22 September 2011

In which I lay out my political principles for the world to see

The Heathen Republican often makes informative posts about the ideological differences between progressive and conservative atheists.  He recently posted a side by side comparison of the core principles of each viewpoint, mentioning their common points of contention.  This post will in part be a response to his, and in part be a statement of my own political views.

Though political quizzes are hardly an infallible gauge of opinion on complex issues, they tend to consistently plot me just about where my sentiments lie.  I'm near the center, on the left side of the axis, and more libertarian than I am liberal/progressive.
Sort of like this.  (politicalcompass.org)
I don't even like the two-dimensional plot much, but it's the most accurate, easy-to-digest model of a person's political views I've seen yet: personal freedom vs. restriction, economic freedom vs. restriction.  I personally think that foreign policy ought to be the third axis, but that's a discussion for another day.

Am I really a centrist?

I've been calling myself a political centrist for years, mostly out of frustration with both the Democratic and Republican parties.  I realize that many voters who do identify with one party or the other don't agree with the party on every issue, nor with the party's handling of the issues when their candidates are in office.  Maybe I'm too stubborn to pick a side, or maybe I just like standing in the middle and making candidates work for my vote.

I often see the term "centrist" derided as an obsession with balance and compromise between opposing viewpoints.  It's a strawman argument by partisan pundits that centrists believe nonsense like "the truth is always in the middle" or "both opposing opinions are equally valid".  I don't know any centrists who think such things (unless you count journalists who try to force an air of "fair and balanced" into their reporting).

The two sides of any debate often do both have some valid points to them, but once the facts are on the table it usually turns out that one side is more wrong than the other (and often glaringly so).  I define a centrist as one who looks at each candidate and issue on a case-by-case basis and shuns the idea of party loyalty.

I'm not sure what to call myself if not a centrist, aside from attaching the adjectives "left" and "libertarian" to describe the direction my opinions tend to lean.  Perhaps I am a progressive or a libertarian who doesn't quite fit either mold, but these terms have more to do with ideology than today's political arena.  I may only be a centrist in the terms of my opinion of the Democratic and Republican Parties; in another era, I might have held the same principles and had a more favorable opinion of a major political party.

Politics beyond belief

I think that the politics of atheists in this country are fundamentally different from those of the religious majority.  With all appeals to the will of a higher power removed from debate, we can focus solely on what pertains to the material, observable world.  What works?  What doesn't? Which issues are even worth debating?

I haven't managed to find any large-sample polls of the political views of atheists.  Based on my own observations I gather that most of my fellow atheists are liberal/progressive, particularly those involved in the secular movement.  Of those who aren't liberal/progressive, I've noticed that more identify as libertarians than as conservatives.

As a skeptic, I try to question political claims in the same way I'd question pseudoscience or religion.   I'm wary of the human tendency to confuse "ought" with "is" and to become emotionally invested in organizations and leaders, even as I'm sometimes guilty of that myself.  I'm wary of what I see as faith-like concepts, such as "the common good" or "the invisible hand".

The list

Without further ado, here's my contrasting list of progressive/liberal and (secular*) conservative political beliefs, each placed in opposition with its competing idea.  I'll then give my opinion as a centrist below each pair of statements. Some of these are adapted from the Heathen Republican's article, and some are my own assessments of each ideology.  I'll also give an arbitrary breakdown of which side I'm inclined to agree with, in the form of (LL%/RR%).
*I specify secular conservatism because the principles unique to the Religious Right are based in superstition and mythology, which isn't worthy of examining in this fashion.

Liberal/Progressive Value:

Regulated Markets

Free markets often lead to unethical behavior by success-driven corporations and individuals, which often harms consumers and workers.  Government oversight is needed to regulate business practices and establish product safety standards for consumers' protection.  The Federal Reserve System can and should regulate prices by manipulating interest rates.  A minimum wage must be established to ensure that all workers can live on their income. 

