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The Two Ways…

December 19, 2014

I’m told that in the ancient near and middle east, there was a common teaching method called “the two ways.” It was a way of dividing life, issues and questions into two groups, giving the learner the option of making one of two mutually exclusive choices. Some scholars, possessed of far more knowledge than I, have suggested that the teaching of Jesus regarding the “broad way” and the “strait way” are an example of how the technique was used.

We understand, I hope, that not everything can come down to only two mutually exclusive choices. Sometimes, there are multiple options. Still, in recent years, I’ve found that when talking about some things, especially those that society or culture already separates into two groups, the method is helpful for me. It helps me understand things a little better. The challenge, though, is to go beyond the superficial and really dig into the differences in whatever the “two ways” are that I’m considering. For example…

Here in America, we are very prone to divide people, politically, socially and economically, into two groups. Right and left, liberal and conservative, rich and poor, 1% and 99%, white and black, on and on it goes. Sadly, there is far too little in the way of real analysis to see if the differences are much more than superficial. Most of us, on whatever end of some imaginary spectrum we reside, just seem to accept what we’re told as true about us and those with whom we differ. Often, what we’re told is little more than “we’re good and they’re bad.” I want to look, really briefly, at one of these “two way” comparisons.

I have lived my life, at various times, toward both ends of the liberal-conservative spectrum. While I am now, in many ways, far more conservative than I was*, I still remember my days as a liberal and I like to think that gives me some understanding of the liberal perspective. Likewise, I know why I now occupy a spot somewhat to the right of where I used to be.

Liberals and conservatives tend to have rather jaundiced views of one another. To the liberal, a conservative lacks compassion for the disadvantaged, doesn’t mind violence as long as he gets to keep his guns, wants to force his religion on others, thinks war is a good thing, hates civil liberty and has no sense of social responsibility. To the conservative, the liberal’s compassion lacks real world usefulness, doesn’t mind violence as long as it stays away from his neighborhood, wants to completely eliminate religion from public view, thinks there is no evil, despotic regime with which we cannot reason, hates civil liberty and has no sense of personal responsibility. I submit that both of these views contain some truth (sort of), but fail to explain the real differences between the two groups.

In an earlier post, I said I’ve spent the last year and a half studying politics and economics. I have. There’s more to the story, though. After all, I’m 52 and my views are influenced by more than the last 18 months. In my life, I have been, in no particular order

  • Enlisted member in the military
  • A commissioned officer in the military
  • A member of Amnesty International
  • A union member
  • A manager in both collective bargaining environments and places with no union
  • A small business owner
  • On welfare
  • A Democrat
  • A Republican
  • An Independent
  • An agnostic
  • A Christian

All of these have influenced how I see the world, just as everyone else’s experiences influence how they see the world. The 1.5 years I’ve spent studying and observing, influenced by all the things I listed (and more) I’ve come to the following conclusions about liberals and conservatives.

Contrary to what many from each group would like everyone to believe, neither group has a monopoly on education, intelligence, morality, ethics, patriotism, compassion or any of a long list of other desirable traits. What they do have is sharply contrasting views of how the world works and, therefore, profoundly different beliefs about what works. To put it another way, not all liberals want to turn the United States into a socialist nation, devoid of personal liberty.In fact, very few want such a thing. Nor do all conservatives want the country ruled by corporations with each of us enslaved by our corporate masters. Very few want such a thing. Those who want the extremes are well said to occupy positions toward the “lunatic” ends of the spectrum. What, then, is the difference in world views?

When I was justifiably called a liberal, I was very aware of the existence of injustice and unfairness in the world. As I looked at each of the problems (poverty, racism and the like) I searched for answers, for solutions. I thought I had them. In what was far and away the richest most powerful nation on earth, it seemed absurd to me that there should be people who went to bed without food. It was wrong that there were those who lacked the basic necessities of life. Given our resources, it made sense that these should be directed toward eliminating these injustices. Further, if people who were in a position to make a difference declined to do so, it made sense that such intervention should be mandated. After all, is it not an outrage that one person should be in plenty and his neighbor in want? That was my world view, and it was one I shared, I believe, with the vast majority of liberals. It is the view most liberals still hold. There are problems and there are solutions. If there is a problem, it is the job of society and government to find and implement the solution. It is a fairly simple and direct approach.

