Let’s try a little thought experiment here. What if the problem with conservatives isn’t that they are wrong, but rather than even when they are right their logic is so bad we can’t fairly judge the merit of their positions?
What if their logic is so twisted that it simply short circuits our brains? Their arguments send our thoughts careening like pinballs, bouncing from untruth to non sequitur to logic loop to inconsistency to false conclusion. Perhaps we completely forget to ask ourselves whether their positions might be right, because we are entangled like a kitten in their ball of yarn.
It’s certainly possible. Just because you can’t argue doesn’t make you wrong. I remember listening to our local hippie in 1978. Ed took on Henry Kissinger during open mike at a post-speech Q&A. Kissinger mauled Ed. Ed was right, but he couldn’t out-argue Kissinger.
What if the positions staked out by the right are right or partially right ones, even if they can’t really explain why? What would rational arguments for their positions look like? Gun control. Size of government. Welfare and public assistance. Climate change. Support for Israel. Teachers’ unions. The list goes on. Let’s look at a few of those.
Issue: Gun control. Obviously we have too many guns in this country and they’re in the wrong hands, and it would be better if there weren’t as many. But that’s not going to happen. People love guns, and it’s not just Americans. I have visited over 40 countries, and in every one I can remember, a significant segment of the population loved guns.
The reality is that whenever enough people really love something, they will find a way to get it—drugs, prostitution, and yes, guns. As we have found with all of those, if the demand exists it is simply impossible to significantly limit the supply, no matter how much effort we throw at it. That’s why England, which has some of the strictest gun control laws in the world, has a handgun problem. So in practical terms we should give up on gun control for the same reason that conservatives should stop making kids sign promises not have sex—it simply doesn’t work.
Most of us progressives can get our heads around an argument based on pragmatism. After all, our progressive positions on legalizing prostitution and decriminalizing drugs are based on that same pragmatic logic. But that’s not the argument the right uses, and we get distracted. Instead of simply analyzing whether gun laws are effective, we end up exhausting ourselves debunking spurious arguments: Their bogus interpretation of the Second Amendment, the idea that home invasion is a real risk and that owning a handgun reduces that risk, or the idea that individual citizens need guns to protect themselves from the black helicopters of a totalitarian government.
Now the totalitarian government thing is worth thinking about. But progressives should be the ones buying assault rifles. If there is a significant risk of totalitarian government in the U.S., it is more likely to come from the well-documented efforts by the Christian ultra-right to infiltrate our military and Justice Department, rather than from the left. And while it is ridiculous to think that an ordinary person with a hand gun could stand up to a trained soldier, an ordinary person with an assault weapon is a formidable unit of force. A Kalashnikov assault rifle gives an armed citizen a reasonable chance against even the best equipped military.
Net/net—the right’s position on gun control is correct, their logic is nonsense, and us progressives should put down our lattes and get to the nearest gun show.
Issue: Size and Role of the Federal Government. The right hates the federal government. Sort of.
- They hate the part of government that collects taxes to pay for things like interstates, public safety, and military intervention. They love the part of government that spends money to build roads, funds public safety and trophy wars.
- They hate placing limits on the amount of money corporations can make. They love placing limits on the amount of money corporations can lose.
- They hate income distribution from them to poor young black people. They love income distribution when it comes from future generations and goes to white farmers, elderly white people, and huge corporations run by and owned by, you guessed it, white people.
- They believe the government should stay out of people’s lives, that is as long as those people aren’t gay, pregnant women or Muslims.
- They believe in subsidized health care for everyone except those who really need it.
- They hate the part of government that buys huge tracts of land for national parks, but love the part of government that lets wealthy ranchers, miners and loggers use those resources for free.
- They despise government subsidies, unless it’s for Cuban-American magnates bulldozing the Everglades for sugar fields or bribes to build a new stadium for the local sports franchise.
- They believe the government should let the market work, unless the bank with their savings in it is about to fail or the loan on the McMansion they bought is underwater. Then the government should do something.
In other words, the right wing is completely inconsistent about the federal government. That inconsistency drives us completely mad. We can’t really deal with the central question of whether a large federal government is good or bad because we are reduced to drooling, twitching wrecks trying to make sense of this stuff. We shouldn’t bother. The only common logic thread here is short-term self-interest, not sound economics or thoughtful policy.
But despite their incoherence, it’s not axiomatic that more federal government is a good thing. We progressives tend to look at Europe, and think that the higher levels of government involvement in Europeans’ lives might have something to do with their extraordinary quality of life. Maybe. Maybe not. Italy has a terrific quality of life and as best anyone can tell they don’t have any government at all. Maybe the quality of life in Europe is driven by other factors, and the large government presence is incidental.
So let’s start with a clean sheet and think our way through this. Conceptually we need a large federal government to manage the economy, support a massive military and force citizens to adhere to common set of basic rules, regulations and laws. That last item is code for not letting Alabama counties throw people in jail for being black. We don’t need any of that, really.
We don’t need a federal government to manage the economy. At a macro level, the invisible hand of the free market really does work. Now whether we want it to work is another matter. It is that invisible hand that is turning cities like Detroit and New Orleans into ghost towns and sending jobs to India. The reason right wing politicos like former Secretary Paulson talk about a free market then chicken out is because the invisible hand is ruthless. Still, it does work.
At a micro-economic level, certainly strong federal governments promote stability and that encourages investment. But federal governments also do lots of bad things economically.
- Government spending does crowd out the private sector. For example, we would probably have private brands of beef on our supermarket shelves if we didn’t have the USDA creating quasi-brands like Prime and Choice.
