Saturday, November 19, 2011

Anti-Government or Pro-Goverment? Make Up Your Mind!

Update: Since writing what you see below, I found out that Michelle Fields is actually a libertarian and not a conservative, so she's actually not a good example of the general point I was making here. But of course the point is logically independent of the instance that I ignorantly chose to illustrate it.

Here you see conservative reporter Michelle Fields being shoved to the ground by NYC police. (Hat-tip to Ray Sawhill.) (Earlier this year we at "E pur si murove!" enjoyed her capturing Mat Damon's curious claim about the "shitty salaries" that government school teachers get.)

I'm sure her tears at the end were more a matter of shock and anger than physical pain. But what is she shocked about? Doesn't she know what police do?

There is something here that I've never understood. How can conservatives say they are anti-government, or at least skeptical of government, and yet love the police and the military? What could be more government-y than the police and the military? They are where the government rubber hits the road. They are the hands-on part of the government.

I see the mirror image of this mystery on the other side of the spectrum. Liberals like government. Okay, here there is a problem, because they almost never admit to this. But it does seem clear that they tend to see new government rules and more taxpayer money (and not free markets, free discussion, or ordinary human decency) as the solution to society's problems.

Okay, to avoid being accused of exaggerating, I'll just put it like this. Conservatives: favorable attitude toward police and military, unfavorable attitude toward government. Liberals: unfavorable attitude toward police and military, favorable attitude toward government.

I don't see how this can be denied. And yet it makes no logical sense.

After all, what is government? Government makes rules. There is only one big difference between these rules and other rules - such as the rule that you are supposed to say "you're welcome" when someone says "thank you," or the rule that in English the adjective comes before the noun. Government rules are enforced -- by police of some sort or other. That's it.

If you favor more rules and regulations, you favor the cops -- the government's muscle -- making people do things, whether they want to or not. If you favor fewer of these things, isn't it because you don't want people to be muscled in this way?

Like I say, I don't get it. (HT to Alan Kors for picture.)


Shahin Izadi said...

There is a distinction between justified and unjustified coercion, which most libertarians also recognize. If someone takes away someone's justly held private property, most libertarians wouldn't have a problem with government coercion (via police, etc) to enforce *that rule*. So, if you're going to claim that conservatives and liberals are inconsistent simply because they either (a) like police but don't like government or (b) don't like police but like government, then the same applies to most libertarians. The exception of course is those who don't think ANY government is justified.

I think the more interesting issue, which I assume lies in the background of what you explicitly say, is the extent to which it is reasonable to think that the amount of government intervention required to enforce the rules that one thinks justified has the potential to cause coercion that one thinks is unjustified. That is any issue for most political positions (include most libertarians) and is partly a function of historical circumstance.

Dave Private Equity Partners said...

Dr. Hunt,

As someone who has hands-on experience in both government-regulated activity (environmental regulations and monitoring)both inside and outside of government, as well as in government-regulated private industry (a large well-respected pharmaceutical company), I would like to propose that some rules are very sensible and benefit all of the public, while others may be more a matter of liberal or conservative agendas.

For example, I lived in the Los Angeles area from 1989 to 2004. During that time, new rules were phased in concerning cleaning up the local air and drinking water. In 1989, the air was relatively unclean, and often one's skin would accumulate a dirty residue throughout the workday, and considerable eye irritation and coughing were very common during hot summer days. By 2000, air quality had been significantly improved, and the water was no longer threatened by industrial contamination. This is one example of good government in my opinion, and may have been responsible for considerable new wealth as quality of life improved and real estate prices continued to rise for homeowners.

Likewise, the FDA attempts to protect us from unapproved marketing of prescription drugs, many of which are just as dangerous as some of the worst regarded illegal drugs used in the US. Periodically, extremely profitable marketing activity gets extended to clearly illegal promotion of these risky drugs to areas without approval where a high risk of death may exist for naive patient populations (and even naive doctors). Enforcement results in large fines, which is little more than a single quarter of profitability and consent decrees for enforcement. Again, the public is served in ways that most of us take for granted.

Of course on some of the same topics, draconian penalties are sometimes imposed for illicit drugs that are medically less dangerous than prescription drugs. Most drug related deaths at this time in the US involve prescription drugs, after all. These and many other policed activities are not easy to contest on logical grounds and may result in considerable damage to the lives and careers of often naive individuals. The same is true of the right to free speech and assembly as we have all seen lately.

Some rules and policing make sense. Others don't. This is just my opinion as a sometimes-insider. Plain distinctions between favoring regulation (say in the case of "equitable" drug laws)would seem to be contradictory if conservatives are generalized as favoring less regulation: One one hand, they like looser marketing rules for pharmaceutical companies, but they like disproportionate penalties for violations of illicit drug laws.