Conservatives have a different view and it is largely the one I now share. I remain aware of the existence of injustice and unfairness in the world. It is, indeed, an outrage that there should be people in this country who lack the basic necessities of life. What I’ve come to see, though, is this. There are no solutions. There are, however, trade-offs. What I mean is this: Before, I would see problem “a” and propose a solution that I thought would fix the problem. Now I understand that when I address problem “a”, whatever I do to make it better will have the affect of making something between “b” and “z” worse. There are no solutions that exist in a vacuum and our resources, however great they might be, are still limited. That alone suggests that even if we adopt the “problem-solution” point of view, we must recognize there will be some things we lack the resources to address. Money that is spent on one program is simply not available for another. We can, of course, take more money from those who have it, but that leads to other problems, specifically, the wealthy have the resources to put their wealth in places that we can’t get to it. This means that now, there is less money to appropriate and our ability to fund programs is arguably more limited than it was before (it’s worth noting here that during the Kennedy administration, the reduction in taxes resulted in greater tax revenues, contrary to the projections of some who oppose the reduction).

If we accept this distinction between liberals and conservatives as true, we can perhaps see why they have such difficulty having productive discussions of how to address issues. They approach an issue from entirely different perspectives, and each has trouble really understanding the perspective of the other. Each views his or her view as a true and accurate understanding of the world and the other as hopelessly flawed. There is, I believe, a solution (actually, it too is a trade-off rather than a solution with no other impact, but I use the word for the sake of convenience). It goes something like this:

  1. Recognize that all proposed cures can be compared prior attempts. If it has been tried before with good or bad results, we have an idea as to whether it should be pursued again. The trade-off is that some are so tied to their point of view that they will deliberately misinterpret or misrepresent data, so there must be a mechanism to simply relate the facts, in context.
  2. If the decision is made to proceed, the results should be compared to the promised benefits. The trade-off is that programs may be scrapped that enjoyed wide-spread support, necessitating an extensive amount of explanation to the public – and a willingness to forsake ideological purity.
  3. The actual cost should be compared to the projected cost, including costs somewhere between “b” and “z” remembering that not all costs are economic. The trade-off is the same as for #2.
  4. Hold both decision makers and those who push hard for consistently failed programs responsible. One problem we currently face is that those who push their agendas seldom pay any price for being wrong. The trade-off is that some will be much slower to propose plans to address issues.

The truth is, I don’t see any of this happening. I suspect the “high” of feeling one is a champion of the poor and downtrodden, that one is a visionary able to see beyond the limitations of taking a real world approach, that one is willing to challenge outmoded and outdated ways of thinking and that one is able to help shape society into what it “should” be is far too alluring to those in positions of power and influence.

What do  you think?

*NOTE: I should point out that to many of my liberal friends I am a hopeless conservative and to some of my conservative friends I seem to be disappointingly liberal. It seems there are those in both groups who have a higher regard for ideological purity than they do for reality. Look, Noam Chomsky and Thomas Sowell are both really smart guys and are both far better educated than I. So what? I’m not letting either one of them do my thinking for me.

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  1. I must say I enjoyed reading this. Didn’t agree with it all but that is the great part. One solution to many of our problems is to agree to disagree and do not use your disagreement about a small part to throw the good parts out. Also, we live with problems that cannot be answered by bumper sticker solutions. If someone wants to be part of the solution they must first be willing to research the problem, evaluate possible solutions and also be willing to accept the opinion of others when that option differs from our own; far to many take constructive criticism as a personal attack. I take contstructive criticism very well… Unless of course it comes from a family member, friend, associate, co-worker or a stranger.

    • Good points! Somewhere, we seem to have bought into the idea that others must agree with us in every detail for a discussion to be productive. Certainly we’ve forgotten the adage “seek first to understand, rather than to be understood.”

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