Politics without Philosophy

It may surprise some readers to know that I am a conflict avoider when it comes to arguing politics in social gatherings.  There are a variety of reasons for this, not the least of which is often a desire to escape substantive issues in the off-hours of my life. 

However, one important reason I don't like discussing current events or other weighty issues with people (particularly in groups) is that many of the people I meet don't really have an underlying philosophy, but rather a hodge-podge of political positions stitched together from a variety of sources.  This makes it almost impossible to have a substantive conversation with them.

When I have a disagreement with someone on matters of politics or economics or whatever, there are really only two satisfying outcomes:

  1. To discover that we share the same basic premises and philosophy, but have reached different conclusions from these premises.  Trying to figure out where we diverge is an interesting and generally informative exercise
  2. To discover that we have very different fundamental premises or assumptions about the nature of existence.  While perhaps not satisfying, this can at least save a lot of useless discussion.  For example, if you believe that we are all born with an obligation or requirement, kind of like original sin, to provide our fellow man with material comforts, while I do not, there is not a lot of point in the two of us arguing about redistributive taxation.

Unfortunately, it is impossible to reach either of these conclusions with people who have no underlying philosophy that drives their ethics and political positions.  I remember one discussion with a woman who was taking all all comers over abortion, defending a woman's right to choose for her body.  So I asked her if she was therefore opposed to the government ban on breast implants.  "No, that's different, those are totally frivolous.  Women shouldn't have breast implants, its demeaning".  But, I asked,  isn't the FDA telling women what they can and can't put in their bodies.  "But its necessary, she says, because people don't always know enough to make the right decisions".  So, I follow-ed up, its part of the FDA's job to hold up drugs like the morning-after pill?  "No, that's just christian-right bullshit".

How can you argue with this, when there is no consistent underlying philosophy?  Essentially her position boils down to "I support government intervention except when I oppose it".  And this is not unusual.  In fact, the positions she took are entirely consistent with the positions on these same issues taken at the NOW web site.  Hell, the entire Republican and Democratic platform each boil down to "we support government intervention except where our major donors oppose it".

The reason for this brief, really tangential rant was this morning when I was reading through some recent emails from a trade group I belong to called the NACS, or the National Association of Convenience Stores.  Because of changes in the market, the NACS represents a large percentage of the gasoline retailers in this country.  In the last two weeks, the NACS has:

  1. Opposed government "price gouging" regulations aimed at how gas stations price their product.
  2. Advocated government intervention in the pricing of credit card processing services, arguing that gas stations are getting gouged by banks today

Could anything be more stark?  There are no values here, no philosophy, no core assumptions about the nature of man and man's existence.  Just a bald desire to be left alone yourself, but have the government intervene in your favor with everyone you do business with.

PS:  Credit card processing rates piss me off as well, but you don't see me asking for the government to intervene.


  1. SR:

    Thanks for this post. It is exactly the same observations I have made. I tend not to get into political discussions in person, unless there is plenty of time to establish a ground-level philosphy from which to frame a discussion; otherwise, it serves no purpose to argue random points.

    I remember a time when I had the conservative instincts without the underlying philosophy to support it- when I left work to stay home with my first child and subscribed to the Wall Street Journal, it was my intellectual awakening. Now I can argue many subjects competently. However, I am still careful about what and how I discuss- most people don't know, don't care, and don't wish to sound stupid.

  2. Dennis Foster:

    I, too, avoid arguments in social settings. It just doesn't seem worth it. Last winter I traveled to Antarctica on an old Russian icebreaker that was carrying about 100 passengers. There was a group of passengers that fit the stereotypical liberal image to a tee. Every afternoon they would gather in the lounge, read computer printouts of the news and opine on how bad President Bush was. I steered clear for most of the entire 25 days of the trip, preferring to gaze out the bridge windows at icebergs and landscapes that I'll probably never see again. Late in the voyage, I did get into a political argument while at dinner. But, after about 10 minutes of politely trying to make my point, I gave up and told the couple that I really didn't come on the trip to talk about politics and economics, but, rather, to talk about penguins and Captain Scott and Ernest Shackleton, and how they could spend the winter in such icy conditions.

    And, if I may indulge - a quick comment on the abortion issue. I have argued for years that the debate we find ourselves in, today, will be transitory. Someday, and perhaps sooner rather than later, the surgical procedure for extracting a fetus, to be raised ala Brave New World, will be no more dangerous, nor discomfiting, than the procedure to have an abortion. Then, the argument about a woman's right to choose will be rendered moot. I don't know who will "decide" then, but it will involve a fundamental debate on life, individual liberty, property and the power of the state in ways that make many current issues pale by comparison.

