the Liberal Viewpoint (an Interview With a Socialist Friend)
Several months ago I began some interactions with one of my most astute– and bombastic– liberal-minded friends, Jim. Via Facebook, I determined to interview him as a means of understanding his perspective. With his permission, I am sharing some of the fruit of that discussion here.
Before I begin, I want to be sure to offer a caveat: this was not intended as a debate (although there are elements of debate involved in the discussion). This was mostly a fact-finding mission. In the wake of the most recent presidential election I wanted to truly understand the fundamental perspectives behind those of the opposing viewpoint.
For that reason, while I will look very forward to your comments and critiques of our conversation, please don’t take it as a forum to call liberals morons. You can disagree with Jim all you want, but in a lot of ways, I have to admit: his brain contains mine.
That doesn’t make him right. But it does make his perspective one that we all have to deal with reasonably and thoughtfully.
George Norman Lippert
First off, Jim, thanks for 1) being willing to be my pal despite our ideological differences. Such things are all too rare, not only now, but probably ever. At least neither of us has called the other a hermaphrodite.
And 2) thanks for answering the following questions. As a conservative who knows reasonable, thoughtful liberals and Socialists (but who is often afraid to engage in actual discussion for fear of being called a hermaphrodite) I have always known there must be answers to the most obvious objections to liberal ideology. There won’t be any “gotchas” in the following– not that I am above trying. This is purely a fact-finding mission, an attempt to prove, to myself at least, that those who disagree are not idiots, slackers or just generally evil.
As a firm believer that “brevity is the soul of wit” and that, when it comes to politics, the number of words and the amount of murkiness are usually proportionally related, I will be working hard to keep this pithy and short.
So let’s start simple: You call your political views Socialist. Can you, in a paragraph or so, define the essential ideology of Socialism as you see it? Do you believe in Democratic Socialism (as hard as that is to define) or good old Stalinist Socialism?
1. No sweat. Heck, I grew up in Indiana and went to Taylor [University]. Most of my friends are Christian, conservative, or both. I would never refer to you as a hermaphrodite. Unless you were one. And were, you know, like out about it, and took pride in it, in which case, it’d be more like a statement of fact instead of an insult. You know. I’d be saying, “Go, hermaphrodite! More power to you!”2. Well, first off, I wouldn’t call Stalinism “socialism” any more than I’d call Hitler’s political philosophy “socialism”, in spite of the fact that that’s what he called it.
When I say I’m a socialist, it means two things: one, that I believe in the right of workers to control the means of production, and two, that I believe government has a central role to play in the lives of its citizens in terms of providing certain essential services.
We’re all socialists to a certain extent. I don’t believe anyone except the real hard-core libertarian fringe seriously suggests putting all the government’s functions into the private sector. The post office, national defense, police, firefighters, schools, public transportation–all of these are examples of state-funded services. And it isn’t a question of the government “giving” them to us–it’s a question of what we, the public, decide to give to ourselves. In a democracy, the government is an extension of the people–the people’s will writ large. I don’t see why healthcare, utilities, and manufacturing shouldn’t also be made public concerns instead of private ones.
In terms of private industry, one could make the very salient case that the government has no right to nationalize all private industry or businesses, and to that, I would agree. But if you reach a certain size, then it’s crazy to suggest that those businesses did it all on their own. You don’t get to the size of General Motors, Bank of America, or U.S. Steel without help from the government in some form or fashion. Megacorporations thrive because of government intervention on their behalf. Why then should the public have no say in how those corporations behave, when they directly affect the lives of the people?
I’m far more comfortable with government control of major industries than I am with private control for two reasons: one, people in government are accountable to the people. Corporations are accountable only to their shareholders. Two, government is, by its very definition, transparent, or should be. Corpocracy is just the opposite.
All too often, what our government does is NOT transparent–and to a great extent, that’s our fault. We need to demand that it is. But at least with government, we do have the recourse to demand it. We do not with corporations.
The mistake that I believe most people make is to conflate “socialism” with “totalitarianism,” and greater government control. This does not have to be the case. Those of us who are not Soviet- or Chinese-style command economy “socialists” (and I don’t believe what those countries have is socialism at all) don’t believe in taking more power away from individuals–we believe in restoring greater power to individuals.
George Norman Lippert
Sounds reasonable enough on the surface, although I imagine there would be a lot of debate about who is better suited to manage any given business– a government mostly interested in how the business can provides jobs and services for its employees, or the business owner most concerned with creating a profit.
Profit has a bad reputation in modern America ( rooted in a relatively new, class warfare-based concept, I would argue) but there’s no question that a profitable business is a business that will continue to hire, continue to provide for its employees, and continue to offer a service or product that the consumer desires. Government, on the other hand, being mostly interested the raw economy of employment, seems historically to view business less as an investment– something that will continue to pay off if managed properly– and more as a fruit to be squeezed, parsed, and ultimately devoured.
Additionally, the conservative would probably argue that transparency is equally as rare in government as it is in the corporate world. Where there is money to be made– and government seems to create a ratio of millionaires nearly as handily as the corporate world– corruption will abound. Although we definitely do have a responsibility to loudly demand it.
Anyway, onward– you mentioned that you have an extreme dislike for former presidential candidate Mitt Romney. Is hate too strong a word? To people like myself, I have to admit that, while you (or anyone else) can well disagree with Romney’s policies or opinions, he doesn’t seem like a guy deserving of great animosity. By all accounts, he is charitable, caring, involved in his community, and a good father/husband. The stories told about him during the convention, while certainly politically motivated, seem to imply a sincerely nice guy.
Obviously, political animosity goes both ways. There are loads of conservatives who make a loud noise about hating the president. The difference (in my humble opine) is that the haters on the right are the fringe. In my church this past Sunday, for example, we were encouraged to pray for the government, get along and find commonality with those of opposing ideology (whatever one’s ideology happens to be) and pray more than complain. This is where most of my conservative friends land. The conservative mainstream does not seem to take pride in hating Barack Obama personally, even if they oppose his policies strongly. Only the fringe kooks on the far right do that.
Conversely, on the left, raw hatred of conservatives, especially conservative leaders, seems virtually to be a badge of honor, worn prominently by even the most intelligent and mainstream liberal-minded people.
So basically, disagreement is one thing, but what’s behind the hate?
After 2008, Detroit’s multiple meltdowns, Enron, Arthur Andersen, WorldComm, the airlines, and too many other examples to mention, I do not see why conservatives still believe that the private sector is somehow inherently better at running large enterprises. I see an almost unbroken record of failure on the part of big business that requires the government to come in and fix it when things go bad.
I don’t mind that it does, either. When business goes bust, it drags an awful lot of people down with it.
There’s a double-standard at work here, George–everyone praises the military, which is a great example of a large, successful, government-run enterprise, but conservatives then run down a whole lot of other large government-run entities… like, again, the Post Office and Social Security (both of which are not only solvent, but make money).
I do not think for one moment that profit is a dirty word in America. Just the opposite, I’d argue that America has a reverence for the wealthy that borders on idolatrous. As for seeming less interested in business as an investment, again, wholeheartedly disagree. I’d point to large-scale government investment in the railroads, the highways, and the Internet–examples of not only businesses, but entire industries, built largely by the government and then turned over to the private sector.
Hate is not too strong a word for Mr. Romney and his ilk. I utterly despise the man. I think he’s a hypocrite, a liar, and a sociopath. Spin and presenting the facts in such a way as to put oneself in the best possible light is one thing, but Mr. Romney did not shy away from absolute blatant falsehoods (Jeep moving its manufacturing facilities to China, for one thing).
I hate his hypocrisy. This is a guy who was born to extreme wealth and unlimited connections, but who preached self-reliance and pulling one up by one’s bootstraps. His father paid his way through the most exclusive schools in the country. This is a man who couldn’t help but succeed. This is also a man who demonstrated in favor of Vietnam, but whose father scored him deferment after deferment so that he could go on a mission trip to France.
I hate how he made his own personal fortune, by leveraging other people’s money into buying out companies, gutting them, firing the workforce, and moving on. And this isn’t partisan rhetoric–these are Newt Gingrich’s words. Bain Capital’s “vulture capitalism”–again, a Gingrich phrase, uttered in the second debate–left thousands of people out of work and moved their jobs overseas. Ampad, Kaybee Toys, the steel mills in KC–the list is as long as my arm.
