Thursday, November 19, 2009

Trust and Governance

American political debate hinges on the definition of self-interest.

A brief story will clarify my point. It will also show, I think, that at their worst American conservatives define self-interest too narrowly and American liberals define it too broadly.

A couple of weeks ago I listened to a debate on KQED, my local public radio station, regarding a proposal for the care of California's state parks. A group of liberals wants to end fees at park entrances for California residents and pay for park care by adding an annual fee to California car registrations.

The debate can be found here:

Jonathan Coupal, president of the conservative Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, argues against the proposal. In effect, he argues that only those who actually enter the parks should pay for their care. Those who don't enter the parks shouldn't be compelled to pay taxes for, as he sees it, something they don't use.

The vice president of government affairs for the California State Parks Foundation, Traci Verardo-Torres, argues that all Californians benefit from the state parks, whether they actually enter them or not; consequently, all Californians should pay for their care through an $18 annual tax. Should they enter the parks, they enter without paying a fee. But it doesn't matter if they don't enter the parks: they'll benefit from this tax by living in a state with well-maintained parks.

These contrasting positions capture the on-going disconnect between conservatives and liberals. The disconnect always occurs at the point where one defines self-interest—and, by implication, how one defines the boundaries of the self.

Your idea of self-interest, for example, reflects how you define yourself. It determines how you answer this question: At what point do I end and others begin?

Your answer to that question is dictated by whom you do and do not trust.

A conservative trusts himself and distrust others. Consequently, his definition of community tends to be much more restricted than a liberal's.

Jonathan Coupal doesn't see himself as benefiting from another Californian's visit to a state park. So he's not willing to pay for it. In his view, the state park, in effect, doesn't exist unless he uses it. He bristles at any suggestion that his money should be spent for him by others; he trusts his own ability to spend his money when and where he sees fit.

Coupal concedes that he's willing to be taxed to pay for state prisons, despite the fact that he doesn't use them. In that regard, a willingness to pay for state prisons but not state parks seems like a contradiction. But one must recall that a conservative's relationship with the rest of humanity is one of distrust. Conservatives rarely complain about taxes as long as they are used to exclude others from the conservative's (narrow) idea of what constitutes a community.

Liberals invert the conservative attitude toward trust: a liberal distrusts himself and trusts others. Consequently, a liberal's definition of community tends to be highly inclusive—often extending, in the political sphere, to all humanity. Liberals rarely complain about taxes that are used to include others—to expand their community. And they resist taxes that will be used to exclude others, like military spending or spending on prisons.

A conservative can't make a liberal understand that a neighbor's happiness is of secondary importance to one's own happiness and that it's immoral to compel the conservative—as he sees it—to subsidize someone else's happiness. Indeed, the conservative believes that in order to maximize happiness throughout the world (which is itself a presumptuous goal, in the conservative's view), everyone should attend with utmost care to one's own happiness and be wary of the happiness of others.

A liberal can't make a conservative understand that the conservative's happiness is indistinguishable from his neighbor's happiness and that it's immoral to attempt to distinguish one from the other. Such a distinction draws a false boundary between the self and others, and the impulse to draw that boundary is responsible for all that's wrong in the world. The liberal believes that in order to maximize happiness everywhere (which is the purpose of one's life), everyone should attend with utmost care to one's neighbor's happiness and not focus on one's own—because, according to the liberal, there is, in fact, no such thing as one's own happiness.

Since we live in an era obsessed with money, this debate over the boundaries of self-interest always ends as a debate over taxes.

The conservative believes that, like his happiness, his money belongs to him. He earned it; he deserves to keep it; he's willing to part with it only when doing so will explicitly help him individually; and he believes that the world will be a better place if everyone has the same attitude toward their own money.

The liberal believes that, like our happiness, our money is not our own. Society creates wealth; society should distribute wealth; individual access to wealth is only possible with the collaboration (hard work) of the larger community. Parting with money helps a liberal only if it helps others; and the world will be a better place if everyone has the same attitude toward money, which is, in their view a social phenomenon.

I depict these two positions at their extremes. But your general orientation toward these two perspectives will determine your political and ethical worldview.

At this particular moment in history, American conservatives are especially distrustful of others—as a consequence, perhaps, of 9/11; also as a consequence of not being in power. As a result, they tend toward an extremely narrow definition of self-interest—narrower than what one will find during less turbulent times.

In the mind of a conservative, the turbulence of our time should be addressed by shrinking one's sphere of trust as much as possible. To do otherwise is to behave recklessly in an unsafe world.

Liberals, on the other hand, believe that the way to address our era's turbulence is by expanding one's definition of self-interest. This requires us to expand our sphere of trust—to incorporate as many people as possible into our lives.

It's my view that at the moment one finds greater moderation—and, therefore, a superior capacity to govern—among American liberals. President Obama is especially balanced in this regard, as manifested by the fact that he's distrusted by extreme factions on both the left and the right.

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