, that the converse is true, that closing the gap between rich and poor requires a governmental solution. At least in theory, even the free market can solve some problems of wealth inequality, even if you don’t agree with trickle-down economics per se, so Republicans may be excused if they’re skeptical about Democrats’ belief in small government and their claim that government involvement is just what works to help the poor. You will sometimes even see Republicans claim that government interference itself is actually a cause, or even the cause, of wealth inequality. On the other hand, Democrats argue that, if closing the gap between rich and poor creates more consumers, it could have a positive effect on the economy that outweighs the negative effect. Now that we’ve reached this point in the debate, Democrats and Republicans could start brandishing numbers and studies backing their respective viewpoints, arguing over whether it’s better to limit government or help the poor, but they can also start debating ideas that synthesize both their priorities, rendering such debate over priorities unnecessary. (One is at the above link.)

We agree that America is the best country on Earth, the symbol for the ideals of democracy and freedom around the world, and a place where the lowliest of children, at least ideally, can grow up to become a titan of industry, though we may disagree on how realistic that is. We agree that we need to be attuned to the way the real world works and not become overly attached to our principles, and work to achieve what is best for America. We agree that, necessity aside, too much government can strip us of our freedoms and make us less happy and less prosperous, that absolute power corrupts absolutely, that even at low levels it leads to confusing and expensive bureaucracy, and that this has been proven in the past. We agree that, necessity aside, the gap between rich and poor and the existence of poverty is not something we like.

If we all admit that we are all in agreement on these four principles, it will not necessarily be easy to extend the common ground from there, especially when we are prone to disagree on basic facts, but if we focus on these principles we can use them as a framework to find solutions to our problems and disagreements that we can agree on. Some of these solutions may not be comfortable for one side or the other; they may represent a major concession. Then the question becomes to find out why one side or the other is uncomfortable, and either to explain why such things are not problems, or to find some other solution that takes those problems into account. Sometimes Republicans may have to accept a governmental solution because the cost for some group of people is too much; Democrats may have to accept a less equitable solution because the cost in government control is too much. And sometimes, we won’t be able to find a middle ground in this calculus because the difference in the proposed solutions comes down to the difference in priorities, and neither can be said to totally outweigh the other. Hopefully this last class will turn out to be smaller than it now seems.

Over the next few days, weeks, and months (I originally intended this past week but was stupid and procrastinated for two weeks, just as I’ve been procrastinating on this whole series all summer), I’ll be making several posts intended to illustrate how we can debate the issues by laying out our positions and trying to adjudicate between them. Rather than yelling and name-calling, I will model how we can have a civil debate by focusing on the issues themselves, recognizing our opponents’ concerns and reacting to them rather than dismissing them out of hand, and always keeping in mind our agreement on the four principles – and potentially more that will come out over the course of the debate. I can’t say that we will come to an absolute best solution for every problem, or that if we do it’ll be the right one, but I hope to bring each side to an understanding of their opposition and either a moderation of their perspective or at least a clarification of it through the perspective of the opposition. In short, rather than merely calling to “restore sanity” as Jon Stewart will do on Saturday, I’ll be trying to show how we can actually do it.

It won’t be easy, it won’t be pretty (these will still be emotionally charged debates), I can’t guarantee any sort of success, and I certainly can’t guarantee that I’ll singlehandedly heal the rift between left and right in this country, certainly not before the election, but someone needs to start the dialogue. And it needs to start by doing what I’ve tried to do: explain each side’s position in terms explicable to the other. Even if the dialogue is just me publishing the debate going on in my own head, an abstract liberal and conservative talking to each other is better than nothing. My hope is that real liberals and conservatives will take up where I leave off and continue it – and maybe then we can start to heal the rift.

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