The Fundamental Difference Causing Political Division in Our Time
At the end of 2016, 77% of Americans believed that the nation was divided “when it comes to the most important values,” according to a poll by Gallup. In other words, American politics today is plagued by a vast concerning gap in values. What could be the cause of such great division? What fundamental values are in question? It’s not an easy task to find the underlying cause of all this havoc, but I will in this article propose a thesis which claims that it is all based on a difference in fundamental values, namely, liberty and equality.
Many people might feel that liberty and equality are interconnected, and in one sense it is, but when I in this article mention “equality”, I do not refer to equality before the law, or equality as lack of discrimination, as pretty much all classical liberals hold also these values close to their hearts. The kind of equality which is referred to here, however, is not the political or cultural ones mentioned – as those are core values most people in contemporary society would agree upon – but that of economics.
Within economics we may use the spectrum which goes from radicals on the side of the Communists to that of the Anarchists, where Communists value absolute equality-of-outcome, while Anarchists prefer unconstrained liberty. This difference is best illustrated by the fact that the former seeks to increase government control to achieve their desired ends, while the latter seeks rather to abolish it.
Even in the political division we see in the States today, however, most citizens aren’t radicals. They do – of course – hold fundamental values they have picked up at one point in their lifetime, which is the root to all or most of what they believe as individuals, but few of them express symptoms of being this kind of ideologue. Many of them might not know, or consider, these underlying values, but we can see the distinction if we compare well-educated people like scholars and politicians of their views on this. There’s a moderate division, call it academic division if you will, where these well-educated peoples communicate with one another, and can defend their positions logically to one another, no matter how different their views might be. Their job should be – in my opinion – to always seek truth and knowledge they do not hitherto know of, not try confirming and enforcing the beliefs they already have. Thus, we can best find out more about what the great division is rooted in if we analyze the literature of these scholars quarreling on the subject. I’m convinced that this is a better methodology to understand the division than observing senseless conflicts of information between citizens who may or may not even know what they’re talking about or why they hold the beliefs they’re convinced of. An analysis of academics who believe they have this information seems to be a more prominent step to progress on the issue.
We may first look at the red side of the spectrum. Communist and Socialist philosophers and politicians have insisted since 1848 that there is something fundamentally wrong with free markets and the classical liberal philosophy. That it is unfair for the poor and the working class, because it creates wealth inequality, which allegedly creates a dangerous form of division and elitism. They, for this reason, claim that liberty must be restricted to ensure that their value of equality is preserved. Audun Lysbakken, for instance, who is party leader of the Socialist Left-Wing Party of Norway (SV), stated it in the following way: “such liberalism [non-interventionist] undermines the community and only creates freedom for the few (Lysbakken 2015: 180).” But what does he mean by it undermining the community? And how does it only create freedom for the few? He elaborates the former point on page 265, where he says that:
“We all seek liberty. We all wish to decide over our own life [sic – “vårt eget liv”] and make our own decisions. But we don’t live independently of each other. On the contrary, we live dependently on each other. That’s why we can’t accept that what binds us together, weakens now that we need the community the most. A society where the differences become too big and the market too powerful, is a cold society [assumedly metaphorical for depressing]. It is a warm society we need in facing the big changes that are coming. Someone sees a contradiction in the two words which are so important to me, “freedom” and “together”. But it doesn’t exist any healthy community without liberty for the individual. And I believe the future will show that liberty only exists for a minority without a strong community. They are no contradiction, but each other’s prerequisite. Freedom together.”
This is a less utopian vision than we see many other Socialists and Communists espouse, especially the latter, but its interventionist axiom shines straight through. Markets shall be regulated, or the community will weaken. How is this so? It is because markets cause wealth inequality. This view is, in other words, rooted in an idea of fairness: the world must be fair, and for it to be fair, it needs to be equal. This means equal in terms of outcome. One may perhaps understand where this position is coming from to a certain degree, but the solutions they propose usually seems to end up as an unachievable “quest for cosmic justice (Sowell 2002).” The relevant arguments supporting this position will be mentioned below.
In a speech Thomas Sowell gave for Harvard Club, NY in 1999, he stated the difference between “traditional justice” and “cosmic justice”, to be that the former refers to “applying the same rules and the same standards to everybody,” while the latter means “equalizing the prospects of everybody.” He critiques that many calls the latter for “social justice”, as he states that, “they’re trying to correct not only the inequities that they see in society, they’re trying to correct the oversize of God. Of the defects of the cosmos.” Another way of phrasing this might be that the former wants everyone to have the same environment to succeed in, while the latter wants to correct the mistake of nature which causes some to end better up than others even with the same environment through, i.e., redistribution of wealth.
