Posted by Kevin A. Straight
Before I begin, I must make a confession: I rarely follow day-to-day American politics. Not only do I find most of the developments tediously predictable, but the vast majority of the commentary–whether from the media or by individuals on social media–is so ignorant that I can barely read it. That being said, I am aware that there is an election coming up. In anticipation of that event, and particularly for those who live abroad or are newcomers to our country, I thought I might lay out some basic notes on the American political landscape as I understand it.
Conservatives vs Liberals
With certain rare (and ultimately unimportant) exceptions the US only ever has two main political factions. While the names change, and are occasionally traded, they aren’t really important. It is better to think of them as a Conservative faction and a Liberal faction. Most Americans have no idea what the two factions stand for, yet are quick to label themselves as one or the other. Many people are under the impression that these labels have something to do with fiscal policy, that Conservatives prefer to pay smaller taxes and receive less from the government, whereas liberals are willing to pay more in return for more. In reality, there are very few true fiscal Conservatives left in the US. The population, despite denying it loudly, is overwhelmingly in favor of big government. Regardless of which faction or sub-faction they belong to, however, they all feel that they should pay smaller taxes and members of other factions should pay more.
The real issue is change (in any form). Conservatives favor actions which will prevent change. Liberals favor actions to accelerate change. Unfortunately, the assumption that a political party can control change is completely unfounded. All of the evidence of history is that change happens on its own, regardless of human interference. The only real choices are whether to ignore it or embrace it.
The climate is changing, and always has been since the Earth was formed. It is irrelevant whether these changes are man-made (although the overwhelming scientific evidence points this way). The only choice is whether to ignore climate change or to make other changes to adapt.
Culture is changing. Conservatives would rather believe that there is a static American culture and that any deviations from this norm are aberrations which need to be corrected. History shows us, however, that a culture only stops changing when it is dead. Liberals would rather engage in social engineering to change culture to their own specifications. Unfortunately, culture is an incredibly complicated phenomenon. Every historical attempt to change it to order has resulted in unintended and usually horrible consequences and has eventually backfired. I draw your attention to the French Revolution, the Third Reich, or the efforts of the Russian Soviet in the 1930’s. The problem is complicated further by the fact that the US, since its colonization, has consisted of not a single culture but a mesh of affiliated subcultures.
Technology is changing, and the pace of technological change has been accelerating exponentially since at least the eighteenth century. Conservatives would like to use new technology without it changing any other factor of the society. Liberals would like to use technology to change the society itself. Neither seems adequately aware of the two-way influence between technology and culture or between technology and the economy.
Finally, the economy is changing. The form of the economy is dictated by technology and demographics (neither of which can be controlled) and (to a far lesser extent) by government policy. There are very few true economic liberals. Both Conservatives and “Liberals” in this country seem to expect the economy itself to remain static while they focus on issues of wealth distribution, ignoring the fact that the economy itself changes over time.
Social class exists in the US just as much as in any other country, even though it has long been fashionable to ignore it. For nearly two centuries the primary determinant of social class has been money. However, many other factors, more or less correlated with money, also play a role. For instance more recent immigrants are generally considered socially inferior to earlier immigrants (although Native Americans have traditionally been near the very bottom). Lighter skinned people typically have higher social status than darker skinned people. Those who speak English as a first language are considered superior to those who speak Spanish, or other languages. The result is a complicated formula that leaves most Americans continually wondering and worrying about where they fall in the social pecking order. This is further complicated by an enduring myth that everyone in America is a member of the middle class, or at least would be if they worked at it (often referred to as the “American Dream”). This idea is patently nonsense, and originated in government propaganda from the New Deal years.
It is a fact that, due to technological and economic factors, the middle class, as a percentage of the population, grew to unprecedented size during the twentieth century. History shows, however, that the middle class generally constitutes only a small fraction of most societies. At present the middle class is again shrinking, which is a source of great angst to most middle class Americans. Most political rhetoric (from both factions) consists of pandering to the middle class and false promises to reverse this trend.
Americans as a whole are fairly wealthy, by world standards. However, an ever increasing amount of that wealth is concentrated at the top. Leaving aside questions of fairness (one of the slipperiest of all philosophical concepts) this is a very dangerous situation. Wealth concentration beyond a certain level always leads to social unrest and eventually to revolution. It paves the way for a totalitarian dictator to seize power, slaughter most of the wealthy citizens, and give (some of) the wealth back to the people. Such dictatorships rarely last more than a generation, but that is beside the point. It is a matter of self preservation for the wealthy to find ways to redistribute much of their assets, either through philanthropy, higher wages for their employees, or higher taxation at the upper levels. If they fail to do so the best we can hope for is a Solon, Caesar, or Mussolini. Analysis of history implies that we are more likely to end up with a Pol Pot, a Robespierre, or a Hitler.
The range of options open to world leaders tends to be dictated by factors beyond their control and is much more limited than their citizens believe. However, dependence on fossil fuels to prop up the middle class and maintain the status quo collapses these options to one. Until America gets her domestic affairs in order, she can’t live without oil and will continue to anything she must to get it. And yes, cars are primarily a middle class status symbol.
My Own Platform
As a philosopher, I am an observer and commentator, not a participant in my country’s politics. As Socrates said, “Do you really imagine that I could have survived all these years, if I had led a public life?”
However, I personally lean towards the Liberal side, in that I accept change and favor adapting to it as it comes. I believe that we need to actively address the issues of social class and wealth distribution while accommodating changes in technology, economics, and culture as they arise. I think that small government is a beautiful ideal which is totally impractical in the 21st century, so we should try to build the most efficient and responsive big government we can.
In terms of social class, I feel that we should establish a formal class system that is divorced as much as possible from income or assets. My preference would be to support a large proletariat, a small middle class, and a smaller aristocracy.
A welfare class is unavoidable, since we literally do not have enough work for our excess population. However, we need to make realistic policies to reduce the size of this class over time. One solution is large scale public works programs (preferably funded from the assets of the wealthy) to give jobs to members of the welfare class, thus converting them into proletarians. A program of voluntary sterilization in return for eligibility for certain welfare benefits might also be useful.
I also believe that we need to recognize a separate class consisting of intellectuals and professional artists, the members of which would be drawn from all classes. People of demonstrated ability in these areas should be supported by the state so they can live roughly as well as the proletariat, but they should be forbidden to file for copyright protection or to make money from their work, which would be made available to all Americans (e.g. in government sponsored exhibitions or by distributing it via the Internet).
Most importantly, we must create well defined processes for upward and downward mobility between all of the classes. Everyone should be able to find their own level, based on natural aptitude. No one should ever be in doubt about which class they belong to at a given moment.
As far as wealth distribution goes, I think it is imperative to periodically remove assets from the aristocracy and middle class and distribute them to the remaining three classes. The obvious tool for this is aggressively progressive taxation. The idea I mentioned above, of requiring the richest individuals to fund large public works projects out of pocket, worked well for Imperial Rome and may also have merit for the US. The middle class is shrinking on its own. I would, however, suggest discontinuing any government programs that exist mainly to prop them up including–but not limited to–tax breaks for home owners and subsidies of the automotive industry.
I fully realize that none of my recommendations are likely to come to pass any time soon. To paraphrase Plato’s Socrates again, “Until philosophers are kings or kings are philosophers, good luck making it happen.”. Still, I felt I would have been remiss to write an essay of this type without mentioning my own opinions.