The “All or Nothing” Mode of System Conflict

“Rather go to bed with out dinner than to rise in debt” – Benjamin Franklin

As the debt-ceiling charade winds down (hopefully) there is a new narrative forming amongst the left. The talking point on morning news shows today was that “we are not funding government programs to adequate levels to support a robust and growing economy.” It’s a great and ludicrous line. First, let’s dispense with the political tactics.

The reason for this talking point is simple – there are storm clouds on the horizon. The economy is not on sound footing, and will not be, as long as current policies remain in place. If we go back into a recession, each political party wants to be able to point the finger at the other. With the debt impasse now (apparently) over, the Democrats in the Senate and the White House will have a tough time pinning future economic woes on the Republicans. So, they are duly grasping at straws for any narrative they can conjure up.

Having said that, there is a broader aspect to the rhetoric that deserves some attention. What the left is saying here is that “if we don’t fully implement and embrace left-leaning policies, then those policies cannot be held accountable for failures.” This is nothing new. The freedom-loving right says exactly the same thing in regards to their (our) economic preferences.

When the left argues that “capitalism doesn’t work, just look at the banking crisis” we respond with “that had nothing to do with free-market capitalism, and everything to do with government interventionism.” (We’re right, by the way.)

On this, we will actually cede the point. It is OK, in some narrow sense, to claim that this or that philosophy of government cannot receive a full vetting based on partial implementation of some of its policy preferences. Many of these policies do not, and cannot, exist in a vacuum.

Consider an example. I support a much more open immigration policy. I’m not arguing for “open borders” – we should certainly screen for rapists and murders at the gates. Other than that though, I think we should let folks in. This policy only makes sense if and when we outlaw all federal entitlement programs. If you come here, you come here to work hard (it is the only way you’ll eat). With that, the only folks who come will be the ones who want to work for a living – which will make this country a better place with a stronger, more robust economy. This is a good thing. But we really can’t consider such a loose immigration policy on its own, without the attendant change in entitlements.

This gets back to a comparison and contrast of various economic and social safety net systems. (See Point to Ponder: Capitalism and Socialism, or The Pope Almost Gets It: Competing Social Structures and The Tip of The Iceberg.)

If it is the case then that we cannot discard policies without full opportunity for their implementation (the ultimate trial and error, if you will), how shall we proceed? Well, I would argue that there are ways to make some comparisons without full implementation. Correlation between policies and outcomes is still useful, unless it can be directly contradicted by defenders of this or that policy preference.

Beyond this, we can always turn to principles and history. Principles, in that we either believe in freedom as an unalienable part of being a person or we believe in monetary equality as a necessary part of existence. (Note that the latter is disquieting – it places the measure of equality as earthly wealth, which does not sit well with the Christian.) If we hold to freedom, then we can and should shy away from government interventionism that runs against freedom (which it almost always does).

Beyond freedom we have history. At various times throughout world history we have tried socialism – and it has crumbled every time. That is, we have tried the ideals of the left in much fuller implementation than has ever been seen here – and it has not worked.

Have we done so with freedom? Well, if the answer is “yes” then it is only “yes, to a much lesser degree.” This country never fully made it to human rights equality (think slavery and segregation) before punting on self-determination and handing the keys over to the federal government. Even still, the history is not one of the same level of failure as we saw with socialism. This country operated in a measure of freedom for quite some time,  and it worked rather well (noting prior exceptions where we failed at freedom). There is reason to hope that it can do so again.

Be that as it may, surely the debate will rage on. It’s not a bad debate to have. These ideas should be fleshed out in open forum. My hope is that we can, as a country, and as Christians, move in the direction of freedom, not control and theocracy (left-leaning or right-leaning).

I suspect that rational debate will fall as easy prey to fiery rhetoric if and when more economic calamity arises …

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