Sep 21st, 2012 by Jonathan Goff
I usually try to avoid non-space political posts when I can, especially when I’ve been blogging so infrequently on what I consider to be the core focus of Selenian Boondocks. But, it’s silly season in America right now, and I started noticing an amusing phenomenon a few weeks ago that I thought was worth a quick blog post. The interesting thing about this phenomenon is that I’ve noticed it in the narratives of both “the Right” and “the Left”, just regarding different topics.
What I’m talking about is the phenomenon where people assign blame for a bad outcome to either “bad people” or “bad policies”. Two examples are what brought this to my attention:
Example One: Economic Downturn
The first example is the recent economic downturn. Being a libertarian sort myself, I was expecting the downturn several years before it happened. Housing seemed like an obvious bubble. I thought that Bush and Federal Reserve policies were driving things in a very dangerous direction, promoting people to live massively beyond their means, use houses as giant ATM cards, and generally live in an unsustainable fantasyland. I didn’t figure Obama would do much better, and he “didn’t disappoint” in that it seems like most of his policies have been not to clean up the mess, but to double down on getting people to live unsustainably, propping up the most decrepit and anachronistic institutions in modern society, trying to find ways to prevent housing prices from going back to what an undistorted market likely would want them to go to, and generally trying desperately to avoid facing the reality that many of the institutions of the mid to late 20th century (defined benefit pensions, employee provided health care, public sector unions, Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, trying to keep a Cold War sized military intact, farm subsidies, ethanol subsidies, etc.) were demographically unsustainable, fatally flawed, and need to be tossed on the trash-heap of history. So that’s my biased and somewhat irreverent take on the economic mess. Basically I view the economic mess right now from the lens of “Bad Policy” for the most part. I know that on average, “the Right” tends to view the collapse through a similar lens, though often with a sprinkle of culture/class war thrown in there for good measure.
But when I started paying attention to “the Left’s” take on the economic collapse, I started realizing that to them this was a problem caused almost entirely by “Bad People”. Particularly “greedy fatcats” on Wall Street. These people were just basically pure evil that ruined what was an otherwise perfectly good economy. And the way to fix things is to regulate Wall Street more carefully, get rid of bad people, and tax the crap out of “the Rich” (because they’re the ones who caused this problem anyway).
Personally, I think there’s a mix of things going on here. I think there was a lot of bad policy (most of which is still in place or worse being doubled-down on), and a lot of the 99% greedily reacting foolishly to bad policy, but there were also some people on Wall Street and elsewhere who are probably guilty of fraud or worse. And even when they were staying within the letter of the law, I think there were a lot of people on Wall Street who screwed up royally, and should have been allowed to lose their shirts, but were insulated from the consequences of their mistakes at our expense.
So to sum up, for the economy, “the Left” seems to take a “Bad People” causal position, while “the Right” in general seems to take more of a “Bad Policy” causal explanation.
Example Two: War on Terror
The other example that stuck in my mind was the so-called “War on Terror”. To keep this blog post shorter, I see a lot of people on “the Right” who seem to think that all of our foreign policy problems are entirely caused by “Bad People” and not killing enough of them. The suggestion that terrorist attacks, insurgencies, or other negative foreign policy results might in any way or part be due to our policies or actions is to “justify murder”, “support the enemy”, or generally “blame America first”. In this instance however, “the Left” seems a lot more able to see the impact of “Bad Policies” in these instances.
Once again, I think reality is more of a mix of the two–there are are some genuinely bad actors out there, and there are bad policies which empower bad actors, and get previously not-bad actors or marginal bad actors to move over into full-fledged bad actor-dom.
Corollary: Blind Faith in Specific Public Institutions
One corollary of this phenomenon seems to be a blind faith in specific government institutions. In the case of “the Right”, it’s blind faith in the military, in the case of “the Left” it’s blind faith in economic intervention. In both cases, the purity of the motives of public servants in the particular object of blind faith both cannot be ever questioned and more importantly is believed to be sufficient to guarantee good outcomes. Personally, I think that on average, public servants and soldiers are no worse than the rest of us when it comes to purity and righteousness as it were, but it’s the second part of that–that purity of purpose leads to purity of results–that I am dubious of.
The amusing thing about this is that you get people on “the Right” who decry central planning in economic affairs, who simultaneously seemed to think that having the military convert say Iraq into a democratic paradise and a beacon for the Middle East was possible.
I can’t think of quite as clear of an ironic analogy on the side of “the Left”, though they seem to have a lot more faith generally in the power of governments to successfully shape and mold the human race, while simultaneously being suspicious of power anywhere that isn’t backed up by the power of the state.
I guess the only conclusion I can suggest drawing is that placing blind faith in any mortal institution is probably not a wise idea. And that it’s worth trying to take a look at the arguments of “the other side”, because often there’s legitimate insights to be learned, and the truth is often more nuanced than simple narratives (including this one) would lead you to believe?
Anyhow, I thank those of you who actually bothered to read this for letting me indulge in silly political reasoning. I’ll try to get back to more space-relevant stuff soon.