May 27, 2005

Values and Deus Ex Machina Politics

Politics is way too direct and simplistic the way many people view it. Any value you hold must be legislated as policy or you obviously don't hold the value. If you don't want to increase welfare, you must not want to help the poor. If you don't want expansive environemntal legislation then you must hate nature. It goes on like this to absurd degrees (you don't want to increase Social Security? you must hate families).

Of course, this formula for politics is incredibly child-like. Rather than translating every social preference into a legislative initiative, politics should be generally neutral on such personal preferences. That's the essence of classical liberalism: separating out the right from the good. What's right becomes law; don't steal, don't rape, don't murder. What's good is the free choice to the citizens; choose your own religion, choose your own home, choose your own family.

Politics ought not be a way to simply shape the country in what you like. After all, if you have a preference for pasta should restaurants be encouraged to carry spaghetti at the expense of fish or burgers? Few people would agree to that. Why is it appropriate to decide that the world should have more trees instead of buildings or grasses? Why is it appropriate to decide that car companies or poor people should get money rather than pharmaceutical companies or animal shelters?

It's best to let these decisions be made by each and every person individually. If they value charity, trees or something else then they can patronize, fund or volunteer for them. It's no different than religion. It would be inappropriate for the government to start writing checks to church groups as a way to approve of their beliefs or social role (which is different from hiring people to complete government work and not caring whether or not they're religiously affiliated, an approach I endorse).

The concept of deus ex machina (day-oss ex ma-keen-ah) means god from the machine and comes from a Greek tradition. When a playwright found himself in a bind he'd simply have a god be lowered by a crane-like machine called a machane onto the stage. The god could alter the events in the play to make whatever the writer wanted to happen be the ending. If a character was beset by impossible odds or some difficult task then deus ex machina is the mechanism that allows a writer to simply write away the problem. In the popular Lord of the Rings trilogy, the third movie and book had the two main Hobbits stuck on a volcano and about to be killed. The giant Eagles of Tolkien's world come from nowhere to save them. This is an example of deus ex machina.

The political version of deus ex machina is seeing a problem and expecting a simple intervention will alter. It's a helpful complement to the child-like politics of translatings values into law. After all, even if you had no issue about translating values into law, you'd think twice about it if you knew a wide array of bureaucratic agencies, regulatory structures, US Code revisions and endless budgetary earmarks would be required. But if you delude yourself into deus ex machina politics, then your values can be translated into law with nothing more than cutting a check from the treausry.

I've run afoul of both values politics and deus politics. The values politics is almost invariably meaner (in part because deus politics tends to be from naive and/or mentally unchallenging perspectives). One example I can recall has to do with my wallpaper, which is right now a breathtaking sunset shot from Snake River in the Grand tetons park in Wyoming. I love Wyoming, and though in general I find nature bothersome to interact with, it's still quite a site to behold (from a difference). It's also a hell of a picture. When I showed the picture, in full 1024x768 glory on a net board, I was not so subtly criticized for not supporting the wilderness through environmental legislation.

That's a horribly dishonest and narrow-minded view of the world. Why is it that I am not allowed to appreciate something unless I make it my political priority? Do I have to support corn protections and ethanol programs to enjoy Iowa corn? It's just silly, used as a method to drive a wedge and isolate free market views on the environment, in this case. Since nearly everybody has some good feelings about the environment, it behooves environmentalists to protray the debate as pro-Earth versus anti-Earth.

The analogy that I like hre is simple. I think big box stores like Home Depot, Wal-Mart and the like are wonderful. They are cheap, they have wide selections, they bring TVs and computers into rural areas at affordable costs, and they are more efficient and easier to use than a larger number of smaller stores. But I don't think the government should give handouts to the big box stores. Frankly, if they can't turn a profit, then screw 'em. It's their job to turn a profit - otherwise, sell off to somebody else, who then will try to turn a profit with the resources (or not turn a profit, assuming he can afford the losses). There shouldn't be government handouts to big box stores, whether or not they need it, any more than there should be to small businesses.

So I'm perfectly happy to let these stores twist in the wind if they can't turn a profit, yet I still consider myself an avid supporter of both the right for the stores to exist and their utility for increasing wealth and luxury for the customers they serve. I don't have to support government privileges and handouts to support the institution.

By the same token, I don't need to think that national parks should be given any number of special, anti-market protections that environmentalists would have us give. I like the idea that the parks are there, and I'd like to drive through Yellowstone, the Tetons and others, but I'm not going to say that we need to reorganize the economy to make evertybody poorer, rather than risk some unproven harm to these parks.

Government coercion should not and is not the standard for proving my appreciation for some part of society. I wouldn't go around forcing people to believe in my brand of Deism, I wouldn't make everybody enjoy dipping cheeseburgers in ketchup, and I wouldn't tell everyone to only buy my brand of shoes, electronics or clothes. My preferences are my own, be they religious, economical or environmental.

Hopefully we can get away from both types of deus politics - both the deus ex machina style of one-stop policymaking and the simply deus style of assuming that a group of legislators can act as God in dictating the preferences for others.

This is why Democrats are seldom liberals; any self-respecting liberal ought to realize there's a difference between what's right and wrong (universal) and what's good and bad (relative).

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