Likewise the current administration, liberal, has been surprisingly frugal on agents for customs and immigration agents, which has produced protests by business interests (conservatives).

Some rules make sense, others don't, some we cannot question because of legitimate secrecy requirements. But, so far at least we have the right to question rules that may not be to our benefit, while demanding others by popular opinion when government fails to meet expectations.

Of course, we have seen plenty of examples of police states in the 20th century and should do everything necessary to not let it happen here, if for no other reason than they infringe on fundamental individual liberties and seem to always result in regime change. Of course, lately the images we are presented with on a daily basis appear to involve police brutality or questionable selective enforcement. Thus far, it just makes the protests larger and stronger.

Lester Hunt said...

Shahin and Dave,

Thanks much for your comments. I really am interested in understanding this issue, despite my mild pessimism about ever succeeding in doing so. After your comments, however I am still pessimistic - mainly because you are both talking about a somewhat different issue than the one I am raising.

You both point out that we *all* make distinctions between different sorts of gov't coercion based on the *occasion* of the coercion: coercion is justified if it prevents someone from poisoning the atmosphere, while other uses of coercion are not justified. Yes, everyone, including me, makes such distinctions.

The issue I am talking about is about potential inconsistencies between attitudes about the *agents* of government coercion. Here I would avail myself of the four-way distinction in the late Dave Nolan's "World's Smallest Political Quiz," between liberal, conservative, libertarian, and statist. I think the only two attitudes that make logical sense here are the libertarian one and the statist ones. Your emotional, a priori attitudes toward government and toward the police and the military, should be the same.

Shahin comes close to suggesting that having a priori tendencies here is just irrational. Maybe it is (though I'm not sure of that) but there can still be consistency issues. These may be prejudices, but it is possible for prejudices to be either harmonious or, so to speak, clash-y, and to the libertarian and the statist, the conservative and liberal prejudices look clash-y.

Dave Private Equity Partners said...

Shahin and Lester,

I acknowledge your points. However, regarding the systemic classification of individuals into four schools of thought might be objected to by the philosopher who objects to the very notion of "will to a system."

The notion of size of government, or the multitude of agents of government, based solely on a good-or-evil valuation of "government agent" , per se may be true to an individual as part of their systemic thought, but the distinction between "Anti-good government or Pro-good government" or "Anti-bad government or Pro-bad government" may result in functional difficulties.

Consider the current widespread civic unrest by students and others who are borderline violently upset with the current "system" which they regard as not working for them. Many cannot define the precise issues that give them considerable anxiety about current domestic circumstances in the U.S. They just seem to have a conviction that the "system" is not working for them .

This polarization as a result in taking a "hard line" in either camp can arguably be identified as the source of gridlock in Congress during the past year. An institution of lawyers making laws to benefit their interests, to the exclusion of recognizing as valid the arguments of opposing views, may be seen as self-destructive and non-functional.

In some ways, the lack of will to compromise - to temporarily abandon a systematic good/evil approach to taxing or spending given the current dire circumstances, can be viewed as resulting in a non-functional government. The people are speaking, and among their grievances, although not explicit, may be the perception of "government by lawyers in Congress representing their clients' interests to the exclusion of societal interests" rather than being of compromise based current circumstances.

Maybe what I trying to say is that the broader issue of whether lawyers trained to represent defined interests (their clients, or maybe the lobbyists, or maybe their own business interests), to the exclusion of a more dialectic reasoning that can acknowledge diametric views, find a greater truth, and move on in a functional capacity as a provisional contingency, is really a good idea during a time of crisis.

Dialogue that embraces contradictions to get beyond simple "good/evil" monopoles may be evident in Plato, Nietzsche. However, it is entirely out of place in the courtroom. And it may be seen as conspicuously absent in a Congress that lately that is often not functional.

To digress, allow me to highlight two groundbreaking discoveries in physics from just the past several weeks. One, it strongly appears that previous assumptions that objects cannot move faster than the speed of light may be untrue. Second, it strongly appears that light - i.e., photons - have been created out of sheer nothingness. Because of the resulting contradictions with current systematic theory, both developments may force drastic revisions in our fundamental scientific world view.

In the same way, the non-functionality of "government is either good or evil" or "taxes are either good or evil" in addition to the systematic political distinctions relying on those distinctions, may have to be discarded, because the "system" may be non-functional.

I recognize that these views are more pragmatic and don't rely on a priori distinctions. However, in life, when arbitrary distinctions no longer result in functionality, it's time to move on. And as I concluded a philosophy paper many years ago, "questions, questions of value, value concerning life, can in the end, never be true." Ergo, some arguments are not true or false, but may simply be exercises for getting beyond a polarizing world view.

