Peggy Noonan discovers something Walter Williams and Thomas Sowell has known for a long time. In her column in the Wall Street Journal this morning, Noonan writes about her thoughts and experiences with Andrew Breitbart. After getting the chance to speak with Breitbart in person and softening her opinion of him, she writes:
Afterward I thought again of something that has been on my mind the past five years or so. Longer, actually, but more so with time. In a way the argument between conservatives and progressives is that for the left, everything is about politics. Because they seek to harness government and the law in pursuit of what they see as just and desirable ends, everything becomes a political fight. Conservatives fought that narrow, constricted, soulless view of life: “We are not only political, we have other spheres, we are human beings.” But in their fight against liberalism and its demands, too many conservatives have unconsciously come to ape the left. They too became all politics all the time. Friendships were based on it, friendships were lost over it. “You agree with me? You’re in. You don’t? You’re out.” They became as good at ousting, excluding and anathematizing as Mensheviks and Bolsheviks, as Jacobins. As self-righteous, too, and as adept at dehumanizing the enemy.
I wrote about Williams’ and Sowell’s explanations of this here. And Williams’ column, Conflict and Cooperation explains why, if we put anything into political sphere, we’ll fight about it. We all have different preferences because we value things differently. What’s right for you may not be right for me.
Economists call it public choice economics. You may recognize it as you and your friends deciding where to eat for dinner or what movie to see. In the process, most people compromise to please the group, but nobody ends up getting what they really want. The difference, however, is that you don’t always have to eat with your friends. You can choose your preferred restaurant next time.
But, when we shove anything into politics (i.e. categorical decisions made by crowds) we’re stuck with what the crowd wants and we end up creating major political divides over who’s going to pay for $9 prescriptions. More on that in an upcoming post.
From my interpretations of Sowell and Williams, I think that a better way of framing the difference between conservatives and liberals with respect to government is that the (true) conservative thinks the government’s purpose is to prevent Mr. Jones from infringing on the person or property of Mr. Smith, while the liberal thinks he purpose of government is to permit Mr. Jones to infringe on the person or property of Mr. Smith.
I agree Mike. In these particular cases, though, Sowell/Williams weren’t addressing the differences between conservatives and liberals. They were explaining why fewer people get what they want and why we argue about such silly things when we push decisions into the political arena.
Noonan here recognizes that one result of the progressive agenda is to push a lot into the political arena, which means we have more to argue about. Stuff we rarely argued about when it wasn’t in the political arena.
Thanks for the comment.
Seth, I understand your point and I agree. In the larger context of what Sowell/Williams have written, I think that “progressives” love to push things into to political arena because they believe in government control of or meddling in a multitude of private affairs that conservatives believe should be out of bounds to a more limited government – this includes pushing issues that are correctly dealt with at the state level into the federal arena as well as pushing private, individual matters into the public, collective arena. By doing so, progressives turn my and your private matters into public issues. As such, they rob us of our liberties – which they excuse as long as it’s for a “good” cause. As you rightly note, some of these issues are indeed private and should be left to the individual. Moving them into the political (public) arena, subjects private issues to public opinion and vote allowing others to stick their noses into places they not only do not belong, but into areas specifically out of bounds according to our founding documents.
Seth, I like the quote you pulled out about harnessing government. I feel like so few people really understand the role of government and don’t see that by saying “government should…” they’re forcing their ideas on others, when that’s antithetical to the idea of governments protecting our rights.
Tonight I was watching this PBS environmental design show and it drove me to actually blog my thoughts about this subject. I did find one gem in there: “Everybody says what’s the big answer? There is no big answer, there’s millions of little ones.” I thought the quote was in stark contrast to a lot of the rest of the show, and while I don’t make a habit to promote my “blog” (rarely my own ideas are posted here), I discuss the show and I would appreciate hearing your thoughts on this juxtaposition (shared with your audience since mine’s nonexistent). This “millions of answers” idea seems like something I hear from you a lot, which is why I wanted to share with you.
Hi Ben, Thanks for the comment. Papola and Roberts expressed it well in the lyrics of their rap song, “The Fight of the Century” when the Hayek character sings, “I want the plans of the many, not by the few.”
That one interview does seem to be a stark contrast with how others want to change things. My guess is that the film makers probably weren’t consciously trying to convey one point of view, and this guy just thought a bit differently about how to approach the problems than his cohorts.
But, I will say, I know people who will say such things (like “millions of answers”) and also support more government to help convey their preferred solution and not even seem to realize the two are at odds.
Just this morning, I heard a radio show host mention an article he read about the contraceptive controversy. He said the article began with the woman proclaiming that she wanted the government to stay out of her womb. He thought he was going to find large agreement with the piece, but she followed that up by arguing that the government should force her employer to buy insurance with contraceptive coverage.
She didn’t realize the contradiction in her logic. He said, “I don’t think people even understand their own words anymore.” I agree.
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