American Culture on the Brink: The False Dilemmas of the Ideologues

December 30, 2015

The illusion which exalts us is dearer to us than ten thousand truths. –Aleksandr Pushkin, poet, novelist, and playwright (1799-1837)

There is a general consensus that our political system is broken. The electorate views with disdain the inability of those in charge of our government to treat opponents with civility, let alone to govern efficiently, forgetting all the while that it is we who continuously place such people in office. We thus now, to paraphrase Robert Louis Stevenson, are having to sit down at our banquet of consequences. Among citizens, those on opposite sides of issues often also fall on each other like wolves. As illustrated in the following table, the irreconcilable policy chasm between our two political parties has now reached seismic proportions.

Percentage who rate their support for issues at 8-10 on a 1-10 scale

Source: Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll, taken in mid-December (Margin of error = +/- 4.9%)

ISSUE REPUBLICANS DEMOCRATS
Traditional Definition of Marriage 69% 25%
Support Gay Rights 14% 63%
Support “Right-to-Life” 57% 23%
Supporters of “Black Lives Matter” movement 6% 46%
Support the NRA 59% 11%
Combat Climate Change Immediately 13% 62%
Support Unions 15% 52%
Support Business Interests 49% 26%

Worse still, the disrespect that each party has for the other further jeopardizes the possibility of any meaningful dialogue. According to a 2014 PEW Research Study, 79% of democrats hold an unfavorable view of republicans, almost half of whom (38%) harbor a “very unfavorable” view, and over a fifth of whom (27%) view republicans as being a threat to the country. Similarly, 82% of republicans view as unfavorable the democrat party, over half of these (43%) hold a “very unfavorable” view, and 36% (nearly 45% of those in this category) view democrats as a threat to the country.

Look closely, however, and the eight major issues of contention in the above table. What problem do any of the positions solve? Does what the proponents and opponents of each issue advocate serve the principles of American constitutional traditions? Moreover, most of those positions are empty slogans. “Right-to-Life” is not opposed by “pro-choice” advocates; it is simply that the latter deems the quality of life of the mother as a higher priority. Similarly, “Right-to-Life” proponents are hardly anti-choice; it is just that their choice is the one that they believe should be enforced. A larger, wholly ignored, issue however is that there is no agreement on what “life” is. How is it possible to resolve the controversy of legalized aborton when some define life as beginning at conception, whereas others view it as being when the fetus takes its first breath. If we could first come to an agreement on what is life, the debate might well be different.

What we are witnessing at work however is a focus on issues that is the product of ideological simplification. By definition, an ideology is a worldview that explains why things are and how things work. It is not, therefore, a hypothesis that was arrived at through empirical research and trial and error, nor is it the product of a non-result-oriented search to discover what works. It is, however, a simplified, top-down approach to address infinitely complex problems; problems which, because of the myriad of actors within a society, each of whom influences and changes the behavior of others, cannot possibly be correct all the time.

The damage of ideological decision making is not limited to occasional failures. It also exacerbates problems in two crucial ways. First, as a belief system an ideology is a self-contained set of principles built upon one or more major premises or values. These major premises or values are taken as “givens” and thus are not subject to contestation. Thus, each side of the ideological divide cannot debate each other as neither will critically analyze the propriety of their own fundamental postulates. This, of course, leads to the ad hominem assaults that now permeate our political debates. As the Italian economist Vilfredo Pareto observed, “Men follow their sentiments and their self-interest, but it pleases them to imagine that they follow reason. And so they look for, and always find, some theory which, a posteriori, makes their actions appear to be logical. If that theory could be demolished scientifically, the only result would be that another theory would be substituted for the first one, and for the same purpose.”

Second, and both more troubling and fundamental, ideologies lead to a focus on the wrong issues, issues that are not the problem. In the words of Thomas Pynchon, “If they can get you asking the wrong questions, they don’t have to worry about the answers.” Perhaps the clearest example of this is the current debate between the progressives and the conservatives on the benefits and detriments of socialism versus capitalism. This is a false debate. As will be shown in the balance of this piece, socialism is not an alternative to capitalism; under our American system, it is an alternative to liberty.