  3. Sean:

    Great post. I was recently returning home from the airport in a shuttle from Atlanta back to Athens, while the driver and another passenger started a liberal echo chamber toward the front of the van. I was tired and just ready to get home, so I ignored them as long as I could, about forty-five minutes. Eventually the "Bush is as bad as Hitler" garbage, then the "Bush stole two elections" garbage, and I'd had enough. I not so politely told the driver that she was spouting a bunch of hogwash that at least one of the paying customers was tired of hearing. The conversation swiftly moved on to sports and weather. After the ride, the driver apologized and admitted that the conversation was inapropriate, no doubt concerned I would make a call to her boss, which I had no intention of making.

    I have a lot of liberal/leftist friends, close friends whom I would take a bullet for, but we no longer discuss politics, because it has become disatisfying. I'm not so quick on my feet sometimes, and grow weary of being ganged up on.

    BTW, I'm not a Bush fan myself, but to equate Bush with Hitler is dangerous hyperbole, as is the assertion of two stolen elections. But I don't expect to change anyone's mind, especially when it is already full of such mush.

  4. Matt:

    Most people's politics do seem to come down to "I want to impose my moral beliefs and advance my personal financial interests against third parties, and I want to do it at the point of somebody else's gun, because using my own gun might remind me that it's a crime and thereby make me feel bad about myself".

    It's quite possible to reconcile "human beings have an ethical obligation to support one another" with "taxation for the purpose of wealth-redistribution is wrong", as long as one has a consistent philosophy about the nature of government and its proper role in society. But very few people have such a philosophy...it too often gets in the way of their "whatever I want, whenever I want, whatever the price, just as long as it's somebody else paying" desiderata.

  5. Joshua Swink:

    The case of the woman defending abortion rights and implant restrictions could easily have a single underlying motive. She probably wants the government to protect women from abuse by men. Both of her arguments are consistent with that, since a man may want a woman to bear his heir, her health and welfare be damned, and obviously breast implants are just a way for women to serve male interests.

    However, for her to admit that motivation would be inconsistent with her goal. It would be tantamount to admitting that women are weaker and need protection. So she picks a nice-sounding but ultimately incoherent defense for each government intervention.

    The worst of it is that she is probably not consciously aware of her own motives, and so will become more and more angry if someone attempts to force her to face the flimsiness of the arguments she is presenting.

    My point is that, no matter how nuts people appear to be, there is usually a good explanation for their actions. The convenience store people could be motivated by greed, but you seem to have given up on the abortion rights woman as having no underlying philosophy. She probably does have one, but feels trapped in a situation where she cannot be honest.

  6. Max Lybbert:

    Well, I for one, admit that my politics are not always internally consistent. Then again, it may not be that my politics aren't consistent so much as I've placed competing issues on differnt levels of importance.

    For instance, I believe in strong state's rights, but stronger property rights. That is, regardless of how strong the state is, I believe it should not be able to take my property from me, a la Kelo. Also, while I believe in strong state's rights, I do believe there should be moral limits to what a state can legalize. Of course my moral limits are different than other people's. Consider that an inconsistency if you'd like, or consider it a generalization of my feeling that strong property rights morally trump strong state's rights.

    Regarding "the right to choose" and FDA regulation of implants, I find the inconsistency funny. Yes, I think that the Left's main reason for supporting FDA regulation while claiming "it's a woman's body to do with as she pleases," is inconsistent. However, I also believe a consistent theory could be advanced. Such as "the FDA has approved abortion procedures as safe, whereas it has not apporved silicone breast implants -- if it does I'll accept them as well." Yes, that moves away from the "fundamental right to choose" but it's more intellectually honest.

    I, myself, oppose abortion, but not because of the life of the child (since proving the fetus isn't alive would kill my argument), but for the same reason I oppose canabalism and desecration of graveyards. Even if the fetus isn't "alive," it is definitely a body, and it's morally wrong to destroy bodies -- even dead ones.

    I oppose Roe vs. Wade because it's now impossible to overturn. "Roe" herself has tried to get laws passed to regulate abortions, but they get struck down as unconstitutional. She then filed a suit to get the courts to consider new information regarding the condition of a fetus, but the suit was dismissed because of lack of standing. Now, how could somebody set up a controversy abotu abortion that can go to court?

  7. phil:

    Up until just recently I had been engaged in several years of email debates with a couple of my liberal friends and one of them actually dismissed my views as being too philosophical and thus not relevant to policy. I responded by showing how my support or opposition to particular policies was rooted in my philosophy but it didn't matter. Like a lot of people his views are rooted in party loyalty rather than a clearly thought out philosophy.

    But I too am extremely reluctant to discuss politics in social situations for a variety of reasons but the main one is that I don't want politics to invade every aspect of my life. I generally follow the old English gentleman's club rules: you can talk about anything except politics and religion. I'd rather find topics of discussion where we can find common ground and enjoy each others company.

  8. Max Lybbert:

    Yes, I recognize that the woman in the example would not accept breast implants even if they were approved as safe. So my consistency theory wouldn't fly for her (and many other people would not accept *every* safe procedure).

    In which case, yes, her opposition to male dominance is probably the issue. Perhaps she believes a woman has a "fundamental right to choose," but that the choices presented must be approved by the political correctness committee to avoid male dominance.