Anyone who hasn’t been hiding under a rock for the last several years has almost certainly witnessed the slow breakdown of American political discourse. This might not be a new trend, but it’s certainly now a permanent and prominent feature of each election cycle. It would be easy to blame the media for turning policy discussions into shouting matches between unqualified pundits, among a litany of other failures, but I think that’s more a symptom of a larger problem: that our political beliefs are becoming a dogma.
Let me back up for a second. This post is going to be somewhat personal, because in what I consider to be a serious personal failure, I spent several years as a political libertarian. Not the rare, moderate, reform-minded flavor, but the “burn government institutions to the ground; the market will fix everything” type. This period, and my subsequent shift towards a more reasonable worldview, gave me a unique perspective that not many seem to share. More specifically: I realized that one of the key things preventing reasonable political discourse is the way that our “values” can become the sole basis for our political beliefs.
I would go a step further and argue that this is the problem that I have with libertarianism in general: it’s essentially a set of political conclusions derived from a moral dogma. They often believe, for example, that it is unjust for the government to compel anyone to do anything. This precludes any discussion about the merits of a certain government program, because the government is an immoral entity, funded through theft/extortion of the people. Evidence and nuance are not useful in that discussion. They don’t fit within the confines of such a belief system.
This also lends itself a few clear economic beliefs. For example, the free market is always preferable to regulation. There are innumerable hypotheticals that can make free-market fundamentalism seem less ridiculous, but in the end they are all justifications of a foregone conclusion: that the free market answer is the only moral choice.
In my personal experience, the issue that exposes the most cognitive dissonance (the gap between that moral dogma and our basic human empathy) is the issue of the mentally handicapped and/or the poor. Many, many individuals in both groups would literally not survive without government assistance, and thankfully most western governments provide such assistance to those who need it. It’s expensive, and more importantly, it’s not profitable. But it’s what a compassionate society does to help those who are less fortunate.
Ask a libertarian about this issue and listen to their response. It’s often: “yes they need help, but it shouldn’t come from theft of others’ income. Charities and churches will take care of them,” or something along those lines. It’s a necessary answer if you believe that taxes are a form of theft. You might not like it. You might have a nagging feeling that it’s a poor substitute for a real policy. But your hands are tied by that moral dogma.
And that problem plagues our entire political landscape, both on the left and the right. People become entrenched in their political beliefs, to the detriment of reasonable discussion. Evidence is ignored because it conflicts with pre-existing beliefs. Nuance is shunned because it complicates something that should be settled. This calcification of our values is not healthy. New evidence should change how everyone views the issue, and we should be free to weigh outcomes against our values. That alone would substantially improve the national political discussion.