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Reconsidering my politics

For a long time, I thought economic inequality was basically OK. Sorry, I should rephrase: I thought it was bad, of course, but not inherently harmful. I changed my mind recently, and I’ve been reflecting on why and what I can learn from it.

The complaints about inequality always seemed to boil down to the same thing: fairness. Inequality is unfair, so it’s wrong. I’m human, so I’m naturally sensitive to fairness, but it still didn’t sit right with me. I just didn’t see the concrete harm. A rising tide lifts all boats, so if poor people still have a good quality of life, what’s wrong with rich people being rich? Plus, incentives are important, so we want to reward people who work hard and create value, right? Not to mention that we’ve never found a reasonable, effective way to prevent inequality. Socialism and its cousins clearly aren’t it.

I flattered myself by thinking I’d analyzed the issue thoroughly and reached the best conclusion. Of course, the more likely story is that I inherited it from my parents and friends, like we all do, adopting supporting arguments after the fact to satisfy my ego. Regardless, whatever the reason, I believed it.

Then I started noticing research from people like Richard Wilkinson, Jill Eisen, and The Equality Trust showing the concrete harm. Wilkinson, for example, compared relative inequality in hundreds of countries to all sorts of societal indicators – health, divorce, crime, voter turnout, even trust – and found that they all correlate strongly. The famously equitable Scandinavian countries, for example, fare well across the board. Countries like the US, not so much.

I’m an engineer, so I have a natural affinity for research and data, and after reading enough of this, I found myself convinced. Correlation isn’t causation, sure, but even if inequality is just a tracking indicator, you still want it to go down. Too much relative inequality is inherently harmful.

This isn’t the first time I’ve changed my mind about politics. I believed in capital punishment too, a long time ago, until I heard a fascinating thought experiment. When we look back at history and policies like slavery and genocide, we all agree they’re wrong. In 100 years, when people look back at us, what will they think we got wrong? I couldn’t come up with much, and still can’t, but I figured capital punishment was one candidate. I just couldn’t imagine we’d still be killing people as part of our social contract.

What can I learn from all this? First, I expect I’m wrong about lots of other things too. I’m resigned to the fact that most of my core beliefs probably developed early on, in my subconscious, and only later did I circle back to justify them with intellectual arguments. If those instincts were wrong about capital punishment and inequality, that’s probably just the beginning.

Second, I need to fight to keep an open mind every minute of every day. I didn’t change my mind because I got smarter or thought harder, but because I learned and absorbed new ideas. I need to be ready and willing to do that all the time, even if it’s not easy or fun.

Finally, all this has made me curious about politics in the media. I’m a firm believer that you can’t change other people, you can only change yourself, which makes the usual persuasive editorials and analysis seem odd. They endorse this candidate, disapprove of that policy, weigh in on this or that ballot measure, but do they really change people’s opinions? How about some storytelling instead, some personal journeys and heart-wrenching mea culpas?

In any case, thanks for your patience during this bit of navel gazing. I won’t make it a habit, promise.

Painting by Sean Cheetham for American Thinker. Photo by Samantha Celera.

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9 thoughts on “Reconsidering my politics

  1. I’m in the middle of shaking up my political beliefs. The ultimate goal for me; find a system that is

    • sustainable
    • benefits the most people
    • creates as fair environment as possible for individuals to thrive.

    I used to think it was socialism, or at the least a republic with socialist tendencies. (I mean, universal healthcare sounds like a beautiful thing and I really want to give that to people.) But now I’m not so sure it’s possible. The more I research, the more it appears a free market really is the only sustainable answer. But by free market, I mean a REAL free market, not the quasi-free market that’s chained and modded by financial and corporate influence.

    But following that thought process, other elements go hand-in-hand;

    • have as few taxes as possible and allow that money to trickle up from the consumer (I believe consumer purchasing makes up 60% of the economy.)
    • get rid of the banking cartel (aka The Fed) that manipulates interest rates and thus, the free market
    • re-evaluate our currency and entertain the idea of competing currencies and/or a gold standard
    • adhere to strict libertarian ideals when it comes to all conduct, personal and economic. A tenet of Libertarianism is you can do anything you want as long as it doesn’t harm or infringe the rights of another individual. For example: sticking to this ideal would result in less pollution as it would be illegal for industry to pollute my air because I have to breath it.

    Still a work in progress…

  2. "What can I learn from all this? First, I expect I’m wrong about lots of other things too. I’m resigned to the fact that most of my core beliefs probably developed early on, in my subconscious, and only later did I circle back to justify them with intellectual arguments. If those instincts were wrong about capital punishment and inequality, that’s probably just the beginning."

    I think that's a profound insight. Sadly one that few people ever have, and fewer still act upon. (Myself often included in the latter group.) via Google+

  3. I also oppose capital punishment, but I think it fails your thought experiment. Slavery and genocide are massive in scale, applying to everyone who comes from some particular place or fails to worship in some particular way, for example. Capital punishment, on the other hand, is a policy applied to individuals who have committed some specific horrible crime, and the drive for revenge on a personal scale may well still be around in 100 years.

    I wish I had a crisp explanation for my opposition to capital punishment (where “personal moral belief” doesn’t count as a crisp explanation), but perhaps there’s no way to be completely rational when discussing unthinkable crimes.

    In a similar way, I find it hard to evaluate the current Republican candidates for president. One seems loonier than the next, and we’ll never get to discussing anything as subtle as the politics of inequality with this bunch.

  4. “Correlation isn’t causation, sure, but even if inequality is just a tracking indicator, you still want it to go down. Too much relative inequality is inherently harmful.”

    Sentence 1: correlation != causation

    Sentence 2 (and part of Sentence 1): correlation == causation

    Pls debug!

    :)

  5. hah. well done. i knew that paragraph was logically weak, i struggled (and failed) to explain it better, and i finally just crossed my fingers and hoped no one would notice. :P let me try again. ahem!

    the idea was, if inequality is just an indicator and not the root cause, it will still track to some degree. when we make policy changes (or experiments), we can use inequality as a metric to see whether they’re affecting the root cause or not, even if we don’t know what it is.

    regardless, you’re right, “inequality is inherently harmful” is definitely not proven. damn the real world for making controlled experiments so hard!

  6. I’m in the middle of shaking up my political beliefs. The ultimate goal for me; find a system that is

    • sustainable
    • benefits the most people
    • creates as fair environment as possible for individuals to thrive.

    I used to think it was socialism, or at the least a republic with socialist tendencies. (I mean, universal healthcare sounds like a beautiful thing and I really want to give that to people.) But now I’m not so sure it’s possible. The more I research, the more it appears a free market really is the only sustainable answer. But by free market, I mean a REAL free market, not the quasi-free market that’s chained and modded by financial and corporate influence.

    But following that thought process, other elements go hand-in-hand;

    • have as few taxes as possible and allow that money to trickle up from the consumer (I believe consumer purchasing makes up 60% of the economy.)
    • get rid of the banking cartel (aka The Fed) that manipulates interest rates and thus, the free market
    • re-evaluate our currency and entertain the idea of competing currencies and/or a gold standard
    • adhere to strict libertarian ideals when it comes to all conduct, personal and economic. A tenet of Libertarianism is you can do anything you want as long as it doesn’t harm or infringe the rights of another individual. For example: sticking to this ideal would result in less pollution as it would be illegal for industry to pollute my air because I have to breath it.

    Still a work in progress… via Facebook

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