Conservative Value:

Free Markets

The forces of supply and demand are the best mechanism available to set prices and determine value; government interference with this process inflates prices and hinders economic growth.  Competition gives companies all the incentive they need to produce safe and reliable goods for their consumers.  The Federal Reserve should avoid interfering in the economy.  Minimum wages are unnecessary and anticompetitive, as they interfere with supply and demand in the labor market.
*Shared by Libertarians

My Opinion:

Anarchy isn't truly a free market; regulate, but be smart about it.

As Alonzo Fyfe at Atheist Ethicist has argued, what we know as "free markets" are really a form of regulation themselves.  Without agreed-upon ground rules in place, selective pressure favors the unethical.  The ideal, then, is to regulate just enough to keep business honest without stifling competition.  Competitive behavior within a market system is indeed the single best tool to promote prosperity, but economic actors (whether corporations or individuals) are not omniscient automatons.  They are still capable of irrational and sometimes unethical behavior, and cannot always foresee the outcomes of their actions.  The same can be said of the government.  Economic regulations should be designed to prevent harm to people's lives and livelihoods by unethical business practices, and to mitigate the damage to the same by a recession.  The regulations shouldn't reach an inch beyond that goal.  (40/60)

Liberal/Progressive Value:

Social Justice

Individuals in poor economic positions are usually there for no fault of their own.  Even those who have made bad financial decisions do not deserve to die in the street.  It is the responsibility of society to ensure that everyone has access to nutritious food, clean water, shelter, and medical care. This need must be met by consistently funded government programs and cannot be left to the whims of the voluntarily generous alone.

Conservative Value:

Personal Accountability

Individuals who "fall on hard times" are often reaping the consequences of irresponsibility.  People should live within their means and prepare for crisis rather than expecting others to bail them out. The chronically unemployed are dependent on the taxpayers and have no motivation to find work. Aid for the poor is best provided by voluntary donations from generous individuals and organizations.
*Shared by Libertarians

My Opinion:

Help the less fortunate meet their basic needs, but focus on returning the unemployed to the workforce as soon as possible.

A sense of individual responsibility is tantamount to a successful society; the more people work and fend for themselves, the less of a burden those who cannot work will be on society as a whole.  Financial success doesn't correlate perfectly with responsibility, and sometimes hardworking people simply can't make ends meet.  I think that most people feel empathy for their fellow humans and would not willfully let others die from malnutrition, exposure, or lack of medical attention.  We can act on that empathy without becoming enablers of irresponsible or self-destructive behavior by making education and rehabilitation the focus of social aid programs.  Generous donations and private nonprofit organizations can do a great deal to change people's lives for the better, but realistically this safety net must be supplemented by the kind of buying power only a government has.  (60/40)

Liberal/Progressive Value:

Promote Diversity

Women, non-heterosexuals, and ethnic and religious minorities are grossly underrepresented in positions of power and highly paid professions. This may be due to unequal access to education and opportunity, unconscious favoritism toward members of the dominant group, or in some cases even deliberate discrimination. To correct these inequalities, the government must actively promote a culture of affirmation toward those who are "different", and must enact legislation to protect their rights.

Conservative Value:

Preserve Status Quo

We don't need to make concessions for people who don't conform to mainstream culture.  This includes people who lead alternative lifestyles, people who do not wish to follow traditional gender roles, and people who wish to overtly express their foreign cultural or religious identity.  Traditions such as marriage and family structure do not need to be redefined unless a majority of the people see the need for it.  There is no logical incentive for deliberate discrimination, and the idea that it is still prevalent is a left-wing myth.

My Opinion:

Teach tolerance and make reasonable accommodations, but don't patronize.

I would love to believe that deliberate forms of bigotry such as racism, sexism, and homophobia are all but dead in this country, but it's naive to think that they haven't had a lasting effect on socioeconomic stratification.  It's also naive to think that these socioeconomic strata don't still influence people's assumptions (this goes for both liberals and conservatives) - we should be mindful of this in our decisions.  That being said, any lingering bigotry today is best fought by tolerance-minded individuals calling out individual bigots on their attitudes, not by penalties imposed by the government.  Social conservatives' attempts to use legislation to "defend" traditions from the evolution of culture are a waste of taxpayer resources and a disgraceful infringement on individual liberty.  (90/10)
*Shared by Libertarians

Liberal/Progressive Value:

International Law (Idealism)

We're part of the world community, and we face issues that transcend our national interests.  It's our responsibility to cooperate and collaborate with other governments and do our part to make the world a better place. We should never make a major military or economic decision without first consulting leaders from the rest of the world.   International peacekeeping organizations need to have more authority over member states; when a foreign government commits atrocities against its people, it has committed a crime against humanity.

