The Core Ideological Conflict: Top-Down vs. Bottom-Up

At its absolute core, the difference between conservatives and liberals seems to boil down to one thing: liberals believe that society can be fixed by grand architecture, while conservatives believe it can only be fixed by individual action.

Call it the difference between “top-down” and “bottom-up.”

  • Liberals believe that it is the government’s responsibility to put in place laws and institutions to coerce citizens to act in a certain way. Government can provide a framework to influence human behavior to benefit us all. A better society can be realized through community.
  • Conservatives believe that the only way to influence society in the aggregate is for individual people to take better actions that will organically combine to incrementally form a better society.  Societal improvement is based on the foundation of the individual.

As would be expected, each side disagrees with the other:

  • Liberals believe that the conservative view is flawed because there are situations where no single person has any incentive to change — indeed, it is to their advantage to continue acting selfishly — so they have to be artificially incentivized via external legal and social structures.
  • Conservatives believe that humans are flawed by nature and will resist coercion. Inequalities will exist because humans have naturally differing levels of skill, ambition, and tenacity and should be rewarded as such. Attempts to architect results removes incentives and reduces ambition and achievement which makes society worse over time.

In A Conflict of Visions: Ideological Origins of Political Struggles, Thomas Sowell discusses the “constrained and unconstrained views.”  He says, in part:

Visions rest ultimately on some sense of the nature of man—not simply his existing practices but his ultimate potential and ultimate limitations. Those who see the potentialities of human nature as extending far beyond what is currently manifested have a social vision quite different from those who see human beings as tragically limited creatures whose selfish and dangerous impulses can be contained only by social contrivances which themselves produce unhappy side effects.

Sowell argues that attempts of government to equalize the playing field just make the situation worse because natural human self-centeredness will cause the penalized group to resist and rebel. Citizens will resist social architecture.

In How Now Shall We Live?, Chuck Colson talks of the liberal trend towards utopianism, which is the quest for a more perfect society through human intellect without regard to basic human character.

Scientific utopianism…expands government control while gradually sapping citizens of moral responsibility, economic initiative, and personal prudence.

In Colson’s view, expansion of government causes dependence and encourages humans to look outside themselves for solutions to problems, when the ultimate solution is based in human character.

Related to this, Dennis Prager says, in this video from Prager University, that:

Conservatives believe that the way to improve society is almost always through the moral improvement of the individual. [...Liberals] on the other hand, believe that the way to a better society is almost always through doing battle with society’s moral failings.

There’s clearly a common theme: in the conservative’s view, society can only be fixed from the bottom up.

The liberal response to this aggregate point might be found in The Tragedy of the Commons, a 1968 essay (which has since become a generic economic theory) that says there are situations where no one person is incentivized to act unselfishly, and thus all will continue to act in their own self-interest toward mutual destruction.

The example from the essay is a group herdsmen keeping animals with access to a common pasture.

As a rational being, each herdsman seeks to maximise his gain. Explicitly or implicitly, he asks, “What is the utility to me of adding one more animal to my herd?”

Each herdsman gains from adding one animal, but the common pasture can only support so many animals. So while there is an individual gain, there is a common loss because the pasture will eventually be unable to support all the animals:

Adding together the component partial utilities, the rational herdsman concludes that the only sensible course for him to pursue is to add another anomal to his herd. And another; and another….But this is the conclusion reached by each and every rational herdsman sharing a commons. Therein is the tragedy. Each man is locked into a system tha compels him to increase his herd without limit–in a world that is limited.

In the liberal view, citizens are locked in an arms race with each other. If we act unselfishly to the betterment of others, we have no guarantee they will do the same. Thus, the world is full of selfish actors heading toward mutual destruction and it therefore needs external regulation and architecture to ensure we act in a way that prevents negative side effects.

To a liberal, government regulation is often the only way to force citizens to acknowledge that particular individual efforts are having a negative effect on society as a whole, and force collective change for everyone’s long-term benefit.

This is also represented by the economic principle of an externality:

[...] the cost or benefit that affects a party who did not choose to incur that cost or benefit. Economists often urge governments to adopt policies that “internalize” an externality, so that costs and benefits will affect mainly parties who choose to incur them.

Left unchecked, humans unfairly inflict externalities on others. Actions have side effects that negatively affect others, and this can only be curtailed by regulation and legal or social coercion.

So, at its core, the difference between Right and Left appears to come down to how one interprets human nature and the ensuing direction from which we approach our problems:

  • Bottom Up: Do we trust that human self-interest and the improvement of the individual’s moral compass will have a better impact on the world than attempts at social architecture?
  • Top Down: Do we attempt to manage human co-existence by guiding it from a communal perspective where the rights of the individual must sometimes give way to the rights of the community?

The answer to that question seems to be the heart of political conflict, especially in the United States.

Why the Wealthy Subsidize the Tax Burden of the Middle and Lower Class

I have a theory: the U.S. economy requires a significant number of Americans to be stupid with money.  If we ever all got our crap together and started managing our personal budgets responsibly, the economy might fall apart.

Consider this article from Bloomberg this morning: Americans Can’t Help Themselves From Borrowing More on Credit Cards:

Americans borrow more in good times and less during recessions. The driving factor isn’t our mood about the economy. Borrowing seems driven by our credit limits. When banks offer us a higher limit, we use it. When they cut us off, we tighten our belts.

In college, I was a bill collector for Citibank.  Some of the things I’ve seen people do with credit cards just defies belief.

This is why I’m always skeptical about attempts to push tax burdens onto the middle and lower class. Yes, the wealthy pay a lot of taxes (I’ve written about this before, myself), but who else is going to pay them?

You might say, “the 47% need to pay their share!”  Okay, well let’s push $1 trillion worth of tax cuts off the wealthy (who unquestionably pay more than their share) and onto the 47% percent who are freeloaders.  Justice is served!

But…where is this money going to come from?  These people don’t have disposable income lying around that they can just send to the government.  If “Joe 47%” is making $25,000 a year and suddenly has to pay another $1,000 or $2,000 a year in taxes, where is this money going to magically come from?  Based on his current budget, he can’t pay it.

But, you say, he just needs to be more responsible with his money!  He has a flat screen TV and a motorcycle.  He should sell those, and stop buying stupid things!

Yes, absolutely.  Let’s have him stop doing those things and pay taxes with the money instead.  That will clearly be better for everyone….except Best Buy.  Or the entire retail sector. Or the entire economy.  Sad fact: if Joe stops doing stupid things with his money, the economy falls apart.  Joe serves an economic purpose by mis-managing his finances.  Every dollar he spends on something stupid is another dollar which makes the economy go ’round.

Which brings me back to my point: the U.S. economy requires a significant number of Americans to be stupid with money.

This all relates to a larger, more subtle point: the wealthy might just have to pay more in taxes to free up the middle and lower class to keep the economy moving.  Every extra $1 that “Milton 1%” pays in taxes is $1 that Joe can go spend at Best Buy.  And Joe spending that money at Best Buy is what keeps the economy turning.

To sound terribly crass and elitist about it: do the wealthy subsidize the tax burden of the lower class so that the lower class can make them rich?

Milton depends on a thriving economy to make money.  And Joe — multiplied by 250,000,000 — is the irresponsible engine that keeps that economy moving.  Perhaps it’s better for Milton to just pay some of Joe’s taxes so he can keep being stupid with money and Milton can get richer?

If Milton got a $1 trillion tax cut, here’s my feeling on how this would play out —

Milton would love it for the first 2-3 years.  He’s paying less money in taxes.  But Joe suddenly has to pay the government a bunch of money he doesn’t have.  Let’s assume he gets his crap together rather than go broke.  Joe stops buying flat screen TVs, and motorcycles, and he cancels cable, and his data plan, and stops eating out, just so he can save enough money to pay his newly enlarged tax bill.

By Year 5, Milton is starting to sweat.  The economy has tanked.  His business is starting to decline.  Whatever it is that Milton does to be rich is not working that well anymore.  Economic problems have “trickled up” to made Milton’s life harder.

By Year 10, Milton realizes the truth: it was better to just pay a bunch of Joe’s taxes. Distasteful as Milton found that, it was a necessary evil. Ten years on, he has lost so much more money than he ever spent subsidizing Joe’s taxes in the first place.

In summary, the thought process is this…

  1. If we cut taxes for the wealthy, then…
  2. who is going to pay more in taxes, and…
  3. where is that money going to come from, and…
  4. at the expense of what other economic sectors, and…
  5. what happens to the overall economy when those sectors decline?

Yes, the wealthy pay more than their fair share of taxes.  But any “cure” might be worse than the disease.

The Conservative Case for Drug Price Controls?

Reading a book called Rise of the Robots about the increasing role of automation in our lives. The author takes a bit of a detour in the chapter on health care to discuss how the markets are broken. I’m not sure how related to automation this is, but he makes this interesting point:

…every other national government negotiates prices with the drug companies. The result is that Americans, in effect, subsidize the lower drop prices in the rest of the world.

[...] It’s something of a mystery to me why this is not more disturbing to Americans, and to grassroots conservatives in particular. The Tea Party, after all, got started after a famous rant by CNBC personality Rock Santelli, who decried the fact that people with mortgages they couldn’t afford might be subsidized by taxpayers. Why aren’t average Americans more upset that they are paying pharmaceutical freight for the right of the world — including a number of countries that have significantly higher per capita incomes than the United States?

Drug companies are price-limited in other parts of the world, so they charge higher prices in the United States to make up for it. The rest of the world gets a free(er) ride off the backs of U.S. patients.

The U.S. effectively ships billions of dollars overseas by paying the drug companies to provide drugs at lower costs to other countries.  We pay more, so they pay less.

Now, I’m  not blanket condemning this. The are some countries so poor that this might be a unintended humanitarian effort than needs to happen.  But it’s quite interesting to look at from a politically conservative standpoint.  Could this be a rare situation where a political conservative should support price controls in the U.S. so drug companies would have no choice but charge other countries more to level prices?

