Saturday, February 19, 2011

The Dimensional Collapse of the Republican Mind

The two major political parties in the U.S. are largely defined by their respective normative beliefs about high-level political philosophic concepts; Democratic ideals and values differ from those of Republicans. These abstract ideals and values can change over time, but generally they tend to be very stable. Specific policy goals change often, but the underlying values don't. Admitting a little more complexity, however, it's clear that causality doesn't simply flow in one direction (ideals --> policy goals). Rather lower-level concepts (like specific policy goals) can affect higher-level concepts by becoming established meaningful commitments in individuals or becoming embedded institutionally. In both cases, the translation (or operationalization) of ideals to policy goals is not a smooth linear process but instead a complex web of multiplier and feedback effects.

So why am I telling you all this? In the realm of ideas, the Republican Party has been really awful lately. It is reactionary and extremely close-minded. Republicans seldom engage in creative thinking or complex reasoning. While they might talk about the virtues of freedom or efficient markets, in reality Republicans act on only one principle: opposing government action. In the operationalization of ideals into policy goals, the Republican Party has hit a critical threshold, and is now being consumed before our very eyes: the policy goal of "oppose government" has mushroomed to epic proportions and its scale is smothering all other normative forces, including high-level ideals and values.

To better understand this situation, let's turn to the concept of instrumentality. Normative assertions come in two varieties, final and instrumental. A final goal is something we want for its own sake; ideals and values fit in this category. Instrumental goals are things we want in order to get something else; specific policy goals are instrumental to achieving the realization of an ideal or value. So when Democrats raise taxes on high-income earners, they're not doing it for its own sake, but rather to get closer to the final ideal of economic equality. [Instrumentality is a very broad concept, and although I'm using it here to only describe the distinction between ideals and policy goals, it can be applied to more mundane topics as well]

In politics, thinking about things as instrumental is associated with pragmatism and strategy. A legislator might support a policy that is directly at odds with her identity and brand if, in the end, the outcome is closer to her ideals and values. As modern science has shown, reality is exceedingly complex, and increasingly we're finding that our intuition and common-sense lead us to incorrect conclusions. This often causes trouble, as good policy can get killed if it seems too counter-intuitive or overly complex.

Contemporary Democrats are very amenable to instrumental thinking. A classic example is school bussing and affirmative action: in order to get closer to the ideal of racial equality, we must employ policies that treat racial minorities differently than whites. Other examples include inflationary dovishness in monetary policy and supporting contraception to reduce the number of abortions performed in the U.S.

Republicans, on the other hand, don't really do instrumental policy anymore. It's like they just don't get it. Contemporary Republicans do just one thing: oppose government action. But what about those two values that have been associated with the Republican Party for as long as I can remember: freedom and free markets? Aren't those the final ideals of Republicans, ones that would lead pragmatic legislators to occasionally craft counter-intuitive instrumental policy? Such policy would take the form of government action that clearly and incontrovertibly enhances freedom and market efficiency. So let's think: on what issues would we expect to see this type of behavior?

Take anti-trust policy. It's a fact that monopolies destroy economic freedom and cause market failures. One would expect Republicans to support government action to reduce market power and safeguard competition. Yet they oppose all regulation of this sort.

Net-neutrality is another interesting issue that paradoxically necessitates curbing the freedom of telecommunications firms in order to safeguard the freedom and creativity of everyone (including the telecommunications firms themselves!). The Republicans? On this issue they are almost rabidly opposed to any government action.

How about environmental issues? To pursue the goal of efficient markets, negative externalities (like pollution) must be eliminated. Taxing certain market activities (those producing negative externalities) therefore increases overall wealth. No luck here: Republicans have utter contempt for the EPA and oppose all environmental policy.

In all three cases, Republicans oppose policies that are instrumental to freedom and free markets. Why? Because they involve government action. Republican opposition to government clearly developed as a policy principle instrumental to enhancing freedom and market efficiency, but it appears now to carry more weight than any other normative belief. Put it this way: in a zero-sum situation pitting the ideals of freedom and market efficiency against the policy of opposing government action, ideals lose every time. This terrifyingly simplistic governing philosophy is really scary, and needs to be stopped. But I'm not optimistic. The Republican Party has a new final goal, one that's simple, requires no instrumental thinking, and is allergic to complex analysis. Escape to Business while you still can!


  1. Interesting, but so scary. Thanks for your insights.

  2. This reads like a monologue from Waking Life