I see nothing in this man’s character to admire, laud, or emulate. He is symptomatic of everything I hate about America. And that isn’t necessary a liberal position–it’s shared by David Frum, whose conservative credentials are unimpeachable, and Mike Lofgren of The American Conservative. Frum, in a recent appearance on “Morning Joe,” said that Romney’s message was, “Vote for me so I can gut Medicare for everyone under 55 so I can give me and my friends a huge tax cut, which we can justify by saying that half the country adds nothing to the national endeavor.” That’s a Bush I speechwriter, but I couldn’t have said it better myself.
Now as for the hatin’… George, we can talk about perception all you like, but I need numbers. Your perception is that the hate is worse on the Left than it is on the Right. I don’t see it. You may say it’s on the fringe, but if you ask people who are the most prominent Conservative commentators, my guess is that you’ll get answers like Limbaugh, Beck, Coulter, Savage, et al. You won’t get the more thoughtful guys like Frum, Brooks, Will, Kristol, etc. What you call the fringe I’d call by far the most visible. When you say “seems virtually to be a badge of honor, worn prominently by even the most intelligent and mainstream liberal-minded people”–who are they? How many serious liberal commentators made an issue of Romney’s Mormonism (a legit concern, in my book), as opposed to conservatives ones who made an issue out of both Obama’s (fictitious) Islam and his attendance at Jeremiah Wright’s church?
I’d turn the question around. Whence the hatred? You tell me. After Dubya won his second term, did California, Oregon, and Connecticut threaten to secede?
As for a fruit to be parsed, squeezed, and ultimately devoured–Solyndra? That was an example of government actually investing in private enterprise, not milking it dry. Solyndra went belly up, it’s true. But I’d point out that 24 out of the 26 businesses that ARRA financed are now, in fact, turning a profit–which is a better record than that of most venture capitalists, including Peter Thiel, who says that he fully expects a third of the businesses he backs to go belly up. And Thiel is one of the most successful, and respected, venture capitalists out there.
Perception may be iffy, but numbers-wise, the government’s record of fostering and incubating business is pretty good.
And now, if’n I may, and I’m assuming I may, a little brain-picking for you, George…
Whence the assumption that capitalism is the only good, or acceptable, way? Why is capitalism considered to be the only authentic American economic system? Why are so many Christians unquestionably capitalistic?
George Norman Lippert
Interestingly, I was JUST thinking about this while driving this morning, asking myself what the fundamental difference is between these two perspectives. (And I hope you don’t mind if I include this exchange in the blog article).
Ignoring for a moment the myriad gradations within Socialism and capitalism, let’s just say there are two general perspectives from which those basic ideologies spring.
One perspective views commerce as the purview of the government, a privilege granted its citizens in the interest of fostering an economy and providing sustenance. As such, government is the ultimate arbiter of what is fair business practice, what is in the public interest, and, in a word, what is allowable. For this reason, as you say, larger businesses are increasingly controlled and regulated by the government because of the impact they have on the populace. This, of course, would be (in a much simplified form) the Socialist perspective.
The other perspective– capitalism– views commerce as the natural expression of individuals who are free. Freedom being an innate right and not something granted by governments, governmental intervention in commerce is immediately viewed as a usurpation of power and responsibility from the individual– essentially, an infringement of the individual’s freedom.
This is the Christian’s choice, I would argue, because they believe God (or perhaps even evolution, as I will explain momentarily) has established a natural consequential dynamic that, over time, regulates behavior much better than any government could.
For example, look how this dynamic is evident even in the economics of personal responsibility. As free people, individuals are free to choose things that are harmful to them. The capitalist believes the consequences of those choices are the best teacher, instructing the observant on such virtues as moderation, hard work, compassion, and personal health.
The liberal response to the individual’s poor choices, however, seems to be to assume control of those choices on the individual’s behalf (regulations regarding smoking, salty foods, junk food, large sodas, “meatless Monday”, etc). Similarly, the liberal response to commerce seems to be to usurp freedom from the individual business owners for the good of the whole.
To the capitalist, all freedoms are like free speech– we may not like the choices people make with those freedoms, but they should always be unconstrained from exercising those freedoms. The government may no sooner take control or regulate a business because it grows large than they may take control of a person’s speech because they gain a large audience.
