Thoughts by August Glen-James
Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860) wrote that “Life is known to be a process of combustion; intellect is the light produced by this process.” An interesting metaphor, to be sure, but metaphors can be tricky. Often, some points, premises, or conclusions don’t tuck neatly under a metaphorical umbrella and, taken too far, break down. But a good metaphor, as this one is, can be useful in unpacking ideas. Herein, Schopenhauer’s metaphor will be applied to understanding the basic friction between so-called Liberals and Conservatives. From there, why this friction is an integral problem will be addressed and, then, a solution will be proffered.
Three elements animate Schopenhauer’s metaphor: combustion, intellect, and light. In essence, combustion is the chemical process of releasing energy through burning from an admixture of fuel, air, and spark. Combustion produces, among other things, light thus firing the Intellect. Intellect, in turn, is the power or faculty of the mind that apprehends knowledge and understanding as opposed to the more visceral phenomena of feelings or emotions.
To extend the metaphor, combustible materials burn clean or dirty: both are pollutants. The difference between clean and dirty is found in the nature of the material being burned: natural gas burns cleaner than tires. Here, then, is a starting point to use the metaphor to explain political differences.
In general terms, the Conservative intellect is fired by the combustion of Enlightenment-based materials and thinkers. Its light glows from the philosophy of individualism, believing that a political and economic system is formulated for individual good, freedom, and achievement. That, in the words of James Madison in his resolutions of June 8, 1789, "government is instituted, and ought to be exercised for the benefit of the people; which consists in the enjoyment of life and liberty, with the right of acquiring and using property, and generally of pursuing and obtaining happiness and safety."
The Conservative believes in minimal government and a maximum personal freedom. The Conservative also embraces the belief that political and economic freedom coupled with the capitalistic ideas of self-interest and the incentive to make a profit will lead to a productive division of labor and salubrious economic cooperation. And, finally, liberty generally means freedom from excessive government interference in personal and economic affairs.
In general terms, the Liberal intellect is fired by the combustion of socialist-based materials and thinkers. Its light glows from collectivism, believing that a political and economic system should serve the society at large while individual wants are subordinated to the collective needs of society. In one form or another, they accept the Marxist dictum of “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need.” To animate this dictum, a large all-powerful government that centrally plans and directs economic affairs is needed to enforce and ensure economic "equity and justice."
Based on their common rhetoric, Liberals, intellectually fired by Marxism, are obsessed with the "rich" and many viscerally believe all wealth accumulation is ill-gotten: Envy is the earmark of their ethos. Renowned economist, Ludwig von Mises, captured this characterization thusly:
Most [Marxist/Interventionists] are driven by an envious resentment against those whose incomes are larger than their own. This bias makes it impossible for them to see things as they really are. For them the main thing is not to improve the conditions of the masses, but to harm the entrepreneurs and capitalists even if this policy victimizes the immense majority of the people.*
Consequently, they support the redistribution of wealth through a bureaucratically-run welfare state and, as such, are given to theories of government-financed, government-run everything: healthcare, education, housing, etc. Everything is in reach of government authority and dissent is dangerous, hence the Liberal obsession with political correctness and censorship.
The Liberal concept of freedom and its collectivist nature can be deduced from an interview of Nancy Pelosi by Rachel Maddow, who characterized Pelosi’s ideas in the following way: “Finally! Pelosi frames health reform for the win. (Hint: it’s about freedom.)”
Here are Pelosi’s remarks:
Think of an economy where people could be an artist or a photographer, a writer without worrying about keeping their day job in order to have health insurance. Or that people could start a business and be entrepreneurial and take risks, but not be job-locked because a child has a child has [sic] asthma or diabetes or someone in the family is bipolar. You name it, any condition is job-locking.
Freedom of this kind is essentially a freedom from full responsibility for one’s own economic solvency. It doesn’t matter if art or photography, for example, pays the bills since, in this version of freedom, all of one’s basic needs (like the need for "job-locking" health insurance, according to Pelosi) are part of the social welfare benefits.
Liberals generally believe this is equity and justice; Conservatives generally believe the redistribution of wealth necessary for this kind of system amounts to economic oppression. Frederic Bastiat, in his work The Law, describes the socialist state as "that great fiction by which everyone tries to live at the expense of everyone else."** A "consumer only" economy certainly is a great fiction.
Neither of these descriptions is exhaustive and variation exists on both sides of the political spectrum. For instance, in the conservative movement, much to the dismay of some, there are the RINOs, so called. Conversely, the socialist wing on the Liberal side (call them progressives or democratic socialists) have to deal with the old class of liberals . . . the Kennedy liberals, if you will. So add or subtract what you will as it won't change the major thrust of the argument. Hell, formulate your own theory. Then, at least, this piece will have pushed you to think for yourself.
Why are the differences herein outlined a problem for our body politic? The answer is embodied in the following observation from Alexis de Tocqueville:
A government retains its sway over a great number of citizens, far less by the voluntary and rational consent of the multitude, than by that instinctive, and to a certain extent involuntary agreement, which results from similarity of feelings and resemblances of opinion. I will never admit that men constitute a social body, simply because they obey the same head and the same laws. Society can only exist when a great number of men consider a great number of things in the same point of view; when they hold the same opinions upon many subjects, and when the same occurrences suggest the same thoughts and impressions to their minds.
This is a truism; consequently, the conflicts between a collectivist, socialist, Marxist mind and an individualist, capitalist, Jeffersonian mind are too far apart to politically confederate in a healthy body politic. The factional vitriol in the United States, increasingly noticeable since 2016, is illustrative of Tocqueville's maxim. Add to this the Marxist policies and procedures of "destructionism" towards the bourgeoisie and this philosophical division portends catastrophe.
Interestingly, Ludwig von Mises insightfully speaks to socialist methods:
Socialist policy employs two methods to accomplish its purposes: the first aims directly at converting society to Socialism; the second aims only indirectly at this conversion by destroying the social order which is based on private ownership. The parties of social reform and the evolutionary wings of the socialist parties prefer the first means; the second is the weapon of revolutionary Socialism, which is primarily concerned to clear the ground for building up a new civilization by liquidating the old one. To the first category belong municipalization and nationalization of enterprises; to the second, sabotage and revolution.
Readers may determine whether they recognize any of this in the United States today.
The United States can’t continue this way. To channel Lincoln, the United States cannot stand being half capitalist and half socialist: it must become all one or the other . . . at least as it is currently functioning—if the term “functioning” can actually be used. But it doesn’t have to be this way. There is a solution—a return to the original intent of federalism.
The Founders of this nation, as they negotiated a new constitution in 1787, DID NOT construct a consolidated nation—even though the word “nation” was often used as a general description. (The term “empire” was often used, too, but we don’t fancy ourselves one of those, either.) What they constructed was a federal republic, the nature of which was described by Thomas Jefferson, in a letter to one Major Cartwright, 1824, in this way:
With respect to our state and federal governments, I do not think their relations correctly understood by foreigners. They generally suppose the former subordinate to the latter. But this is not the case. They are co-ordinate departments of one simple and integral whole. To the state governments are reserved all legislation and administration, in affairs which concern their own citizens only, and to the federal government is given whatever concerns foreigners, or the citizens of other states; these functions alone being made federal. The one is domestic, the other the foreign branch of the same government; neither having control over the other, but within its own department.
In 1925, H. L. Mencken described government “as too powerful to be safe.” What would he think about the power of government today? (Supply your own answer.) James Madison wrote in Federalist 45 that the powers given to the new Federal government were “few and defined.” The Federal government was, indisputably, intended to be checked, balanced, and limited—not only structurally by the separation of constitutional powers, but by the several states, too. The truth of this is not given ipse dixit: just read the 9th and 10th Amendments for starters and then move to the plethora of available history—especially the Kentucky and Virginia Resolves and, later, Madison's response to other states and further defense of the Resolves. (All of this can be found by simple searches on the Internet.) Moreover, in what possible way can the Federal government be considered “limited” after the passage of the ACA? If a citizen can be forced to buy health insurance under the guise of a tax, what can’t a citizen be forced to buy? On that premise and that premise alone, the ideas that we have a limited government can be forcefully impeached.
The Federal government was supposed to be so limited, so powerless, so inexpensive to operate that it would rob ambition of opportunity; however, for several years running, it has become the best opportunity for ambition and self-aggrandizement.
Frankly, the Federal government has not only become too powerful (in defiance of our first principles), it has transformed its usurped power into unabated abuse of the taxpayers and craven corruption in the service of its handlers. A return to the kind of federalism intended by the Framers, real federalism, with states independent enough to allow for their people’s values to animate the body politic WITHOUT infringing on the culture of different states. True federalism would allow California to be as Marxist as they wish while Florida can embrace free enterprise to whatever level their citizens choose. The proof of the best system would be in the proverbial pudding. The Federal government, functioning under Madison’s intent, should not be involved in these decisions nor should it have the power to ideologically impose itself on the unwilling citizens of states that dissent from, for instance, a California-style government. The most important governments for any citizen should be within his or her own municipality, county, and state.
The fact that Liberals and Conservatives are no longer mere competitors, but actively fear each other being in power, is strong evidence that something needs to quickly and peacefully change. A recourse to the original intent of federalism, therefore, is the best hope to diffuse the hostile intellectual and political combustion occurring in this country today . . . and the sooner the better before the story of the United States becomes the story of Rome!
*Mises, L. V., Hayek, F. A., & Kahane, J. (2014). Socialism. Liberty Fund, Incorporated.
**The Law, IX