11 May 2014

Motivation, nostalgia, and a recovering libertarian

Gee Ollie, don’t feel you have to hold back!
You say I was “condescending … to attribute expressed policy beliefs to the inner mental states of people you don't know and have never meet.”
I’ve never met a terrorist, and you’ve never met Obama (if you did, you’ve kept it to yourself). But we attribute motivations to them and lots of other people we only encounter through second-hand reports. The only way most of us can make sense of the social scene is by attributing beliefs and wants to actors. And it’s a better explanation if the motivations of terrorists, radical conservatives, you, and I fit into a single picture of human motivation.
I’m only an amateur at this, and my attributions of belief and desires are mainly speculative. But if we don’t make room for amateur speculation, we won’t have much of a blog. We’ll bring to the blog the virtues of amateurism: passion and unconventional thinking, but also the defects: lack of specialized knowledge and occasional lack of caution. We’ll expect readers to appreciate the former and forgive the latter. And, of course, we expect each of us to keep the other honest, with gentle correction if we stray too far from what is reasonable.
About your particular criticisms: I used “Tea Party” and “radical conservatives” interchangeably. An oversimplification perhaps. And I didn’t mean to be entirely critical of either. To the extent these tendencies simply oppose tax rises, I’m on-board, sort of. I don’t know what the proper level of taxation should be, but I’m convinced—as is every rational person—that legislators waste an awful lot of taxpayer money, and that one way to make them more thoughtful about spending is to cut their allowance. But I don’t believe that government is always the problem. We should be suspicious of government spending programs, but not automatically condemnatory (is that a word?). If you’ll pardon me attributing motivations to people—legislators—I haven’t met, I think it’s easy for people in power to think they fully understand problems whose details they only vaguely grasp, and to think they can be heroes by ginning up solutions with a lot of money that isn’t theirs. Both tendencies are part of human nature. For the former, we have the evidence of these blog posts, and for the latter, lots of history. We all want ourselves, not others, to be the heroes of our own lives.
You also question my claim that radical conservative positions are at least partly based on nostalgia for a partly imaginary America of their childhood. For one thing, you say Democrats harbor the same sorts of nostalgia, but for different parts of the past, such as a union-dominated manufacturing sector. Too true. Fear of the future and the longing for a simpler past is an emotion that transcends political boundaries. It tends to make me favor gradual change that allows people (myself included) time to adjust, and makes me suspicious of proposals for radical changes in social arrangements. It’s a perspective I’ll bring to lots of these blog posts.
For our readers, it’s probably time I put my political cards on the table. I often describe myself as a recovering libertarian. “Libertarian” because I believe in minimizing government intrusions on personal liberty. For example, I favor legalizing marijuana and any other drugs that are no more harmful than alcohol. And I’m pro-choice, perhaps because as an atheist I don’t trust theologically-based pro-life arguments.
I believe in free markets and free trade, and am generally opposed to government interference in the economy (eg, farm subsidies). But economic activities can generate externalities (eg, air and water pollution) that can justify government intervention. I prefer that any interventions proceed through the price system (eg, carbon taxes). However, each government activity, and each intrusion, is different, and you can’t justify or oppose them en masse simply on ideological grounds.
When I say I’m “recovering,” I mean that while I’m still a registered Republican, I’ve become distrustful of the GOP, which now seems to be going through what I can only describe as a hissy fit. My disillusion with the party goes all the way back to Clinton’s impeachment. As a libertarian, I thought that Clinton’s dalliance with an intern was nobody’s business but Mrs. Clinton’s. Yes, he lied about it, but everyone lies about these matters, and sensible people understand that you shouldn’t ask those questions.
(My Congressman back then was Chris Shays, the only Republican who voted against all five counts of impeachment. He lost his seat in 2008 to Jim Himes, a thoughtful and capable Congressman, and in 2012 lost a bid for a Senatorial nomination to Linda McMahon, a political lightweight soundly thrashed in the general election.)
Despite these misgivings, I voted for W in 2000. In 2004 I didn’t vote. I was dismayed by what seemed a near-pathological response to the 9/11 attacks, most especially the Iraq intervention (about which I was originally ambivalent), but unenthused by the Democratic candidate. I voted for Obama in 2008, mainly because, while I felt closer to McCain on domestic matters, I thought him very much a loose cannon on foreign policy. I still find Obama’s instincts on domestic policy too leftish for me (there is something to Republican complaints that he is a “class warrior”), but he seems generally thoughtful and cautious, especially on foreign policy, and he got my vote in 2012.
In the coming weeks I’ll discuss individual issues, and readers can judge for themselves whether I’m able to surmount my ideological prejudices.

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