I am becoming vastly uneasy about the current state of American politics. As noted elsewhere,1 the two parties have drawn far apart, staking positions at what used to be the fringes of liberal or progressive views on one side, and of conservative or libertarian views on the other. The middle ground has become a killing zone of withering contempt. The mainstream media and comedians heap scorn on Republicans. Every morning I open my Facebook page to find a cast of friends engaging in an Orwell-style “Two Minutes Hate” against Republicans. On the other side, talk radio and conservative websites openly despise and despair of Democrats.
Courtesy is long gone. We’re now at the stage of open verbal war and take no prisoners. The opposition is insane, witless, evil, disgusting. No word is too vile to use. … My fear is that, if these passions continue to run unchecked, eventually we’ll be at open physical war, a true civil war, and after that will come peremptory jailings, deportations, and ultimately executions of the party on the outside.2 That’s the stuff of inquisitions and fanatic republics.
As a thinker and a sometime rhetorician, I look for what I call “cleavage” issues. These are the planes of argument along which, like a diamond cutter cleaving a stone, the questions fall neatly on one side of a divide or the other. If nothing else, such issues help us understand what we are taking about. Eventually, they may help people examine the issues that divide them and work toward common understanding.
I believe one such divide that’s driving our current politics is the choice between freedom and security.
In the progressive view, the higher good is security. They see people as essentially weak and helpless against the forces of adversity fueled by unfettered capitalism. People need to come together and share collectively in order to reach a common goal. People need to be protected by a benevolent government that will shield them against the effects of natural disasters, market forces, depredations of the rich and powerful, and other rude shocks of the human existence. Progressives can see benefit in economies of scale and so favor a larger, more inclusive governmental organization—usually at the federal level—that can better fulfill this function. Uncertainty is also a form of adversity, and so the government or some nongovernmental organization must provide insurance against loss of life, health, and livelihood, against changing conditions that might upset the established order, and even against progress itself—if progress might lead to an unknowable and unplanned future.
In the conservative view, the higher good is freedom. They see people as essentially robust and capable, able to fight back against, adapt to, or even profit from adversity. People work best when exercising individual initiative and pursuing individually chosen goals. Conservatives place reliance on small, personal units—family, company, church—to decide how to deal with adversity and danger. But more than protection from adversity, they value the freedom to see and take advantage of opportunity. Uncertainty is the fertile ground upon which inventors, investors, and individuals with varied skills and prepared minds can create something new and meaningful. If the future is unknowable and unplanned, that means people still have the ability to shape it and make something of it.
Of course, these views are not entirely exclusive. Conservatives can see value in some functions of a large and powerful government: enabling national defense and international diplomacy, pursuing massive projects like the interstate highway system, and setting national standards for activities like finance and commerce. Progressives can see the virtues of personal choice and action in areas like self-expression, personal associations, reproductive health issues, controversial beliefs, and unpopular choices . But in general, I believe, if you describe an impending situation of unknown effect, the progressive will look for ways to mitigate it, and the conservative to exploit it.
The progressive looks for freedom from: from want, from danger, from exploitation, from injustice, from envy engendered by inequality, from embarrassment engendered by eccentricity. The conservative looks for freedom to: to make decisions, to create a better life, to build something new, to be tested, to overcome, to surpass.
Given these perceptions of which is the higher good, either side is likely to devalue and discount the opposing choice. The progressive will accept more laws and restrictions on personal freedom and initiative if that will reduce the odds of mischance leading to harm. The conservative will accept the risks of failure and loss through hostile action if that will offer the potential for gain, growth, and advancement. The progressive will accept limitations on speech if it means reducing the possibility of giving offense. The conservative will discount the harm done through offense if it will ensure the ability to speak one’s mind.
Again, these views are not exclusive. In pursuit of their dream of freeing women from the necessities of their own biology, the progressive wants no restrictions on abortion, even if it means harm to a potential life. And out of concern for that hypothetical life, the conservative is willing to put restrictions on the freedom of women. Politics is never simple.
Sometimes adherence to the stated choice, freedom or security, requires the partisan to overlook certain obvious complications. For example, in the area of gun control, the progressive is willing to restrict the freedom of law-abiding citizens to defend themselves and instead require them to rely on government counterforce. This flies in the face of two obvious facts. First, the police themselves insist their job is to keep the peace and not to provide personal protection, because they cannot be everywhere at once and cannot guarantee such service. Second, even if all law-abiding citizens could be effectively disarmed, the criminal class would still have access to millions of guns through the black market. Disarming the citizenry only makes it easier for evildoers to prosper. But allowing free access to weapons for a self-sufficient population just feels wrong to the progressive mind.
For another example, conservatives value the “creative destruction” of free-market capitalism. And yes, ultimately, in the long run, on a societal scale, it makes sense to let inefficient companies with out-of-date approaches and processes and lagging technologies fail and die away so that new, nimbler, more energetic, more aggressive companies embracing new approaches, processes, and technologies can thrive. From the consumer’s point of view, this promises the possibility of the best products in the widest possible choices at the lowest prices. From the entrepreneur’s point of view, this offers the greatest potential for monetary gain. And employees in those dying companies are presumed able to retrain themselves in the new technologies and find paying positions in the new companies. This flies in the face of the fact that most people have ongoing, day-to-day obligations—to feed their family, pay the mortgage, put the kids through school—and the disruption of not just losing a job but losing an entire industry is a huge hurdle to overcome. Rapid economic turnover lowers the standard of living for many while creating opportunities for others. In the long run, however, the newer technologies are rapidly replacing people with machines.3
As I said, the battle lines along the freedom-vs.-security divide are not always clear, predictable, or consistent. And yet the cleavage is there.
These differences are instinctual and perceptual, the bedrock of deep-founded belief. That makes them effectively immune to analysis and compromise. For the progressive, the proposition that the freedom of the individual is more important than the safety and orderly functioning of society seems … just … wrong. For the conservative, the proposition that “the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, or the one”4 feels static, smothering, claustrophobic.
In this debate, which side will win is less important to me than the notion that neither side should win. As our political environment careens toward armed warfare, I believe it’s important for both sides to recognize that a society is held together by dynamic tension among opposite values and beliefs in the same way that the universe is held together by the attraction of dark matter and the repulsion of dark energy. Freedom and security are competing values that do not have to be resolved in favor of one or the other, but should be held as equal goods to be applied on a case-by-case basis according to common sense.
When one wins in triumph over the other, then the game is lost.
1. See most recently You Say You Want a Revolution from February 5, 2012.
2. Some would say we’re already there, with the Guantanamo detention of Afghan and Iraqi prisoners without due process, and the violent reaction of various local police departments to various Occupy movements. But these are, so far, exceptions to the general rule of constitutional order. The turnover will come when simple belief and opinion, rather than past action, are held to be equal to treason, with punishment to follow.
3. See The Coming Robotics Age from January 8, 2012.
4. To quote an axiom from Star Trek that paraphrases the philosopher Jeremy Bentham.