Politics, philosophy, religion, and other things

Monday, May 14, 2007

Trusting government

Ryan asks me in comments:
As someone who seems to have confidence that his developing views [on politics] are important and matter, how do you maintain the zeal to put forth your argumemts with optimism? do you believe that this system can be saved? And if so, on what basis?
I think Ryan is mainly accurate in describing my current attitude towards political issues. I am more zealous, more enthusiastic, and more optimistic about politics than I've probably ever been in my life. Part of my enthusiasm is simply the result of developing a more coherent political philosophy rather than the hodgepodge of ideas and attitudes I had previously tried to mash together. Also, my zeal is a result of my increasing optimism--it's easier for me to get excited about something in which I think we can make real progress. However, probably the most important element is that the substantive political and moral ideas I now hold demand of me a greater appreciation of the importance of political life.

While I've always been politically involved, I think my earliest influences (primarily from my father) was a Reaganesque distrust of "big government." I took Thoreau as a model, especially such slogans as, "That government governs best, which governs least." Because I had such a strong distrust of government my political ideology was always defensive--always a matter of trying to prevent the government from usurping more of our civil liberties (my involvement in anti-abortion activities was the exception--but still defensible on Millian harm principles). Unfortunately, this defensiveness meant that political involvement could only be somewhat exhausting and easily provoke bitterness.

This began to change when I left Christianity. The form of religion that I had grown up in viewed general human society with great suspicion and so based the reasons for action in the supernatural commands of God rather than the ordinary world that human experience. So I began to realize that I would have to change my attitudes towards towards the communities in which I lived. The result was the development of an ethic explicitly based on human experience and needs rather than divine prerogatives. It was but a short step to the further realization that politics was simply morality in a communal space, i.e. normal human experience, and so just as important as the religious motivations that had previously driven me.

That is probably the biggest reason why I have become more passionate about politics. I began to become more optimistic about politics and the constructive role of government in general as I began to realize how much of my childhood distrust was the result of Republican propaganda and prejudice. I was worried about individual liberties and freedom being constrained by the government and convinced of the inevitable incompetence of any government program.

Two things changed this attitude. One was my growing awareness that the government was only one way in which you could lose your liberties. I began to see that in fact the priorities of the large corporations often run counter to the interests and liberties of their employees or customers. So the government could have a positive role in constraining the power of capital. Furthermore, I began to realize that contrary to what I had previously thought, the government not only could do some jobs better than private industry. For instance, Social Security was and still remains much more effective in achieving the goals of old age security than anything that private industry has achieved on its own. Perhaps even more noteworthy is the comparison between the VA hospital system, which is almost universally regarded as the most successful health care program in the country even though it actually spends less money than most private insurance programs.

So overall I would say that I gained a political viewpoint which grants a positive role for government in American society.

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