Clash of Political Positions

Category:  News & Politics
Wednesday, January 11th, 2012 at 3:00 PM
Clash of Political Positions by Robert Cogan
yale.edu

I taught political philosophy. So I hope to benefit the ongoing controversy between conservatives and others by clarifying some differences among positions. We have different words such as “liberal” and “socialist” to express really different things. Someone who knowingly uses one word to describe something when another is correct is not telling accurate truths and ethically persuading. No brief definition captures all features of a controversial position. But I hope to use non-prejudicial definitive descriptions.  (I’ll make further comments on these positions that are “in my humble opinion” [marked “IMHO”.])

Conservapedia says, “A conservative is someone who adheres to principles of personal responsibility, moral values, and limited government,… [one who] values traditional institutions and practices and supports minimal and gradual change. These include laissez faire policies such as free trade and opposition to business regulation.” Today, it also includes opposition to taxation and spending for programs supported by liberals. The programs opposed are those that exhibit values of liberalism: equality, diversity, tolerance. Barack Obama’s position is part of the controversy, so if Ronald Reagan and George Will are examples of conservatism, I’ll use John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson as examples of liberalism. Ralph Nader and Paul Krugman would be my examples of progressives, and Ron Paul and billionaire David Koch of Libertarianism.

President Obama is repeatedly accused, sometimes of being a “liberal,” a “Muslim,” or of being a “socialist.”  Dictionaries and encyclopedias pretty much agree that a “socialist” is someone who values an economy in which the government owns and completely controls the major means of production (mines, mills, factories, office buildings) and distribution of goods. A further socialist ideal is that production should occur to meet human needs for the common good. A group of six political scientists, using a sophisticated scoring system called D-W Nominate, concluded that Obama is slightly “to the right” of an average Democrat in Congress, which would make him best described as a “moderate Democrat” (see “How Liberal is Obama?” New York Times, 538 Blog, 4/29/11.) Yet, even if he was a liberal, the editors of the liberal magazine, The New Republic, in “Protests and Power,” (Nov 3, 2011, pg. 1) correctly say, “Liberals are capitalists…” and conclude: “On the question of how liberals should feel about Occupy Wall Street, [OWS] count us as deeply skeptical.”

Obama has never, to my knowledge, expressed support for federal government ownership and complete control of any major means of production. Nor does the Presidency, under our Constitution, even have the power to take a single piece of productive property away from private owners without due process of law. Regulation simply does not amount to confiscation and redirection away from profit making. IMHO, given the Constitutional limitations of the Presidency, a best response to “Obama, is a socialist, Muslim” is, “SO FREAKIN’ WHAT? The President can’t take away private property, and he can’t convert anyone to another religion!”

Progressives, like me, see America’s political economy characterized in part by two great evils. One is the exploitation, or parasitism by wealth concentrations (“the 1%”) extracting wealth from the middle class and working poor (“the 99%”).  The other is making aggressive wars against far poorer and weaker opponents. I was a liberal until liberals became sellers of the Vietnam War. Liberals (and conservatives) both have told us filthy, Big Lies to get us to send our children, our wealth, and our destructive power to slaughter poorer and weaker peoples. These wars are not mistakes; rather, they are monstrous evils.  Libertarian candidate Ron Paul’s anti-interventionist views make him a very attractive candidate, in that respect.  If corporations are going to profit privately, let them pay for private overseas armies to protect “their own stuff.” Let Americans willing to fight foreigners for their own goals do what they did in the Spanish Civil War: form volunteer, self-funded units, go overseas without our compulsory national draft (and national responsibility.) IMHO, given the extreme limitations on Presidential power, a Ron Paul presidency could hamstring aggressive war making (maybe just until his overthrow.)   But liberals overreact to claims he could do great damage to federal offices and programs. It’s unlikely he could do more than make a symbolic abolition of the Education Department, and its indispensible functions would have to devolve back into a “new” department of “Health Education and Welfare.”

Since the ‘60s, I’ve identified myself as a “progressive.” Ralph Nader’s accomplishments in reform make him an example of progressivism.  Progressives like me believe that humans can best, or sometimes only, cope with some of our problems through group action conducted by government. This does not imply a belief that government is inherently good! Nor does that make all progressives socialists! If a society is as wealthy as ours, I could be satisfied with any sort of economic system in which everyone’s rights to life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness was secure. That would require security of adequate income to get all the necessities of a decent material life, including health care. This is where progressivism disagrees with conservatism in our time. It seems that conservatives oppose using government, particularly taxes and income transfer, to ensure that all Americans have an adequate level of security.

Libertarians emphasize the necessity for individuals to rely on themselves. Some Libertarians are anarchists who may believe government to be inherently coercive, hence evil, and could be abolished entirely in favor of voluntary mutual aid. More commonly, Libertarians are “minarchists,” believing that a minimum of government is necessary to provide protection of life and private property.  That leaves a couple big questions. What are all the things a minimal government should do for protection of life? Does it include providing affordable health care for all? And what about minimizing externalities like combustion caused global climate change?

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