Conservative Value:

National Sovereignty (Realism)

The world is a very dangerous place, and we must always be wary of other governments' motives.  Alliances are useful for maintaining stability, but we should never trust an international body to have authority over our nation's economic or military power.  Disease and famine in developing countries should be addressed by NGOs and is not the responsibility of our government.  We should not interfere in other nations' affairs, unless inaction would present a greater danger to our security.
 *Shared by Libertarians; final sentence not shared by Neoconservatives

My Opinion:

Hope for the best, prepare for the worst.

States are inherently self-serving entities; democracies exist to serve their own people, and autocracies exist to serve their own leaders.  It's irrational to expect that a government will help a foreign power unless it stands to gain something as well.  We should look at the world community not as a gathering of loyal friends and spiteful enemies, but rather as a room full of selfish acquaintances who we must trade with, negotiate with, avoid, or sometimes confront.  We should show the world that we mean no ill will by not starting unnecessary wars. Some problems (such as diseases, environmental concerns, and international terrorism) are shared by multiple countries, giving incentive to solve them jointly; we should cooperate voluntarily rather than at the behest of supranational organizations.  If another government does present an irreconcilable threat to our people, we have every right to remove the threat.  (30/70)

Liberal/Progressive Value:

Compassion and Rehabilitation

People who commit crimes often do so out of misguided morals, economic desperation, or mental illness.  Criminal justice should be focused on helping offenders understand the error in their ways and on making them useful to society again.  Victimless crimes such as drug abuse should be treated as illnesses rather than offenses. The fact that a person committed a horrible crime does not give society cause to inflict a horrible penalty.  It's better to let a guilty person go free than to punish an innocent one.

Conservative Value:

Deterrence and Retribution

People who commit crimes do so because they do not fear the consequences of their actions.  Criminal justice should be focused on showing that society will not tolerate crime by making examples of convicted criminals.  Offenders who are truly mentally ill should be remanded to secure treatment facilities, but it should not be abused as a defense.  The death penalty needs to be an option to deal with the most heinous offenders.  Letting a guilty person go free is punishing innocents - the offender's future victims.

My Opinion:

Protect the people from threats to their basic rights - nothing more, nothing less.

People who commit crimes may do so for any of a number of reasons, but in the end the crime has the same effect on the victim.  The purpose of incarceration isn't to punish or rehabilitate criminals - it's to put a wall between them and those they would victimize.  The likelihood of getting caught is a greater deterring factor than the harshness of a punishment.  Rehabilitation should be offered to inmates so that they can return to the workforce as productive citizens once their time is served, but not all offenders can be rehabilitated.  Criminal justice should focus on the rule of law (including those that protect the accused), not on the victim's revenge.  Individual behavior that does not endanger or harm others should not be considered criminal.  (90/10)
*Shared by Libertarians

Whose side am I on?

The mean of my (admittedly arbitrary) scores for each of these value categories comes to a 62/38 split between left and right.  In our binary political system in the United States, this would mean that based only on the ideological principles listed above, I am more likely to vote for Democrats than for Republicans (which has been true in the nearly 9 years I've been of voting age).  That does not, by any stretch, mean that Democratic candidates or Democrat-endorsed ballot issues will automatically receive any votes from me; I have voted for Republican candidates and against the Democrats' preference on ballot issues more than once.

An interesting thing happened when I added scores where I agreed with libertarian values (using 100% whenever my opinion was the libertarian one) - the average came out to 74%.  Perhaps the Libertarian Party would be consistently getting my votes if it were actually a contender for Congressional seats or the Presidency.

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