- Government intervention in the economy creates weird side effects, like the people I knew in New York who used rent-controlled apartments overlooking Central Park as storage units because they were cheaper than real storage. The new Dodd-Frank bill has a long list of banks deemed “too big to fail,” which is already creating untold mischief and will create more. The executives at those banks will make foolish business decisions just like the auto companies do, knowing they have a guaranteed bail-out in their back pocket.
- Also any large centrally planned organization, public or private, is inefficient and costly. Governments are undoubtedly large and centralized. So it’s not clear less government might not be a net positive on the economic front.
If we stop supporting religious crusades in the name of national defense, we don’t need that massive military.
Reducing the size of the federal government wouldn’t reduce the amount of government in our lives, but it would shift it to the states. And each state would be free to make its own laws. Stop and think about that for a moment. What’s wrong with that? Why should my tax money go to keep right-wing freeloading farmers in Kansas happy? Or protecting the rights of gays in Texas? Or trying to provide quality education for black children in Alabama?
Or keeping Arizona from creating concentration camps for Latinos? Perhaps I should spend my time making Illinois better and then when the gays in Texas, the blacks in Alabama and the Latinos in Arizona get tired of that nonsense, they can move here.
Having just spent a week in Texas, my strong suspicion is that if most people in Texas knew they actually had to live under the laws of Texas without the safety net of federal regulation, the roads leaving Texas would be jammed with U-Haul trailers.
A downsized federal government would allow progressives to shape states more like the European model, should we choose. Or not. But it would be our choice. We could pay teachers more. Or less. We could reduce income disparity. Or not. We could raise gas prices to ten dollars per gallon (which would reduce pollution more than anything else we can do.) Or invest more in public transportation. We could put a $10,000 tax on cars produced in non-union states like Alabama and Tennessee. Without the federal government intervention and subsidies, many of the red states would turn into banana republics, eking out a marginal economy off commodity crops, minerals and tourism. We could buy vacation homes there to take advantage of the cheap cost of servants.
Net/net—the right’s position on the size and role of government might be correct. Their logic is…well it’s not logic. It’s not even coherent. I don’t know what to call it. But an over-sized federal government and the arcane electoral system that supports it is what allows a minority of the American people to dictate policy to a majority. They want to get rid of the federal government. So should we.
Issue: Welfare/Public Assistance. The right is against public assistance for three reasons. They perceive it as a major driver of their tax burden. They think people wouldn’t need it if they would just get off their fat asses and work. And they think the money goes to people of color.
Unlike many of their positions, there’s some truth in each of those. It does drive up taxes, although certainly it’s a drop in the bucket compared to corporate tax loopholes, military spending on frivolous wars, or farm subsidies. There probably are some lazy people on welfare, although the idea that anyone can make it up the socio-economic ladder on their own without any help is an idea more palatable to members of the lucky sperm club (business slang for inherited wealth, like Ted Turner, Donald Trump, etc.) than single mothers. And while welfare does go to people of color, it also goes to white people. In particular, it goes to old white people.
Still, there is a problem with welfare. And it’s a whopper. Our system undoubtedly prevents the horrible poverty we see on the streets of India. It also seems to trap people into a perpetual cycle of near-poverty. We now have multi-generational welfare recipients. And I, for one, admit I am uncomfortable with what seems to be a sense of entitlement by those recipients, be they white (as the elderly white Ohioan who allegedly yelled “The government better keep its hands off my Medicare”) or black, e.g., the whining ingrates displaced by Hurricane Katrina.
In an attempt to be kind, we have created a permanent underclass. Those that use welfare as intended, a stepping stone to get past temporary economic dislocation, seem to be the exception not the rule. Maybe, as the saying goes, the poor will always be amongst us, and the best we can do is not eliminate poverty, but instead try to create a little more turnover at the bottom.
Net/net—maybe we should eliminate or drastically curtail public assistance, not because it will reduce taxes, but because it will make poverty temporary rather than permanent.
Issue: Climate Control. I need to be careful here. Climate control is the third rail of S&R. Even suggesting that conservatives might be right on climate control caused a near heart attack in the plush editorial offices of Scholars & Rogues on the 75th floor of Progressive Thinking Towers. After I removed the defibrillator and helped the gasping editor to a comfortable chair, I reminded him that I was saying their position might be right, not their logic.
Their logic is that climate change isn’t real, or if it is we’re not causing it. The first of those is certainly nonsense and the latter almost certainly nonsense. But their conclusion is we should ignore it. And they are probably right, because we will never, ever do anything about it.
Part of that is the nature of the problem. We don’t do well with very gradually progressing problems that are shared across multiple groups of people, like overfishing. We do much better with natural calamities or terrorist acts or anything that is very urgent and specific. The idea that the world can mobilize around this type of problem is just not realistic, Kyoto or no.
Part of it is also that it’s not clear we can do much about it. We have a huge population on this planet and an ever-increasing desire for energy-intensive products, from flat screen TV’s to travel to servers that can host blogs. My sad conclusion, after years of study, is that humans have an insatiable desire for energy-assisted devices, be it corkscrews in the U.S. or toilets in Japan. Even if those of us in the first world backed off, it is unrealistic to think those in the third world will.
Net/net—we are not going to win this one.
OK, that’s probably enough contrarian logic for one blog. So let me leave it there. My point is simple. We progressives should stop trying to decipher right wing “logic” and instead consider their ideas on their own merits. We may well be surprised at where we come out.
For the record, we on the liberal side have our own sets of fools and charlatans, e.g. Cynthia McKinney, who is only marginally smarter and more coherent than Michelle Bachmann. Although, we do have the intellectual integrity to be embarrassed by ours.