Mark M said...

Thanks for the post - captures my general views on the issue.

Just as a technical thing, perhaps a strikethrough on "conservative" in "conservative reporter", w/ a note up front about the fix. As I'm sure you've encountered, the conflating libertarian with conservative thing can be a bit jarring ("Why I Am Not a Conservative", etc.).

Still dig the blog, would like more posts! How about Althouse-esque, 5x to 10x daily?!


Bart Torvik said...

I think you are wrong with your blanket statement that liberals want more rules (favor government) and conservatives want fewer rules (oppose government). Actually, they both favor government -- they just disagree about which rules they like.

Liberals want more rules regulating economic activity and fewer rules regulating civil liberties (for lack of a better term).

Conservatives want fewer rules regulating economic activity (laissez faire policies) and more rules regulating personal conduct (e.g., abortion, drug prohibition, laws regarding sexual conduct, pornography, etc...).

In other words, liberal are authoritarian about economic liberties, and conservatives are authoritarian about civil liberties.

Of course, this is a simplification, but I think it explains why liberals hate the police and conservatives like the police: because the police are largely tasked with enforcing the rules that encroach on private conduct and civil liberties rather than rules that regulate the economy. For example, the protesters who thought they were exercising their civil liberties got busted up by cops enforcing some rule that apparently limits that right. So conservatives like cops because their job is generally to enforce the rules that conservatives favor.

Perhaps a corollary example would be attitudes toward IRS agents, who are tasked with enforcing the rules about redistributing income. Conservatives tend to demonize them; liberals not so much.

Of course, a Libertarian (such as yourself) tends to oppose rules encroaching on either civil liberties or economic liberties. From that perspective, liberals and conservatives may appear inconsistent, but it is not a logical inconsistency because favoring economic regulation does not entail favoring regulation of civil liberties (or vice versa).

Dave Private Equity Partners said...


Good points but I have an issue with your comment,

"Perhaps a corollary example would be attitudes toward IRS agents, who are tasked with enforcing the rules about redistributing income. Conservatives tend to demonize them; liberals not so much."

Based on recent reports,the true percentage of assets taxed as property is one example. If you are a homeowner, you pay property taxes on the value of your house. If you own a car, you pay taxes on the value of your car. If you own a million dollars invested in stock, or even a billion dollars, suddenly property tax does not apply to your assets. Why is this, I wonder. What a priori assumptions allow for different types of property to be taxed differently based on the "tangibility" of assets, when you consider that the mostly conservative rich folks have the bulk of assets invested in intangible assets. There is a disconnect here. When you hear the wealthy say "no new taxes" you think of the familiar - but they have a dirty little secret. They get all of the legal system working for them without paying any taxes on intangible assets! Until they take a capital gains distribution, there is no tax!

As to agreeing or disagreeing with the original post by Dr. Hunt, I suspect that he's doing a pretty good job of playing the role of teacher to incite some debate and help us to exercise our minds. Maybe I am partially or completely wrong, but that is what draws me to this blog. I regard this site as being open to "all and none" who desire to philosophize with a hammer.

Have a great Thanksgiving!

Shahin Izadi said...

@Lester. Thanks for the clarification about the issue you are addressing: *the consistency of emotional ("a priori") attitudes towards government and police and miltary*.

If I may, I think the argument you are trying to make runs like this:

1. If you have a general positive emotional attitude towards government rules and regulations to help solve societal problems, then you should have a general positive emotional attitude towards the agents that enforce such rules and regulations.

2. Liberals have a general positive emotional attitude towards government rules and regulations but a negative emotional attitude towards policy and military (the agents of rule enforcement).

3. Conservatives have a general negative emotional attitude towards government rules and regulations but a positive emotional attitude towards police and military.


4. Both conservatives and liberals have an irrational set of emotional attitudes.

I think that many people have focused on premise 2 or 3. It is reasonable to think that the most plausible forms of liberalism or conservativism will not have *general* emotional attitudes towards government per se or its enforcement mechanism per se.

More interestingly, I think that premise 1 is probably wrong. What is the argument for 1? You suggest an argument that rests on the idea that: “If you favor more rules and regulations, you favor the cops -- the government's muscle -- making people do things, whether they want to or not.”

BUT: one might favor the government’s muscle doing the things necessary to enforce *government rules and regulations* but also have a negative a priori emotional attitude towards them because, for various reasons, they are prone to illegitimate abuses of their legitimate power. There is a balancing act of sorts for a position such as this one; and it leaves one open to charges of inconsistency. But those charges seem unfounded.

Anyway, that is one stab at the problem. Happy thanksgiving!

Anonymous said...

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