Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Politics as Volleyball

Political Volleyball
My last post discussed the sometimes confusing and changing meaning of political labels. The terms “conservative” and “liberal” mean different things in different contexts. If we are talk about the size of government, a conservative would favor less government and a liberal more. But if we talk about certain specific social policies a conservative favors more political restrictions and involvement and a liberal wants less government. The labels themselves do not tell us very much, we need to know the context.
With this post I want to tackle another issue I have long found strange, the role of logic in political decisions. I don’t mean whether Congress is logical or not, I mean the relationship of a logical framework for analyzing a position with an individual’s political views. It is often said that politics makes strange bedfellows. I think this example can help show just how strange we can be when it comes to our political beliefs.
I am going to start with two different sets of three logical arguments. The first set of arguments goes together and supports a general viewpoint of individual freedom.  The second set of three goes together and, broadly speaking, supports a viewpoint of government action. The logic statements are:
Individual Freedom
1.       I should have the right to make this type of important decision for me and my family.
2.       The government is not well suited to make this type of decision, should not micromanage and it is an abuse of power to interfere here.
3.       The individual right being discussed is a long-held right and it would be confusing and disruptive to try and restrict it now.
Government Regulation
1.       The so called “right” potentially harms innocent bystanders and it is appropriate to restrict or deny this right to protect them.
2.       The government has a moral obligation to protect the vulnerable who cannot protect themselves.
3.       Times change and we should not be held captive to old ideas.
Look at those two sets of logical arguments and decide which set appeals to you when discussing the issue of gun control. Most of us are quickly drawn to one set of arguments or the other. If you think it is appropriate to restrict gun ownership you probably start with the idea that more guns leads to more gun deaths and many victims are innocent victims – individuals who played no part in the decision for someone to obtain a gun (children who played with a gun and accidentally get shot, bystanders caught in the crossfire, etc). Conversely, if you are opposed to gun control you might argue the right to own a gun has long been law of the land and individuals are in a better position to make this important decision than the government.
Now, looking at the two sets of logical arguments again but this time decide which set of arguments is persuasive to you when thinking about the issue of abortion. Again most of us can quickly and easily find the set of arguments that speaks to us. But something very interesting happens – most people now switch sides. Social conservatives will usually opt for the individual freedom arguments on gun control but pick the government regulation arguments on abortion. Likewise, social liberal will identify with the government regulation arguments on gun control and the individual freedom arguments on abortion. In fact, I have often thought about these issues as a giant game of volleyball. The teams separate into two sides and the referee yells “abortion”. Team conservative yells out the logical arguments for government regulation and team liberal responds with the arguments for individual freedom. After a few minutes the ref blows a whistle and yells “gun control”. The teams switch sides and make the same arguments only in reverse. Team liberal shouts out the arguments for government regulation and team conservative volleys back with the individual freedom arguments. Of course this is not true for everyone. There are likely lots of people who support restrictions on both gun ownership and abortion or support freedom of choice on both issues. But I suspect the vast majority of Americans fall into one of two “contradictory” camps – restricting abortion/allowing guns or restricting guns/allowing abortion.
I think most of us would describe ourselves as logical creatures. We believe we logically consider an issue, analyze various positions and reach a logical conclusion. But, for a great number of us, I strongly suspect we decide these matters not on logic but on emotion. We have an emotional reaction to the issue and then pick a logical framework which supports our position. The framework can freely shift as the issue changes, and, for most of, this seeming contradiction does not cause any inner turmoil. It is yet another example of how confusing politics can be and how difficult it can be to have a rational discussion.


At August 3, 2011 at 8:32 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...


At August 4, 2011 at 5:43 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dear PS:

I've been an avid follower for days, though at times it already feels like years. With each insightful post, I'm left wanting more. More words, certainly, but mainly more of the enveloping sense of confusion you effortlessly create. Candidly, before I stumbled upon your keen Gladwellian viewpoint, I was certain I was a strong proponent of x, and rather non-committal on the y issue.

I now see I was delusional in believing there was inherent meaning in any of our political systems/labels.

Thanks, it's been a life changer - looking forward to the CliffsNotes,

(word count: 99)

At August 5, 2011 at 11:04 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have heard it said that a genius can make something complex simple and understandable. As you point out, I can make some fairly straightforward sound obtuse and confusing. It is my gift and I am happy to share.



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