New Word: “idiopathic”

Basically, a disease that just happens for no reason:

Relating to or denoting any disease or condition that arises spontaneously or for which the cause is unknown.

From an article about Natalie Cole:

The family told the Associated Press the singer died of idiopathic pulmonary arterial hypertension, which led to heart failure. [...] Because Cole’s case was idiopathic, the exact cause is unknown.

I think that last sentence is superfluous. It was idiopathic because it was unknown, not the other way around.  And even then, you’re just confirming the definition there, really.

New Word: “Carapace”

This is a physical word that was used in an emotional context.  Technically a carapace is:

A carapace is a dorsal (upper) section of the exoskeleton or shell in a number of animal groups, including arthropods such as crustaceans and arachnids, as well as vertebrates such as turtles and tortoises. In turtles and tortoises…

Basically, it’s a shell.  I encountered the word in a marvelous book called The Emperor of All Maladies, which is a history of cancer.  In it, the author describes a cancer patient descending into the hell of chemotherapy, and shutting herself off emotionally from the people around her:

Her melancholy hardened into something impenetrable, a carapace, and she pulled into it instinctually, shutting everything out.

“Pulled into it” is clearly a reference to the shell of a turtle, of which the word seems to most often refer (though, technically it refers to the shell of lots of different things).

Feeding Children in Mali

I read a book recently called Triggers: Creating Behavior That Lasts–Becoming the Person You Want to Be.  The book was just okay, but it contained a chilling story that I don’t want to forget.

The book was written by a motivational speaker, and a master of the story and anecdote.  We apparently volunteered in the Third World, and relayed this story about his time in Mali, and of a picture he keeps in his office to remind himself of what he has.

The picture shows the 35-year-old me kneeling next to a Red Cross professional in the Sahara Desert. Behind her is a line of children between the ages of two and sixteen.

The food supply in Mali was extremely limited, so the Red Cross was introducing triage. Any available food would be handed out to children between the ages of two and sixteen on the chilling assumption that children under two would almost certainly die and those over sixteen might survive on their own.

The woman from the Red Cross was measuring children’s arms to determine who ate, who didn’t. If their arms were too large, they were “not hungry enough” and given no food. If their arms were too small, they were beyond saving and also given no food. If their arms were in the midrange, they were given a small portion of the available food.

Id’ need a sociopath’s personality to be unmoved by the experience. But as I returned home to my “normal” life, there was a good chance the memory, no matter how searing, would gradually recede in power. Except I have this photo.

The picture triggers gratitude, as if the 1984 me is coaching today’s me.

I try to comprehend the idea of denying a starving two-year-old food because they will die anyway, and I simply can’t. While I do not second-guess the people on the ground in that situation, and I just can’t wrap my head around a choice like that.

Much like the author kept a picture of the event to remember it, I took a photo of this page in the book, and transcribed it here so that I might too remember.

New Word: “Piscene”

I knew that “piscis” was a astrological sign, but it didn’t occur to me that the word was simply Latin for “fish” and would be the root of other words.

Of or relating to fishes. Having the appearance or characteristics of a fish.

From a passage where the author expresses “piscine ignorance” of how fishes breathe underwater.

(My Chrome browser spellcheck, for the record, has flagged the word as misspelled with the squiggly red underline.)

New Word: “Variegated” and In-Group/Out-Group Bias

An adjective which seems to related originally to colors:

Varied in appearance or color; marked with patches or spots of different colors; varied; diversified; diverse.

It seems to just be another way to state “varied,” perhaps with more emphasis on a series of discrete states or gradients.

Found in the book The Organized Mind in a discussion of “In-Group/Out-Group” bias, which is the concept where we find numerous variations of those people in our “in-group,” but we tend to view the “out-group” as a single, monolithic block.  The example from the book:

Oh Democrats are a very diverse group — we come from all walks of life. Oh those Republicans — all they care about is lower taxes. They’re all alike.

And the usage of the word…

In cases on in-group/out-group bias, each group thinks of the other as homogeneous and monolithic, and each group views itself as variegated and complex.

New Word: “Affordance”

Actually not a new word — I had encountered this once before in a book about why we would never completely rid ourselves of paper. The reason being that it offered “affordances” that digital screens never could.

A noun:

…a relation between an object or an environment and an organism that, through a collection of stimuli, affords the opportunity for that organism to perform an action.

For instance, paper has the affordance of being able to be easily passed around a room of people. Digital text does not currently have that (clearly, however, digital text has affordances of its own).

Found in The Organized Mind:

…[some stores] have made a business model out of [...] products which function as affordances for keeping wayward objects in their respective homes.

New Word: “Abeyance”

A noun:

A state of temporary disuse or suspension.

When discussing a notecard system for remembering things:

You don’t need to carry all the cards with you everywhere of course — the abeyance or future-oriented ones can stay in a stack on your desk.

Something is “in abeyance” or “held in abeyance” when there is no current assignment of ownership.  A noble title is “in abeyance” when there is no one of the bloodline to claim it, for instance. By the same token, I suppose that consciousness is “in abeyance” while you’re asleep.