Friday, May 27, 2011

Political Oddities

I tend to be pretty cynical toward politics in general and politicians in particular. I’m not a member of any particular political party and probably never will be. I have a friend who has a tag at the bottom of all his emails that says, “In God we trust, it’s politicians we should doubt.” That pretty well sums up my view of politicians. Besides a general distrust of them, I also find their parties to be very odd. I find them odd because their platforms are composed of many differing sets of ideas that often have nothing to do with one another. Nothing. There is no rhyme or reason or logic as to why they have chosen to fold all of the positions they hold into one platform. Instead, their positions are, more often than not, accidents of history that are the result of building political coalitions – bringing together different groups and ideologies under one banner in order to have enough votes to defeat their political opponents. My own country is full of examples of this cobbling together of disparate positions.

For example, what does it mean to be pro-life? In the U.S. it means to be anti-abortion. Now, whether you agree with that position or not, the logic behind it seems fairly obvious:

It is wrong to take innocent human life.
The unborn fetus is an innocent human life.
Therefore abortion is wrong.

What is unusual is the position this issue takes in each of the perspective parties. Democrats are more likely to be pro-choice, and Republicans are more likely to be pro-life (even Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney became pro-life when he decided to run for president). Now, the odd thing about this is that democrats are also more likely to be against things like capital punishment, and aggressive military strategies. And with the Republicans it is just the opposite. Though, of course, you can find exceptions in both cases.

Now I personally believe that these issues are apples to oranges – too different to really be comparable. But what if someone believed that to be truly pro-life you should be against all three? Whether we agree with them or not, we could not accuse them of inconsistency. After all, abortion, execution, and invasion all involve the taking of life. And there really is nothing that says the typical stands that either party have taken on these issues have to be paired together in that particular configuration. A person could just as easily be against (or for) all three, or for and against differing pairs (e.g. against abortion and invasion, but for execution). It all seems rather arbitrary to me.

Another example of odd political pairings, or in this case plain old inconsistencies, comes with most politicians who label themselves as libertarian. To be libertarian means that you want to be free of government intervention and involvement beyond the maintenance of basic services – keeping the roads paved, the mail delivered, basic laws enforced, etc. However, libertarians in both parties apply this principle inconsistently. In the Republican party, libertarians don’t want the government to be involved in things like economics, but typically are happy to let the government make rules and regulations on social issues like gay marriage. Likewise, Democrats that consider themselves libertarians want the government to keep their nose out of social issues, but are happy to let them regulate the economy and redistribute wealth through the tax system. But are either really libertarian? Wouldn’t a consistent libertarian be against government involvement in all areas of life, social or economic? And why do those particular inconsistencies show up so consistently in each party?

Most Americans would be surprised to learn that the party in Australian politics that is roughly analogous to the Republican party in the United States is known as the Liberal party. This would be a surprise because Republicans are generally thought of as conservatives. The reason for the seemingly strange parallel is that the Republican party, generally speaking, holds to a liberal economic position. Again, this would come as a surprise to many American voters because in common everyday usage Republican = conservative, and therefore any position that the Republicans take is labeled conservative. But historically, and still today in many places in the world, the economic position that supports an unregulated free market, laissez-faire capitalism, is considered a liberal position. What Republicans are conservative on is social issues - especially Republicans who identify with the religious right. But again, this marriage of the religious right with the economic left seems rather arbitrary. One does not entail the other. It is not far fetched to think that a person could be for increases in both social and economic regulation. Or likewise, that they could be pure libertarians, and be against both.

The more conservative economic position would be a market in which the government places more controls and regulations on the economy through taxes, tariffs, etc. And this is, generally speaking, the position of most Democrats. This also may surprise some people because Democrats are usually referred to as liberals. And they are, just not on economics. They are liberal on social and religious issues. And again, we have this strange pairing of liberal and conservative ideas – only in the exact opposite configuration – they are liberals religiously and socially but conservatives economically.

Am I the only one that sees all this as odd? Wouldn’t it make more sense if there was some kind of unifying center in each of the parties? Wouldn't it seem more natural to have one party that was against the taking of life on dogmatic grounds and the other that left open the possibility on pragmatic grounds? Or wouldn't it make just as much sense if there was a party that was conservative both socially and economically, and a party that was liberal both socially and economically? 

And these are just a couple of examples – you can do this with almost every political issue you can think of. There is no unifying code of ethics, or political ideology, or even a common theme from issue to issue. It is almost as if every time a particular issue came up, the parties each rolled a dice to decide what position they would take (or more likely, took a poll). The end result being that neither party is truly characterized by a consistent position across the issues. Instead, both look like patchwork quilts sewn together by a blind person.

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