John Stossel of Reason and Lawrence Reed of the Foundation for Economic Education (FEE) would also disagree with the axiom Lysbakken’s view builds on. Mr. Stossel, for instance, claims that “freedom isn’t fair, if fair means equal.” Now, to be fair with Mr. Lysbakken, it wasn’t exactly equal he directly claimed people should, or desire, to be. We see clearly that he is a Communitarian spirit, but the vague sense of “weakening the community” he is talking about can only be properly understood if one understands it in the sense of economic equality. We can arrive at this conclusion from the first quote I mentioned, where he claims that a free market “undermines the community.” A free market can only do this in the sense of economic inequality. Mr. Stossel states bluntly that he doesn’t care about such inequality: “Globalization and free-market capitalism multiply the effects of smarts and luck, allowing some people to get much richer than others. So what? Inequality may seem unfair, but the alternative – government-forced equality – is worse. It leaves everyone poor.”
Lawrence Reed stated it a bit more lightly, claiming that “free people are not equal, and equal people are not free (4:25).” He is here referring to economic equality, not equality under the law. What he means is that when people are free to use their own money and private property as they please, they will tend to end up differently due to a multiplicity of factors. For instance, he mentions a hypothetical example of a Socialist equality-of-outcome plan being actualized, where private property and income is seized from the rich and distributed evenly throughout the population. He states that, if such a policy took place, it would eventually return to great inequality of wealth, as some people would spend it immediately while others would save or invest it.
Another of the “seven principles of sound public policy” he spoke of was “what’s yours, you tend to take care of; what belongs to everybody, or nobody, falls into disrepair (16:43),” or stated a bit more directly later in the speech, “nobody spends somebody else’s money as carefully as he spends his own (26:16).” All government programs are primarily funded through taxes, which are duly paid by the citizens. What Mr. Reed is saying – rather reasonably – about this system is that politicians are likely to spend the citizens’ hard-earned cash more irresponsibly than the citizens would themselves.
This illustrates an essential value in Libertarian philosophy and might give a hint to that – as Quentin Skinner proclaims – “If you, like [Isaiah] Berlin, think that the fundamental value is liberty, you will continually move towards a Kantian, anarchist direction, for law is liberty’s enemy, for law coerces and coercion is the enemy of liberty (Skinner 2011: 35-6).” Skinner makes a very interesting point here about following the epistemological path of a certain doctrine, for this is indeed a point where the Libertarian view may be taken to its full, consistent extension. But most Libertarians don’t seem to be anarchists. They seem rather to claim that the government “even in its best state is but a necessary evil and in its worst state an intolerable one (Paine 1776: 4).” It is perhaps now clear to many that Libertarians/classical Liberals and Conservatives pay more attention to the means of which to achieve certain ends, while modern Liberals, Socialists and Communists seem to care more about the ends, as ends justify the means, or, “the importance of outcomes that are good for the community outweigh the importance of individual pleasure and pain (see: Consequentialism.)”
Libertarians think that the job of the state is to defend the liberties of the individual. Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes once said that “the right to swing my fist ends where the other man’s nose begins.” In principle this means that one’s actions should only be regulated if it is doing harm to another person’s rights and liberties. John Stuart Mill also spoke of this, which he called “freedom of action unless harm to others (referenced in Griffin 2009: 229).” The reason why so many Libertarians refrain from becoming Anarchists is because they see that the state is necessary to do this, as they believe the state is “the social apparatus of compulsion and coercion that induces people to abide by the rules of life in society (Mises 1927: 7. State and Government).”
Now, how then does this all connect to make sense of the political division? We may now see some underlying values. These values usually only appear indirectly in everyday conversations, arguments and opinion statements – more directly and often among academics, as I’ve already explained. In this sense I will call these disagreements moderate. In addition, doesn’t there seem to be any particular radicalism on the respective sides: Lysbakken isn’t a Communist, and Reed is no anarchist. We are thus not even talking of the most divisive difference, but rather a relative moderate one. In other words, this difference is in itself minor compared to the real one, where it is not a conflict betwixt academics, but rather regular folks. As I explained earlier, “regular folks” usually tend to be a lot less willing to change their position or to accept another viewpoint when hearing a valid argument than scholars would, so I hope to have illustrated the difficulty of bridging the gap here to a reasonable degree.
