Let’s talk about a better way to understand politics than the current conservative/center/liberal spectrum, which really is simplistic, contradictory and disguises some things that are very important in Western political thought. The current spectrum that most people accept looks something like this (this is almost exactly what my high school American Govt teacher drew on the board, IIRC):
Just about the first problem we see is that as you slide from the Center to either the Right or Left you start approaching totalitarian forms of government. And, unless you happen to be either a Fascist or a Communist, you can see fairly easily that there is very little difference in practical purposes between the two extremes. Either this is very cynical and pessimistic and we are doomed to extremism no matter what or it is not realistic. So, let’s quickly define a few terms and then start down the road of what a more realistic and understandable political spectrum would look like.
Capitalism – complete free market economics, no government intervention whatsoever. Adam Smith rules, citizens are 100% responsible for providing for themselves.
Socialism – The government controls the means of production and provides 100% for the welfare of the citizens.
Anarchy – All political power resides with the individual, they decide what power, if any, they will grant to a government.
Totalitarian – All political power resides with the government or group, they decide what rights and privileges, if any, they will grant to an individual.
The reason that I used the extremes is that each of those extremes represents the end of a continuum. So, there are two main continuums present in the political debate in the West, but we rarely separate them, which is a mistake. One continuum is economics, the other is political power. It looks like this:
We often confuse a person’s economic beliefs with their beliefs on political power. We also, often, fail to understand that one of these influences the other. To really understand where someone’s political beliefs fall, what we need to do is create a graph or a matrix. Leave the socialism/capitalism line horizontal. Now draw a vertical line and put anarchy at the bottom and totalitarian at the top. Like this:
First, everything on the socialist half is the “Left”, even if your belief in socialism is very mild, like LBJ or FDR, who were most accurately described, using modern political terms, as democratic socialists. Everything on the capitalist half is the “Right”, even if your tendency towards free market is very mild, like John Kerry, who is a Keynesian, in economic terms, meaning he believes that government intervention can influence the economy for the better, especially government spending.
Now, let’s put some folks in whose political views are fairly well understood in either modern times or historically. I think this will start to illustrate what I’m getting at.
Just about the first thing we notice is that the mainstream of modern American politics is a very narrow part of the spectrum. The second thing we see is that from roughly 1933 to 1980 the spectrum in this country was much further to the Left than now. The bounds are FDR at one end and Ronald Reagan at the other end, each of whom managed to completely refocus the political debate in this country. The third important thing to notice is that there is a fairly dramatic shift from the traditional American Liberal philosophy (Jefferson, et al) and that is bounded by Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War.
Evaluate where you stand using this matrix, you may come to some interesting realizations if you do. The reason that you want to do something really doesn’t matter. You may want welfare to empower individuals and think that means you are an individualist. But the fact is that you still want something that is on the socialist side of the economic line. Here’s some examples, starting with individualism first:
These are things you want if you are above the line and tending to totalitarianism:
- Gun control
- Centrally administered education standards
- Regulation of social behavior (e.g. smoking)
- Increased police powers (e.g. reduced or no limits on legal searches)
- Government censorship
These are things you want if you are below the line and tending to anarchy:
- No gun control
- decentralized education
- no standing army, or very small standing army
- No government regulation of social behavior, neither promoting nor prohibiting
- Limits on police powers
- Free speech
These are things you want if you are right of the line and tending to capitalism:
- No government regulation of the marketplace
- Limited or no taxation
- No government sponsored welfare
- Charity based welfare
- No trade barriers
- No government regulation of the employment market
- Private ownership of property and the means of production
These are things you want if you are left of the line and tending to socialism:
- Government regulated marketplace
- Taxation to enable government spending/activity
- Government welfare
- Trade barriers to protect internal market
- Government controlled employment market
- Limitations on ownership of property and means of production
So, ask yourself how you feel about these things and then place yourself accordingly. You may be surprised. Then evaluate politicians by their platform instead of their speeches and place them accordingly. Then support the ones who support what you believe in.
Sadly, since I sit about in the same position as Jefferson there really is no one in the mainstream of American politics that represents me. Were you able to vote for someone whose political position was similar to yours?