Sunday, February 16, 2014

Life in the southwest quadrant

There's abundant evidence for the need of it. The old one-dimensional categories of 'right' and 'left', established for the seating arrangement of the French National Assembly of 1789, are overly simplistic for today's complex political landscape. For example, who are the 'conservatives' in today's Russia? Are they the unreconstructed Stalinists, or the reformers who have adopted the right-wing views of conservatives like Margaret Thatcher? (The Political Compass)

The designers of The Political Compass website make the case that rather than a linear political spectrum along which views, and the people who hold them, can be identified as left-wing or right-wing, what is needed is a more sophisticated tool that allows for distinguishing between managed-economy leftists such as Iosif Vissarionovich Dzhugashvili (better known by his assumed name Joseph Stalin) and leftists such as Nelson Mandela and Mohandas K. Gandhi. What distinguishes these two styles of leftist, argue the authors of the website, is their differing attitudes of authoritarianism. While the Marxists who ruled the Soviet Union, China and North Korea were highly authoritarian and ran states in which individual citizens had little personal freedom, Gandhi and Mandela were communitarians of a different kind altogether who were strongly in favor of personal freedoms held in societies filled with ideological and demographic diversity. For the authoritarian leftists it is important not only to control industry, agriculture and the markets but also to control the access that citizens have to information and to impose a uniformity on thinking and opinion. For the more libertarian leftists, it is important to regulate corporations in order to protect citizens from the excesses of corporate greed but to protect the freedoms of individuals from governmental excess.

The authors of The Political Compass have devised a test, which enables visitors to the website to determine their own location on the political and social map. The horizontal axis of the map indicates one’s attitudes about how much governments should be involved in the economy and in markets; the left favors more involvement, the right less. The vertical access indicates one’s attitudes about how much governments should be involved in the personal lives of individuals. The higher one is placed on the vertical axis, the more one feels comfortable with governmental efforts to control the behavior of citizens, the more authoritarian one is; the lower on the axis one is, the more libertarian one is.

The Political Compass situates various political figures from world history on the map. Stalin and Castro occupy the northwestern quadrant, occupied by those who favor strong governmental regulation of both the economy and the behavior of individuals. The northeastern quadrant is populated by every Democrat and Republican presidential candidate since 1980, for all have been relatively laissez faire about the economy but relatively willing to manage ordinary human behavior. The differences between the politicians that Americans consider conservative and those they deem liberal are minuscule; American politicians collectively occupy a remarkably small amount of territory on the map as a whole. About this more will be said below. The southeastern quadrant is home to Ayn Rand and her followers, people convinced that government has no business regulating corporations and markets and also no business regulating such personal matters as marriage, sexuality, the use of drugs, access to abortion and other issues. The southwestern quadrant is occupied by those who favor some degree of regulation of the economy but relatively light regulation of personal behavior; this is where one finds names such as Gandhi, Mandela, and the Dalai Lama, along with such American politicians as Dennis Kucinich and Jill Stein of the Green Party.

Looking at where nearly all the influential American politicians are clustered together, with hardly any room between the dots representing Barack Obama and Mitt Romney and very little room between them and Hillary Clinton and her husband Bill, makes it clear that in American politics most ideological differences are more imagined that real. The media do their best to make it appear as though there is an unbridged gulf between liberals and conservatives, but in fact they are all pretty much on the same page. That page is paid for by corporate special interest groups who spend billions convincing both consumers and politicians that the ideal society is one in which markets are unencumbered by regulations and people all have the same tastes and the same cravings for barely distinguishable products, most of them unnecessary.

