June 18, 2005

Philosophical Inconsistency

It also amazes me how a person of one political persuasion can interpret one sitution one way and a similar situation in a wholly separate way. My contention is that the lack of philosophical grounding in most political ideologies results in these confusions.

For example, if I were talking to a lefty Democrat and asked what they thought about abstinence in sex education, they'd say that it doesn't work. Our subject would argue that sex is going to happen and it's best to not be scared of it, to deal with it rationally and to make sure everyone knows how it works and what to do. If I asked about gun control - which is really just firearm abstinence - the Democrat would say that guns are dangerous and bad and perhaps even immoral and we should be confining them to only a few aspects like the army and hunting. If I juxtaposed these two responses for our subject Democrar, I would probably hear something to the effect of "but it's different; guns kill people." Yes, it is different; if it weren't different then I'd have no point.

Because they're superficially different but founded on similar situations, it shows that there's a philosophical gap between the two. The first response is libertarian (though hardly all Democrats have a libertarian-esque view of sex; many of them just don't like religious people) in saying that honesty, knowledge and individual responsibility is the ideal response to difficult questions. The second response is conservative in saying that behavior should be controlled and limited without regard to positive or negative applications and it's authoritarian-esque in the application of centralized power and even police coercion to achieve the goal (many social conservatives traditionally emphasized a personal-responsibility style for controlling behavior).

It happens again with health care and education. If I were to ask our subject to discuss education funding, he would almost certainly argue that more money in the system would make it better. If I asked him to compare and contrast the health care spending in Europe and Canada with the health care spending in the US, he'd probably say that they spend less of their economies on medical care and that must mean we're less efficient. Why would he come to these different conclusions? In the first one, more is better to him because it buys more education; in the second one, less is better because he doesn't think it buys more health care. Now, I believe that this is mostly a product of the left-right dispute over whether we should be American or whether we should be European, but that only further displays the philosophical dearth going on in politics. But this is a really simple question: does more money buy more product? Does it buy a better product? That should be a pretty simple question to answer (even if you don't give a yes/no answer).

I'm not saying this is hypocrisy, although certainly one could try to formulate the argument that it's philosophically hypocritical, but I think it's compelling evidence that many people subscribe to particularist politics rather than fundamental philosophies.

This seems to me to be less widespread in liberalism, especially center-right liberalism, and more evident in positivist-socialism, especially of the left. This is easy to illustrate again. I've been doing research on political parties around the world, and in the process I read an English-language introduction to the Indepencence Party in Iceland. They are a free market liberal party, and the explanation of their politics didn't say what they wanted to do, but rather what they generally believed in - like human freedom, individual rights, international accord, economic freedom, etc. They saved the specifics for further down. I've read similar such introductions for left-wing advocacy groups (in the US) and they all seem to offer a shopping list of the things they want, even if it's not obvious how they overlap - the right to choose, protect the environment, stand up for worker's rights, foster diversity, good jobs at good wages, etc. These things could be philosophically connected to some people but the descriptions I've read don't usually attempt to make them any other way except trying to "fight the right-wing." That's just reactionary.

Naturally this is the reason why we come across hypocrisy in more concrete examples of it - like the many Democrats who voted for previous FTAs over the years but won't vote for DR-CAFTA despite having almost identical labor and environmental provisions. That's real hypocrisy, not just philosophical inconsistency. But it's the lack of a real commitment to any philosophy that causes these situations.

Kerry's lack of even a basic philosophy probably cost him the election, because he couldn't even make up his mind where he was on the war or what he would have done about it. This was a glaring example of lacking any guiding philosophy, and he'll always be remembered for this bungle and his famous 'voted for ti before I voted against' quote, just as Mondale will always be remembered as the idiot who promised to raise taxes and Dukakis as the heartless leftist that wasn't moved by his own wife's murder.

There's the lesson; expounding a basic philosophy, even if it's not a terribly complex one, provides political benefits. People know where you stand and they can respect you. While it's true that sticking to your guns (or sticking to your gun control) can mean political defeat, it's only with vision and philosophical purpose that the best leaders are found.


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