Michael Harrington

Michael Harrington

Michael Harrington is a political scientist, policy analyst, and writer living in Los Angeles. He has extensively researched the red-blue divide in American party politics by focusing on county level census and voting data. He blogs at www.casinocap.wordpress.com and www.tukaglobal.com.

Liberal, Conservative? Po-tay-to, Po-tah-to?

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I recently came across a post on my Facebook page via a friend (a Blue) that linked to a blog post by a writer named Lori Gallagher Witt. Apparently, this post found its way to my feed through a viral sharing on Twitter by some well-known celebrities, the film director and actor Ron Howard among them.

I clicked through and read the blog post, which was an open letter in the form of a manifesto of how Ms. Witt defined herself as “liberal.” I was immediately struck by how little of it defined liberal ideology from any other ideology. It was really a defense of 15 core beliefs by which Ms. Witt defined her political identity. I realized the manifesto was more of a profession of faith, not unlike what many religious groups adhere to. (Ms. Witt eschewed any form of religious faith or belief, adopting a live-and-let-live attitude with a strong tinge of anti-religious secularism. In other words, her religion is modern secular liberalism.)

I decided to write a response to this post in an article for Braver Angels not because I wish to critique Ms. Witt’s belief system, but to address many of the deeply held beliefs that many citizens think distinguish them from their opposition. Rather, I believe most citizens share these beliefs, but understand that implementing policies consistent with these beliefs can lead to divergent political interests.

As Ms. Witt writes, “let’s break it down, shall we?” I will classify her 15 principles into three categories to delineate defining differences.

First are those that seem completely agreeable to most Americans, especially those who go to church [bracketed sections are paraphrased.]

  1. I believe a country should take care of its weakest members.
  2. I believe education should be affordable and accessible to everyone.
  3. [I believe in freedom of religion, and non-religion.]
  4. I believe [LBGT people] should have the same rights [as everybody else].
  5. I believe in government regulation.
  6. I believe we should take in refugees.

Second are those beliefs that carry with them a positive right to goods and services provided by collective society (which means somebody has to produce them, somebody has to pay for them, and somebody has to distribute them.)

  1. I believe healthcare is a right.
  2. [I believe in] fair wages, lower housing costs, universal healthcare, affordable education, and the wealthy actually paying their [fair] share.
  3. I believe in funding sustainable energy, including offering education to people currently working in coal or oil so they can change jobs.
  4. I believe companies should be required to pay their employees a decent, livable wage.
  5. I believe there are far more humane ways to handle undocumented immigration than our current practices.

Lastly are some of Ms. Witt’s opinions of the character of American society, which seem more interpretive than strictly factual:

  1. [I believe] I should pay my [fair] share [of taxes] as long as it’s actually going to something besides…
  2. I believe our current administration is fascist.
  3. I believe the systemic racism and misogyny in our society is much worse than many people think.
  4. I believe in so-called political correctness.

I’m not going to address this 3rd category of beliefs because without extensive empirical data, these opinions are impossible to refute, just like religious doctrine. I make a point of it not to argue with peoples’ beliefs.

Anyhow, Ms. Witt concludes her litany with this statement: I’m a liberal because I think we should take care of each other.

I trust that Ms. Witt is sincerely expressing her deeply held, empathetic political beliefs, but I also don’t believe these beliefs define her differently than a generic conservative. One could easily substitute I’m a conservative because I think we should take care of each other, and receive no objection from conservatives. Perhaps that needs further explanation.

The first category above concerns the extension of equal rights and opportunity in a free society. I don’t believe anyone who believes in American exceptionalism could possibly disagree with these expressions of empathy and compassion for our fellow citizens, or even those who desire to become citizens. Differences of opinion mostly settle on the “How,” or the means to accomplishing those goals. For example, a conservative might ask—how do we make good education accessible to all? Or, how much regulation is necessary to ensure open competitive markets as the ultimate regulator? Or, how do we manage refugee flows to ensure the integrity of our free society? Or finally, how do we best take care of our weakest fellow citizens, or lift them up to where they can care for their own needs?

So, the difference is not who believes or doesn’t believe in these objectives of a good and free society. The difference is over how we achieve them.

Next, we must deal with the more complicated second category of the provision of goods and services. To merely say “healthcare is a right” is a declaration in search of a solution. This gets at a crucial difference between left and right. The left tends to seek positive rights, by which we mean things that must be guaranteed to citizens by the social contract. An example would be free education. Positive rights are different than negative rights, which are inherent to citizenship and must be defended by the legal and judicial system, such as the right to free speech.

The problem with positive rights is that the good or service offered by the government as a “right” to all citizens, what we call a public good, must be produced by someone, and then the costs of that production and its distribution must be paid for by someone else. Liberals see the solution in taxation and redistribution under direction of government agents. This is done in many cases, but a conservative would ask, is it necessary, and is it more beneficial than costly? Obvious cases are the USPS, the VA, the military, police and fire depts and the DMV. (Social Security and Medicare as entitlements are not public goods, but transfer payments.) A conservative would probably side with the economist’s view that public goods are specific and cannot be provided by the private market, are inefficient and often wasteful, but also are politically necessary. They also see these public goods as mostly local and decentralized, not needing centralized Federal programs.

The second category of desirable social objectives, such as affordable education, healthcare, wage growth, and affordable housing, are all societal needs that we hope we can produce in sufficient supply to meet the demand. Conservatives would argue that the public sector is not capable of accomplishing this effectively, and that conceding control over the production and distribution of such to the government apparatus is an unnecessary risk. Nobody really wants to make the DMV the model for good government—but that doesn’t mean conservatives oppose the goal of meeting those societal needs.

This second category of positive rights is also infused by the idea of “fairness.” We all think we know what’s fair. And we all think that idea is determined by universal moral values. The problem is that “fairness” is a subjective notion that constantly seeks a moral absolute, and depends largely on one’s point of reference. In other words, because fairness cannot by measured in any absolute way, what seems fair to me may seem unfair to you. We become lost in relativism. This is the problem conservatives see in demanding everyone pay their “fair” share of taxes. What, exactly, is fair?

Jonathan Haidt points this out by showing that conservatives and liberals have different definitions of fairness: “On the left, fairness often implies equality, but on the right it means proportionality—people should be rewarded in proportion to what they contribute, even if that guarantees unequal outcomes.”

It flows from this that conservatives believe that we can and should guarantee an equality of opportunity, but not an equality of result, and that’s about as fair as we can be. Most of us heard from our parents early on that “life is not fair,” which is true, but that’s why we have many non-political institutions such as family, kin networks, unions, charities, and more to help compensate for the unfairness of life.

After thinking about Ms. Witt’s manifesto, I realized she was just declaring herself a humanist, a claim shared by almost all people who live in harmony among their fellow human beings. Humanism is noble (as long as it is not abused.) Humanists are liberal, conservative, socialist, libertarian, and also non-ideological.

I happen to believe that reds and blues share most of the same deeply held beliefs about American society but differ significantly in how to support those beliefs in practice. Differences in practice can be tested empirically and then converge on best practices. But attacking each other on moral grounds ignores our common humanity and drives us apart unnecessarily. I think as citizens, we want to achieve these goals through successful governance, and not just win elections and ultimately fail to achieve these goals.

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2 thoughts on “Liberal, Conservative? Po-tay-to, Po-tah-to?”

  1. Erica Etelson

    Regarding your observation that “on the right it [fairness] means proportionality—people should be rewarded in proportion to what they contribute, even if that guarantees unequal outcomes” — within that proportionality framework, how do conservatives look at the issue of wage disparity? For example, an Amazon worker makes $15/hour and labors under very difficult (and, in my view, dehumanizing) conditions. Jeff Bezos makes $9million/hour doing work that I think most people would agree is not as tiring, dangerous or dehumanizing. Would most conservatives consider that disparity to be fair or unfair and, if unfair, what should be done about it?

  2. Excellent point to raise because I think unbundling this question about economic disparities can point the way to convergence between our polarized ideologies. I can’t speak for conservatives, but I imagine they would say IF returns to capital and labor are a function of competitive markets then they are just on their face value. Demand for labor is what increases labor’s bargaining power, not wage policy. I would tend to qualify that “if” by noting how C-Suite compensation has subverted that market to create an unjust result.

    The problem we see here between management and workers is largely a corporate governance problem. The root of the problem is in how mgmt and shareholders are paid vs. how workers are paid. Jeff Bezos does not receive a wage of $9 million/hour – this is a calculation of how his ownership stake changes in value minute by minute. On a bad market day, Bezos loses a lot more than $9M/hour, and that risk of loss is key to understanding his outsized returns to success.

    In market economies, ownership and control of productive capital assets are key. A wage is an input production cost that market competition seeks to minimize. Why? Because profit in capitalism is a return to successful risk-taking, input costs are a drag on profits and thus successful competition minimizes such costs (i.e., wage suppression). The irony is that workers assume risk but their risks are mitigated by labor contracts, and so their returns are capped. Residual risks and returns are largely assigned by asset ownership and property rights contracts.

    This seems to put mgmt, owners, and workers at odds, but really only in the short term. The key again is who is taking risks and getting paid for it, and we assign the answer to anyone who has real assets put at risk of loss. Wage contracts can do this, but not very effectively because of the limited structure of legal contracts.

    A wage policy like the MW doesn’t change this in any meaningful way, it’s merely a welfare floor for hourly workers. The C-suite has circumvented market competition by exploiting conflicts of interest on oversight boards to the detriment of other stakeholders, including shareholders as well as workers. When the company suffers loss, shareholders and workers bear the brunt of it, while mgmt bails out on golden parachutes. This is a violation of capitalist moral principles and a sign of malignant cronyism. Shareholders and workers and other debt stakeholders are actually aligned in their interests, but can only really exercise their rights through ownership and control. Labor contracts should demand equity to be rewarded for the risks workers bear and exercise control through an independent oversight board.

    I think the big error of the left in a post-industrial society is to be so focused on wage policy and labor rather than equity participation and defense of property rights. A mistake that became egregious when 2+ billion Indian and Chinese workers entered the global labor supply. Equity not only empowers workers, it aligns the workers political interests with the logic of capitalist wealth creation and the entrepreneurial class. Ownership also can’t be outsourced.

    So, very long explanation of the short answer that the outsized compensation of C-suite mgrs all across modern capitalism is a bad result of bad policy that rewards those who control capital assets while penalizing those who bear risks but are not compensated because their risks are not secured by property rights contracts. Correcting this aligns the interests of Sanderistas with Tea Partiers and just about the entire pension-holding middle class. Bernie is right about the class basis of inequality, but his (and Warren’s) labor prescriptions are doomed to failure (mostly due to Federal Reserve policy that rewards existing asset holders). Selling one’s labor should be a stepping stone to accumulating capital, and our tax policies should promote that.

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