How should we then attempt to bridge this value gap between ordinary citizens in the States and worldwide? If we look back to Lawrence Reed’s “seven principles of sound public policy”, we may find one in the last principle he mentions. This principle is based on the individual’s character, which includes, for instance, their attitude to themselves and others; willingness to listen to opposing opinions; and being capable of rational persuasion without hostility. The lesson here is essentially to be the change you want to see in the world. We cannot force people to be nice to one another, that would ruin the whole point of nicety. What we should rather do is to take use of whatever power oneself have and apply it for the good of our surroundings and the world. How we may do this in practice is to consider the interests of the other side during an argument. Try understanding the other person’s viewpoint and suggest corrections [NB: in a casual and friendly way, not a hostile one] where you think there has been a false assumption on their side and try to explain an alternative they may find of interest. The main reason, I think, to why many of us dislike having our values challenged is that it’s the best system we know of. If we knew of a better system, why would we keep the one we already have? Try to explain what such value system you have, why you have it, and how it could be of interest to the other person.
Canadian psychology professor Jordan Peterson’s conversation with Cathy Newman on Channel 4 is perhaps the example of this. What essentially happened during this interview, repeatedly, was that Peterson would state an opinion of his, and Newman would say “so you’re saying that”, followed by a statement that’s not even remotely similar to what Peterson said. So, what did Peterson do to get around to Newman, and get her to understand his position? A while into the interview he tackled it head-on and said that “you have a mechanism in your brain, that’s seriously wrong. The data on that is pretty clear.” With some people this confrontation may have caused hostility, but it didn’t with Newman. She rather said that she has been struggling with that issue and continued on as before. As Newman later asked, “why should your right to freedom of speech trump a trans person’s right not to be offended,” Peterson managed to get to the bottom of Newman’s hierarchy in the following statement: “Because, in order to be able to think, you have to risk being offensive. I mean, look at the conversation we’re having right now. You’re certainly willing to risk offending me in the pursuit of truth. Why should you have the right to do that? It’s rather uncomfortable. You are doing what you should do, which is digging a bit to see what the hell is going on, and that is what you should do, but you’re exercising your freedom of speech to risk offending me. And that’s fine. More power to you as far as I’m concerned.” This left Newman speechless for a few second, which made Peterson say “hah, got you.”
What this interview should tell us is to consider each other as persons, as ends in themselves and not as means. With this concerning division that is going on, we must stop considering the other side “dumb” or “stupid” for holding their position. They all have a reason for believing what they believe, and in that sense, as Mises proclaims, no action is irrational. Human action is purposeful behavior (Mises 2008: 11). Thus, we shall judge other for the irrationality of one another’s ideas, not of one another’s selves. For it is the ideas that are wrong, and we can correct one another of them. In some cases, it happens that either both sides of an antithesis may be wholly wrong, wholly right, or partly one and partly the other. In these cases, there seem often to be a mechanism in the brain which deems it unnecessary to think through one’s own position and their defense supporting it, because the people on the other side are all “dumb”, so there’s no point in trying to convince them. This is an illusion the brain creates in order to minimize the amount of work it thinks necessary to do. We must not be fooled by such nonsense. The burden of arguments and evidence is equal on both sides. If you have a position, you should be prepared to defend it, and manage to get others to understand it – though you will not manage to persuade them in all instances.
Jones, J. (2016) Record-High 77% of Americans Perceive Nation as Divided http://news.gallup.com/poll/197828/record-high-americans-perceive-nation-divided.aspx
Lysbakken, A. (2015) Frihet sammen. Gyldendal.
Sowell, T. (1999) Thomas Sowell: The Quest For Cosmic Justice https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WIv4L9M1ECU
Stossel, J. (2014) Equality Versus Liberty https://reason.com/archives/2014/01/08/equality-versus-liberty
Lawrence Reed (2013) Lawrence Reed, Seven Principles of Sound Public Policy https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Fy09YfbNbew
Mises (1927) Liberalism: 7. State and Government. https://mises.org/library/liberalism-classical-tradition/html/p/26
Skinner (2011) Staten og Friheten. Oslo: Res Publica
Channel 4 News (2018) Jordan Peterson debate on the gender pay gap, campus protests and postmodernism https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aMcjxSThD54