Prof. Oren M. Levin-Waldman will discuss his article: “Understanding American Politics <br> By Dr. OREN M. LEVIN-WALDMAN, Ph.D.”, on Wednesday, September 13, 2017th at 10am DST on the Westchester On the Level radio broadcast. Listen “Live” or “On Demand”. Use the following hyperlink … http://tobtr.com/10221137
Understanding American Politics By Dr. OREN M. LEVIN-WALDMAN, Ph.D.
The divide between the left and the right in this country often revolves around the role of government in society. Liberals argue that society is more complex and the actions of those in the market place can cause harm. Therefore, more regulation is needed in order to protect the essence of human agency, or what we often refer to as basic freedom. Conservatives, however argue that markets are natural processes and when government gets involved, basic freedoms are under assault.
Classical liberalism, one of the political philosophies that informed much of early America, stressed the value of human agency. Individuals should be free to choose for themselves how they will best live their lives. In practical terms this meant that individuals should be free to pursue their self-interests. In terms of political philosophy, government should be neutral on questions of the good life, because if government chooses, it is effectively not treating individuals equally.
Neutrality, then, only implies that government, especially when it comes to policy choices, will not do anything because to adopt policy A over policy B is to effectively choose one’s conception of the good over another. And yet, as society becomes more complex, government has to act. The assumption was that government would only regulate in order to prevent harm to one’s self or to others.
In an agrarian economy, the definition of harm is fairly straightforward. It means physical harm per se. In a modern industrial and post-industrial economy where the actions of one company can affect the lives and well being of millions of people, the definition of harm is much broader. To a large extent contemporary political battles over the role of government really come down to how broadly or how narrowly the meaning of harm will be constructed.
This raises some serious questions: When modern day liberals call for more government regulation in the market place, more programs to assist the disadvantaged, and less regulation when it comes to the bedroom and personal morality, are they being inconsistent? Conversely, when conservatives call for less regulation in the market place and more regulation when it comes to the bedroom and personal morality, are they inconsistent?
When it comes to liberals on a philosophical level the answer is no. When it comes to conservatives the answer is more complicated because conservatism was never really a philosophy about individual freedom, but social order. The liberal maintains that what one does in private cannot cause harm to others whereas what one does in the market place can. The conservative, who never supported capitalism because of its potential to disrupt the traditional social order, nonetheless holds that what one does in private can indeed cause moral harm with the potential to disrupt communities.
The modern conservative who claims to espouse liberty and freedom has no problem with employers paying their workers unliveable wages. The traditional order, after all, calls for property owners to be able to dispose of their property as they see fit, and if workers are left impoverished, that is the order as it was meant to be. We are all supposed to know our places. Conservatism is an ideology about aristocratic elites governing because they know best what is good for people, and the masses really don’t. For the conservative, democracy is messy, with the potential to subvert the traditional class structure.
If we understand these differences, we can also understand the crux of American politics. The modern liberal understands that in the modern economy, government is needed in order to ensure a level playing field so that the concept of equal opportunity will be preserved. Whereas the conservative seeks to conserve the traditions of the past in a world which is viewed much as it always was, i.e human behavior never really changes, the liberal understands that the world has indeed changed.
Despite the calls for more government involvement in the economy, liberalism still believes in markets. It is just that markets need to be regulated so that more people can have a chance. In a real sense, this is about democratization in that everybody should have the opportunity to act on his or her voice. Those on the left ironically share something in common with conservatives. They too believe that the masses don’t know what is good for them and that the elites know best what is good for them, and should therefore tell them what to do.
The left doesn’t really believe in democracy any more than it believes in markets. An elite redistributes property for the benefit of the ruling elite in the name of the masses. Private property is a basis for exploitation and control. The liberal sees the ability to acquire property as essential to personal autonomy which is a requisite for democracy. Those on the left view property as a means of exercising power and control. Therefore, property owners need to be stripped of their power by eliminating property.
Some Marxists do recognize that the preservation of markets require more regulation. For modern liberals this amounted to radical steps, i.e. policy, to conserve the traditions of the past: property and markets. The modern liberal doesn’t say let’s eliminate property, but let’s find ways to expand property ownership.
What, then, does all this mean? It means that if the core of markets are to be preserved in an increasingly global economy, there needs to be more active policy, especially policy that will benefit the middle class. This includes wage policy that bolsters the middle class and a healthcare policy that not only provides access to insurance, but access to healthcare. Bernie Sanders is now sponsoring a bill to provide Medicare for all as a single payer system.
Of course, there are those who will say these are examples of government simply imposing more control over the lives of citizens. But the liberal sees these as essential to ensure that the typical worker isn’t locked into a job out of fear of losing insurance and that this worker earns enough to function as an autonomous being. Arguably, this may involve an even more radical measure of a guaranteed basic income, so that workers can no longer be exploited by their employers.
As society becomes more complex, more government may be needed to ensure greater personal freedom; not less. Or at least that is how the liberal will see it even if conservatives and those on the far left do not. Ironically, the liberal course, which has been all but forgotten because it has unfortunately been conflated with the radical left, is the middle course. Arguably, it is what the median voter would choose.
Dr. Oren M. Levin-Waldman, Ph.D., Professor at the Graduate School for Public Affairs and Administration at Metropolitan College of New York, Research Scholar at the Binzagr Institute for Sustainable Prosperity, as well as faculty member in the Milano School for International Affairs, Management, and Urban Policy at the New School. Direct email to: