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Philosophy versus Politics

January 21, 2012

Today’s New York Times has a great Opinionator piece by philosophy professer Gary Gutting.  He observes that while political argument and philosophical argument have similarities, they also have one very important difference:

“But there is one respect in which philosophers’ arguments are far superior to those of politicians.  To be taken seriously, a philosophical argument has to begin from a thorough understanding of an opponent’s’ position and formulate the position so that it is as plausible and attractive as possible.  Politicians, by contrast, typically load the dice by attacking the weakest versions of their opponents’ views they can find.”

Philosophy is fundamentally about finding the truth, whereas politics is fundamentally about getting more votes than the other guy.  So maybe this difference between philosophical argument and political argument is inherent and inevitable.  But those of us who complain about the uncompromising divisiveness of our politics should take Professor Gutting’s critique to heart.

Professor Gutting does a respectable job of laying out what he calls a “sympathetic formulation of the conservative position.”  He argues, and I agree, that Democrats’ political arguments will be more effective if they argue against that formulation instead of arguing against a caricature of conservatism, a straw man about the callous rich and the bigoted Right.

Gutting suggests one line of attack:  what he sees as the contradiction between Christian ethical values of self-sacrifice, love of others and concern for the poor, and capitalist values of unregulated self-interest.

As a liberal, I am not all that comfortable making a political argument that sounds like I’m saying that government should be more Christian.  (I am perfectly comfortable, however, making an argument that the Christian right is selective, at best, about the elements of their religion that they want to insert into government policy.  But that’s an argument for another post.)  So I’ll suggest another line of attack, still on Gutting’s terms:  the contradiction between the capitalist value of self-interest and the conservative value of small government.

Americans want government services, they want a lot of them, and they want them NOW!  Americans expect impenetrable national security and comprehensive police protection.  Americans want their government to put out their fires, to send them ambulances, to pave their roads, to fix their bridges, to secure their retirements, to see that their medical needs can be met, to print their currency and guarantee its value, to insure their bank accounts, to educate their children, to guarantee the safety of their food supply, to ensure the safe construction and maintenance of their buildings, to provide safe and reliable public transportation, to find a place for homeless people to stay, to protect abused children, to promote economic development, to deliver an abundance of clean water and free the air from pollutants, to tell them when an ex-sex offender moves to their neighborhood, and so on and so on.

Americans want to be able to drop in to, call, or click on their government offices and get answers to their questions.  They want government to take their complaints, and act on them – complaints about their neighbors, about traffic conditions, about that pothole on Main Street, about construction noise, about unpicked-up garbage, and about the bus that ran late.

Americans want government to solve their problems.  If the economy tanks because a bunch of bankers went wild, Americans expect the government to fix it.  If jobs are scarce because the economy tanked, Americans expect the government to do something about it.  If crime rates rise because too many people are jobless, Americans expect the government to stop it.

So let’s argue against the conservative contention that smaller government is better?  Let’s make the case that smaller government would mean that Americans will have to do without some of the services they want.  Governors and mayors do this all the time, in effect – when governors or mayors say, as so many have said recently, either pass my budget or else teachers will be cut, or police will be cut, or something else Americans want will be cut, they are saying, in effect, smaller government is not better government.  They are saying that government is big because Americans want big government services; that government is only as big as it needs to be to deliver the services that Americans want.

Everyone prefers lower costs to higher costs, whether they’re buying stuff at a store or paying taxes.  Everyone also knows that spending less will buy less store-stuff.  Democrats need to point out that spending less will buy less government-stuff too.

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