American society is—perhaps always has been—essentially delusional. No delusion is more persistent than the conviction that Americans love freedom and have more of it than the citizens of any other country on earth and are eager to bring their beloved liberty to every region of the world. For at least a century and a half those who have controlled the wealth of the nation have tirelessly worked to convince the rest of us that there cannot be governmental regulation of agricultural and industrial production and distribution without governmental interference in the lives of people. Abridging the freedom of a corporation to pollute the environment and pay substandard wages and minimal benefits to workers is carefully presented as leading inevitably to limiting the rights of families to worship as they choose, live where they want to live and own the weapons they need to keep criminals out of their homes. The attitude being fostered was summed up by Ronald Reagan in his often-quoted pithy mantra, “Government is not a solution to our problem, government is the problem” and in his more verbose (for him) claim that “The Constitution is not an instrument for the government to restrain the people, it is an instrument for the people to restrain the government—lest it come to dominate our lives and interests.”

When it comes to limiting personal freedoms, poverty is far more effective at achieving that condition than governmental regulations. According to Jacob S. Hacker, a professor of political science at Yale University, “Most Americans (58.5%) will spend at least one year below the poverty line at some point between ages 25 and 75.” At any given time, 16% of Americans live in poverty, which is operationally defined as a condition of not being able to afford to buy goods and services commonly taken for granted by mainstream society. (Mainstream society arguably takes far too much for granted, but that is a subject for another essay). Poverty is a complex phenomenon that cannot possibly be reduced to a single cause, but there is little doubt that a significant factor in the rise in American poverty is the dramatic maldistribution of wealth in a society that has, since President Reagan’s administration, whittled away at laws and regulations designed to curb the insatiable greed and the feeble social conscience of most international corporations and the people who run them and invest in them. And yet many of the very people whose lives are pinched back by poverty are the most avid supporters of spurious claim that all governmental regulation of anything results in diminished freedom for everyone.

My score on the political compass test was -9.38 on economic matters; that is 93.8% as far to the economic left as the compass measures. On the vertical axis my score was -7.44; that is 74.4% as far to the libertarian side as the compass measures. That makes me an anti-authoritarian communist, pretty deep into the southwestern quadrant. So what would life be like if we south-westerners were to get the upper hand in this country? That may be the subject matter of future blog posts, but a quick sketch would look something like this:

  • Wages earned in exchange for labor would be taxed lightly if at all, and income gained through investments would be taxed rather heavily. Inheritance taxes would be higher than they now are, perhaps as high as 100%.
  • Education at all levels would be provided at no cost to the individual, and students would receive stipends to enable them to meet living expenses.
  • Health care would be provided to everyone at no cost to the patient, through revenues raised in taxes. Pharmaceutical companies and other health-product providers would not be allowed to realize more than a modest profit on their products. (Both these measures have been successful in keeping health costs low in the province of Québec and the Dominion of Canada).
  • Neither the federal government nor any of the states or municipalities would be empowered to pass laws concerning marriage that limit the gender or number of spouses that any one person can have. Any group of people living together for one year and deeming itself to be a marriage would receive all the rights now extended to a legally married couple. Divorce would be granted automatically to any married partners who ceased to live together and who wished their separation to be construed as a termination of their commitment to be married to one another. Marriage and divorce would both be purely de facto rather than de jure matters.
  • The criminal justice system would be oriented entirely toward reforming miscreants rather than punishing them. Sentences, therefore, would be dramatically reduced for all crimes.
  • Recreational drug use would be decriminalized, as would prostitution. Governmental agencies would be established to provide help to tobacco, drug and alcohol addicts who desired help in overcoming their addictions and to provide quality-controlled substances to those who chose to remain addicted.
  • All organized religious institutions would lose all tax exemptions and would be taxed at the same rate as all other commercial enterprises.

The utopian southwest-quadrant nation would be open to anyone who wished to live here, and those who did not wish to live here would be free to leave at any time. The institution of citizenship would for all practical purposes cease to exist. Many of the most expensive governmental agencies, such as the military, the FBI, the CIA, the TSA and the NSA would be significantly curtailed, as would such agencies as ICE. (A nation with open borders has no need of costly and wasteful immigration and customs enforcement). The elimination, or at least significant reduction, of all such agencies would reduce the amount of money the government needs to spend and thus make the tax burden on everyone less onerous.

I take the unofficial motto of my village—“Just South West of Normal”—quite seriously, although I have serious misgivings about the concept of “normal”.