Underlying Political Beliefs

In my experience one rarely hears another person describe their most important underlying beliefs: the ones that cause them to think and act as they do.  Labels like "Conservative", "Democrat", or "Religious" are assigned all the time to oneself or others.  But these terms are vague: some Republicans are pro free-trade and others are not; some Christians are social conservatives, others are not.

The limits of the popular labels we hear in the media were especially apparent in the most recent US presidential election.  Why did someone vote for one candidate over another? Ostensibly the dividing issues were things like limited government, immigration, free trade, gender and race issues, and individual personal character.  But why is one person passionate about free trade or sexual identity issues and another person is not?  I argue that ultimately their vote was driven by their underlying belief about the moral nature of human existence and happiness.

The head waters of political division seem to me to stem from a fundamental disagreement between two camps:

  • One camp -- "individualists" -- believes in the moral virtue and happiness derived from individual freedom (the classical definition of "liberal" from which Libertarians are derived).
  • The other camp -- "collectivists" -- believes that moral virtue and happiness is achieved by a society that defines and enforces norms.  They are willing to cede their own freedom and restrict their fellow citizens' freedoms to achieve the norms they believe in. 

This fundamental debate is at least 2,000 years old.  At the extreme, the two views are inherently incompatible.

"Individualists" only value government to the extent that it protects them from being deprived of freedom by aggressors that would harm them or deprive them of their possessions. Whenever a government goes beyond that basic function, it is inescapable that -- no matter how laudable its other goals are -- it must fund them by coercing resources from its citizens, ultimately by the threat of force.   Not only are coercion and government regulation limitations of freedom by definition, "individualists" argue that there moral harm outweighs whatever other claim of moral good the State might assert. "Individualists" believe that individual freedom is synonymous with the economic freedom of voluntary exchange of goods and services (i.e.,  a free market).  They typically believe government intervention in free markets results in unjustified "corporate welfare" and weakens incentives to work.

While many "individualists" may exhibit great personal charity towards others, they also expect free will and personal freedom inevitably results in disparate economic outcomes .  In addition to the random differences in ability that occur biologically, free choices regarding investments and/or how hard someone wishes to work result in different wealth levels.  Those differences can be expected to compound over generations as the children of the wealthy have greater opportunities available to them (despite the old saying that "Wealth is created and lost in three generations").

Note that "individualists" are not "social conservatives." As in all things, they believe individuals should be able to pursue happiness through their own personal choices regarding things like gender identity, sexual choices etc.    As these choices don't endanger other people's personal safety or property, they don't meet the criteria of things justifying governmental intervention.

In fact true "individualists" would not identify themselves as "conservatives."  They have no vested interest in "conserving" the past.  They are quite willing to accept change that does not deprive them of individual freedom.

"Collectivists" are ultimately unwilling to accept social differences that don't agree with their norms.  Social conservatives are an example of this group that would regulate personal sexual choices to conform with their beliefs. Broadly defined, "collectivists" have strong moral beliefs (whether secular humanist or religious) they feel justify whatever means are necessary to enforce them.

More common and politically powerful than social conservatives is the "economic collectivist" group which believes differences in wealth and economic opportunities are morally unacceptable.  They are willing to surrender their own resources, compel others to do so, and legislate preferential treatment of the poor. "Collectivists" strongly believe that "fairness" can be achieved by a government that interjects itself in nearly every facet of the nation's economic and social life.  "Collectivists" implicitly assert that they can define what makes the common man happy (typically defining happiness in material terms rather than relying on more abstract ideas like free choice). They assert they can create a government that delivers this collective social happiness without the systematic fraud, distortion of incentives, and misuse of power which "individualists" believe are inescapable features of "central planning."  Any apparent problem in current government social programs can simply be "fixed" with a new program design or by coercing more resources.

Confusingly, the "collectivists" co-opt the language of the "individualists" by redefining personal freedom as "freedom from want" and "equal treatment under the law" becomes "equal opportunity."

Our society is made up of both "individualists" and "collectivists" -- so we see mixtures of guarantees of "...unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness" in the Declaration of Independence combined with broad social programs like Social Security and Medicare.  People themselves may not be entirely one or the other --- people who support economic laissez faire policies may nevertheless be quite "collectivist" in their wish to impose their religious moral norms on others.

But the fundamental difference in outlook between these two camps explains to me why dialogue between them is so difficult and the political actions of one group is baffling to the other.  They are not trying to solve the same problem.  "Collectivists" are trying to enforce their norms.  They are passionate about social "data", what it means, and how to "fix" social problems.  "Individualists" are trying to preserve their personal freedom.  They believe social problems are not solvable by fiat and attempts to do so only result in deprivation of the individual freedom they view as the ultimate source of happiness.  


Unknown said…
I would submit the credibility complaint that only the section on individualist views contains any citations or external references.
Mark said…
I think you've constructed a straw man out of the "collectivists" that you describe here. You state (without citation) that collectivists believe "differences in wealth and economic opportunities are morally unacceptable". Who do you believe is a powerful economic collectivist currently? Can you find them making this claim?

While I believe that there exists some level of economic inequality which is immoral that does not imply that I believe all levels of economic inequality are bad. There is a large difference between saying "X is bad" and saying "too much of X is bad." Those arguing against economic inequality today are not pushing back against the existence of inequality but the degree.

You've defined individualists as believing "moral virtue and happiness [are] derived from individual freedom." These individualists might say then "I want to live in a society that maximizes my individual freedom." The sympathetic elected representatives of these individuals might then say "I have the responsibility to maximize the individual freedom of everyone I represent." For many, to maximize freedom involves having access to a good education in order to advance economically, it means access to healthcare to be able to earn a wage, it means protection from bigotry and discrimination. Some tenets of freedom are costly (say education) and the elected representatives must find the balance between reducing the freedom of some (say by taxes) to increase the freedom of others. This does not permit arbitrarily high levels of taxation nor does it allow any individual to complain about being taxed for services they don't benefit from themselves. The elected individualist leader must find the way to maximize the freedom of all citizens.

I disagree with the premise that "the head waters of political division...stem from a fundamental disagreement between two camps." The desires you state as belonging to collectivists could easily be those of individualists (being impoverished severely limits the freedom of the poor).

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