Thus, to the true capitalist, even the government “saving” a business is an encroachment of freedom. Freedom, by definition, means the freedom to fail spectacularly. When a huge tree falls in the forest, it makes room for countless new seedlings to sprout, bringing fresh growth and energy to the area. This is not only good, but should be encouraged. The Socialist says “but look at all the jobs saved by the bailing out of GM.” The capitalist says, “But what of all the new businesses and innovative technologies (not to mention long-term jobs) that might have sprouted had GM fallen naturally, as the economy dictated?”
Amusingly, while many Christians (and thus many capitalists) eschew evolutionary theory, they seem to believe in it very firmly as an economic and social dynamic. Good businesses– those that treat their people well and provide a valuable good or service– succeed, thus contributing to a healthy economy and, yes, a strong tax base. Bad businesses– those that treat their people unfairly or provide unwanted or ill-conceived products– fail. Thus, economic survival of the fittest.
But the bottom line is this: Socialists seem to look at the by-product of commerce– employment– as its sole concern, and couple that with the view that business is a privilege that can and should be regulated for the good of the whole. Capitalists, on the other hand, believe the primary goal of commerce is profit, with the pleasant side effect of providing employment, coupled with the steadfast belief that, however it turns out, it is the sole purview and freedom of the individual.
In short (as if that was possible at this point), capitalists argue for freedom coupled with personal responsibility. Natural consequences– getting fat from eating too many Big Macs, ruining one’s business with poor business practices, smoking one’s self into emphysema– are the ultimate teacher and regulator of society. Not the government.
In fact, the capitalist would contend that as the government protects people from the consequences of making bad choices, business or otherwise, it stunts their natural growth and maturity, thus creating a permanent dependent class. This is what people mean by the term “Nanny State”.
One of my favorite authors is Terry Pratchett, whose Discworld series features Death as a character (skeleton with hooded cowl, scythe, and an inexplicable fondness for kittens). Once, Death grew tired of deathing and decided to try his hand as Father Christmas. He gave a little girl the sword she had asked for, to her mother’s great shock. “But I wanted her to have an educational toy!” the mother cries. “She could cut herself with that blade!”
“Well,” Death answers, “That would be educational.”
This, I suppose, rather sums up the capitalist perspective.
Well, I’d consider that a false equation. I don’t believe in the equating of economic “freedom” with any of our other basic freedoms. That was Milton Friedman’s argument, and it failed spectacularly in regard to both Chile and Argentina, both of which had “free market” economies with some of the worst and most repressive records in the Western hemisphere when it came to basic human liberties. I’ll put Pinochet against Castro any day of the week.
I’ve heard the Social Darwinism arguments, but they fall flat on their faces. Human beings are social animals that evolved within a social structure, and more than one evolutionary biologist out there thinks that homo sapiens reached dominance not because it was the strongest or fittest–it wasn’t–nor because it was the smartest–evidence suggests it wasn’t–but because they had the most advanced social structures and evolved to care for each other and guard the weakest among them.
As for a natural consequential dynamic–no way. Look at 19th century economic history which, since 1830’s, experienced a recession approximately once a decade. The Panic of 1908, the panic of 1893, the Panic of 1884, the Panic of 1872, ’57, ’42, and on and on and on. It’s only when we reached a point of increased government regulation–the 30’s, after the grand-daddy of them all (until 2008, which, again, followed a period of de-regulation) that you got some kind of stability in the economy.
Whom does that benefit?
I’d posit a different scenario. I’d posit that it’s the conflation of Christianity/Capitalism/True Americanism by people like Russell Herman Conwell and Coin of “Coin’s Financial School”–and the appearance of the “godless Bolsheviks” on the world scene that accounts for American fear and loathing of that which it considers “socialist.”
Simply put, a fictitious association has more to do with Christianity=Capitalism in America than there is any basis in either philosophy or fact.
America likes this idea of itself as a rugged individual, and we pine for a mythical history where we were all strong, self-sufficient homesteaders, completely overlooking the incontestable fact that, throughout most of the 19th century, the vast majority of Americans lived in dire poverty–either scraping by as subsistence farmers or in urban squalor.
George Norman Lippert
I’ll have to look into all of this. I appreciate the specifics, but I will admit, perhaps to my own fault, that my opinion on these things is based on a sort of fundamental instinct, arrived at by ongoing examination. That examination is, in fact, the motivation behind conversations like this. Thus I hope you’ll allow a bit of time for me to study the details you mentioned here.