To begin with, capitalism is a policy pursued in all socialist countries, such as in the United Kingdom, France, Sweden, etc, while the United States, a country that primarily pursues capitalist principles, has also adopted some socialist programs. Thus is it clear that capitalism and socialism are neither opposites nor necessarily incompatible with each other. However both socialism and liberty, as the latter term is defined under our American constitution, are approaches to how our society deals with and protects rights in property, and that is precisely where the conflict arises. The types of rights that are the focus of socialism, for example, are the right to a free education, the right to a guaranteed income or minimum wage, and the right to healthcare. By its very definition, however, since such “entitlements” do not fall like mana from heaven, socialism operates by making claims on property of others.

Our Founding Fathers drafted our Constitution with a focus on property rights. Contrary to current, progressive misconceptions, this was not because they were primarily “propertied” – as we use that term today – patricians. Rather, the term property encompassed all rights to which a citizen was entitled as a matter of natural law, whether tangible or intangible, as a consequence of being a member of a republic that cherished liberty above all things. Indeed, the most valuable “property right” within a free society was not material wealth, but access to knowledge, the principal protector of which is the “property” right of freedom of speech. As succinctly stated by John Adams in his 1765 “A Dissertation on the Canon and Feudal Law:”

Be it remembered, however, that liberty must at all hazards be supported . . . cannot be preserved without a general knowledge among the people . . . And the preservation of the means of knowledge among the lowest ranks, is of more importance to the public than all the property of all the rich men in the country.

The application of this approach to property was expressly set out by James Madison in his March 29, 1792 essay in The National Gazette entitled “Property.” In it he established that under our American system of government, “property” is connected to all of our rights, including things such as freedom of speech and freedom of religion. The truly American thinking of Madison’s day was that a person’s rights in general – separate and apart from material possessions – were also an extremely important, if not the most valuable, part of his property; that, in Madison’s words, one has not only a right to property but a property in his rights. It is worth setting forth the opening of this piece at length:

This term in its particular application means “that dominion which one man claims and exercises over the external things of the world, in exclusion of every other individual.”

In its larger and juster meaning, it embraces every thing to which a man may attach a value and have a right; and which leaves to every one else the like advantage. [The emphasis is Madison’s.]

In the former sense, a man’s land, or merchandize, or is called his property.

In the latter sense, a man has a property in his opinions and the free communication of them.

He has a property of peculiar value in his religious opinions, and in the profession and practice dictated by them.

He has a property very dear to him in the safety and liberty of his person.

He has an equal property in the free use of his faculties and free choice of the objects on which to employ them.

In a word, as a man is said to have a right to his property, he may be equally said to have a property in his rights.

Where an excess of power prevails, property of no sort is duly respected. No man is safe in his opinions, his person, his faculties, or his possessions.

Where there is an excess of liberty [and here the expression “excess of liberty” refers to license], the effect is the same, tho’ from an opposite cause.

Madison’s expansive definition of property therefore was a reflection of his firm belief in his holistic view of human beings as a fully integrated and inseparable combination of both body and soul. The Constitution therefore was specifically constructed to adopt as its primary values, from which all of its specific provisions both were derived and intended to serve, the four cardinal virtues set forth by Plato in his Republic and adopted as an essential part of the Christian tradition; namely, courage, temperance, justice, and prudence.

This formulation of our property right of freedom necessarily deprives us of the false security and veneer of certainty that follows from ideological dogma. But then as Søren Kierkegaard noted, “Anxiety is the dizziness of freedom.”

The ideologues of the left and of the right thus seek to save us from this dizziness that only freedom can offer and seek to give us the inferior substitute of license. As the noted jurist Learned Hand warned,

I often wonder whether we do not rest our hopes too much upon constitutions, upon law and upon courts. These are false hopes, believe me, these are false hopes. Liberty lies in the hearts of men and women; when it dies there, no constitution, no law, no court can save it; no constitution, no law, no court can even do much to help it. While it lies there it needs no constitution, no law, no courts to save it.

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© Richard L Wise and RLWise.wordpress.com 2013. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Richard L Wise and RLWise.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.
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