May 5, 2014

Three issues on which liberals and conservatives should agree

Let me say at the outset that I am fully aware that attempting to span the American cultural and political divide is a quixotic undertaking.  Still, having looked at that chasm from both sides, I believe I have more to say than someone who hasn’t.  One has to try. 

I need to say, too, that the people I am writing for are more-or-less ordinary human beings and not the weird elites that actually make public policy.  In the first place, no policy maker is going to listen to me, and in the second, the elites already agree on more points than they would like us to believe they do.

1.  Corporate Welfare

I know of no real person, liberal or conservative, who is for corporate welfare.  To be fair, I’m sure there are a few such people out there somewhere – people who either think an infusion of government funds is going to trickle down to them, or who believe that government should be in the business of subsidizing certain things that no one currently wants to buy – but ordinary people from both ends of the political spectrum tend to smell the quid pro quo and view the practice with disgust.

Most liberals have a visceral hatred for all things corporate on the grounds that corporations constitute an unfair and unhealthy concentration of power.  Thus, it requires impressive feats of doublespeak for the Democratic leadership to convince them that a giant subsidy to a donor’s business really is intended to safeguard the workers, save the planet, etc.  It’s easier, by far, to just not mention it.

To the extent to which conservatives dabble in economic theory (and a few of them do) corporate welfare is a straightforwardly unhealthy intervention in the market.  Corporations that do badly ought to be allowed to fail.  The goodness of capitalism, in principle, lies in making desirable goods and services in a way that is efficient enough that buyer, seller and employee all benefit enough from the transaction to want to play the game.  It is horrifying to the free marketeer to have the government pick the public’s pocket to give to businesses that cannot balance their own books.

Corporate welfare is, of course, good for a few big donors and the politicians that love them.  Spend a dollar on someone’s campaign – and get back ten or more in subsidies.  It’s an excellent investment.  Sure (I would have to say to my liberal friends) corporate greed distorts the political process – but (I would have grant to my conservative friends) those favors are only there to buy because there are people in government with the inclination to sell them.

2.  Banking Reform

Nobody liked the crash of ’08, and only a handful of very big banks like how little has been done about it.  There was a great deal of finger pointing for a year or two, and then we got Frank-Dodd, which no one seriously believes will prevent a crash from happening again.

Liberals tend to despise big banks for approximately the same reasons they despise big corporations.  The big banks stand at the pinnacle of their economic inequality argument.  When we are talking about a group of people who, in effect, create enough money to destabilize the economy out of nothing but thin air and clever accounting practices – it is hard to argue.  Some liberals have more nuanced positions, of course, but the sheer titanic vastness of the sums involved is usually enough to enflame the moral instincts of anyone with even vaguely socialist leanings.  Even I will march in that parade.

On the other side, there are a handful of free market purists who cringe at any regulation of any kind as a matter of principle.  There are not many such people, though.  The average conservative likes businesses that make things people can buy and that creates jobs people can do.  Giant banks creating complex derivative investments do not fit that bill.  One can make an argument that a bank that makes a loan to a business is doing something economically constructive and important.  You can’t really make that argument for bundling bad mortgages together into derivatives.

I would go a little further and say that nobody outside of the financial sector is thrilled about the commodification of debt.  If you buy a house, or take out a student loan, you ought to be making a contract a specific lender.  A contract is an agreement between two parties.  The character of the transaction is entirely different if one party gets to treat the other as a commodity and unilaterally sell their part of the agreement to someone else.  Imagine what the bank would say if you could pawn off your debt responsibilities to a bum that agreed to accept them for the cash price of a bottle of liquor.  Or, imagine what your spouse would say if you could just sell your end of the marriage to a stranger.

So who wins here?  The banks and their political cronies (of both parties).

3.  The Security State

“Security state,” frankly, is a term for the squeamish.  When you have mass surveillance, secret court proceedings, secret prisons, a torture policy (even in a state of polite abeyance) and the legal architecture to dispense with civil liberties when the executive bureaucracy determines that it’s expedient – you have a police state.1  Jackboots and black uniforms are a nice theatrical touch, but are not strictly required.

Most liberals, until fairly recently, tended to be solidly against this sort of thing.  I would like to think that most of them still are if it is put to them correctly.  There is always the temptation, however, to be tolerant of state power when it is punishing your enemies.  People tend to forget that a wicked instrument used for what they believe is a good purpose may, sooner or later, be turned against them.  Or, to be more succinct, people tend to believe that the ends justify the means.  I know many conservatives that were not especially alarmed at giving up (or taking away) a great deal of civil liberty in the name of fighting terrorism, but it has now become quite obvious to most of them that the imperial presidency they applauded during the Bush administration is no longer their friend.  After the experience of Nixon, et al, the Left should have learned the same lesson long ago – but then I suppose if people paid more attention to the experiences of past generations, history would have fewer repetitions of the same delightfully murderous chorus.  A meaningfully free society is going to be full of people that you or I don’t like and don’t agree with.  That is, like it or not, what having a free society means.

There just aren’t that many ordinary people, of any political persuasion, that like big brother looking over their shoulder – let alone having big brother tell them what to do.  Edward Snowden split society in an interesting new way.  Leftist radicals and rightwing libertarians both embraced him as a hero.  The real statists at the heart of both political parties knew well he was their enemy.  The press, for the most part, decided that minimizing and discrediting him was in their interest.  Snowden divided us on one very simple question: what is it that matters – the constitutional rights of the sovereign individual, or the cohesion of the official state?  In an era of propaganda and counter-propaganda, Snowden provided an almost poignant moment of clarity.


There is a recurrent theme in all of these issues – that of the interests of the common citizen against the interests of the elite.  I have been to socialist street protests and Tea Party meetings.  There are differences between the two, but there are also striking similarities.  We share a common legacy of the Enlightenment.  No human being worth the name yearns to be someone else’s peon.

1 I make my case against the police state much more thoroughly in an earlier post: