Ask most people what their political persuasion is and they will typically respond "right or left" or "conservative or liberal." I have come to view these terms as extremely reductive labels that tell me little about one's beliefs. Often two people can have identical policy positions, but for very different reasons. To have a clearer understand of politics it's necessary to outline and enumerate philosophical and economic categories and determine were we fall in the believe spectrum. Often these different categories combine to produce seemingly contradictory positions, such as Ron Paul's simultaneously opposition to federal measures that outlaw abortion and his pro-life stance.
1. Conservative Affect vrs Liberal Affect: Liberals are commonly assumed to be more open minded than conservatives, yet many have conservative affects, in other words they are resistant to challenges to their beliefs or policies. For example, social security clearly is clearly unsustainable in its present form, yet most progressives howl in protest when even modest reforms are proposed and rarely offer alternatives. And whether we agree with their positions or not, the greatest challenges to the status quo in public education comes from so called conservatives. The paradox of progressive close mindedness is most pronounced in issues of race, gender and ethnicity. When the former president of Harvard Lawrence Summers presented the question that perhaps there may be some non-social reasons why women have a less pronounced presence in the sciences, rather than spark intelligent debate and research, he was immediately called upon to resign by progressive staff.
In general, those who are most oriented towards a liberal affect are best able to deal with a crisis that challenges the status quo. It's important to note that increasing the degree to which we implement a current policy, does not indicate an inclination towards change. Progressives who believe that the only solution to California's fiscal implosion is to increase the tax burden (which is ranked 6th highest in the nation) are certainly not demonstrating an inclination towards open-mindedness and innovation.
2. Fiscal Orientation vrs Fiscal Indifference: The clearest litmus test for where you fall on this spectrum is your take on expanding the federal government's role in health care. Believe it or not, I would like to see the government offer a public option to help increase the quantity and quality of health care that poor, uninsured Americans enjoy. However, we simply cannot ignore the fact that without enacting dramatic cuts in the budget, this path would greatly increase our already massive national debt. Yet, many progressives act with little or no concern towards fiscal reality. A fiscally oriented progressive would realize that at this point in history we have to choose between: universal health care, social security or cap-and-trade and directing our military towards futile nation building. To simultaneously pursue all four is a supreme act of hubris that truly threatens the future of our republic.
3. Economic Statist vrs Market Oriented: Do you believe that foundation for America's unparalleled prosperity is the energy, innovation and inventions of entrepreneurs like Bill Gates? Do you believe that a generally free economic environment is conducive towards creativity and growth, in spite of the malfeasance of some corporations? Or, is your 1st impulse that the private sector should be curtailed and directed by a benign state?
Do you believe that over the long run, a society increases its general wealth and welfare when the allocation of capital and labor is determined by the state or by a free market? Are the short term benefits of state intervention is generally outweighed by the long term costs via market distortions and a misallocation of capital?
Note: a free market orientation does not mean that we reject the presence of clear and basic rules to ensure transparency, contracts, reasonable environmental and labor standards and a safety net. And it generally does not mean that we are inclined or averse towards a strong social safety net; that is an entirely different philosophical category.
4. Individual Choice vrs Sheltered Individuals: Do you generally believe that greater good comes from maximizing the opportunity of individuals to make their own economic choices (that you may deem unwise) or the state should shield individuals from their folly?
The litmus test is if you believe that the individuals who chose to undertake high(er) interest home loans are "victims of predatory lending" and such loans should not be available to them.
Do you believe that it's an individual right to determine if (given other available options) it's in their interest to work in Walmart or in order to prevent them from making this "bad choice," we must eliminate it as an option?
And does facing the consquences of their choices encourage individuals and society as a whole to evolve towards more socially and economically sound behaviors?
5. Centralization of State Power vrs Self Governance: Is greater good achieved by having the federal government promote uniform social and economic mandates across the nation or allow diverse communities to work together to forge their own solutions to their social and economic concerns? Do you share Jefferson's belief that states and municipalities are the "laboratories of democracy," in other words the nation as a whole can learn from the successes and failures oof policies undertaken by different communities?
The increasingly uncommon orientation towards self governance often produces seemingly contradictory positions. For example, as someone who is market oriented and believes in maximizing individual choice, I believe that excluding Walmart from your community is overall an unwise decision. However, as someone who strongly believes in the rights of communities to shape their economic and social destinies, I believe it's their right to make this unwise choice.
And although I fully support the rights of gays to marry, having the federal government impose uniform social standards on communities with diverse values and visions is an unwise path. Such actions are a recipe for alienation, conflict and an erosion of popular involvement in local politics and civil society.
And those who now use the federal government to promote their social agendas should be aware that the direction of political and social winds may one day change and an expanded interventionist state may be used to impose policies on their communities that they would find deeply distasteful.
Although it's far from a perfect solution, allowing individuals to "vote with their feet" and move to communities that reflect their social and economic values is a compromise that maintains the integrity of our union. Rather than seek to use the federal government to impose my values on other communities, I choose to live in a community that reflects my values. In practical terms this means that I would only live in a city that chooses to respect the rights of gays to marry and those who are deeply offended by this are welcome to move to communities that reflect their more traditional vision of social life.
6. Constitutionally Oriented vrs Constitutional Sophistry: To put it simply, does one seek to enact laws and policies inspired by the spirit of and conforming to the letter of the constitution or do they engage in sophistry and mental gymnastics to justify political agendas that clearly do not conform to the fundamentals of the constitution? This does not mean that we the people do not have the right to enact dramatic change to the laws of the land, it simply means that when we do so by proposing, debating and voting on new amendments. In terms of policies, the end result may be the same, however when policy shifts through this means, we will limit the ability of politicians to arbitrarily and capriciously impose their will on the people. And of course we will seriously erode the checks and balances that the founding fathers placed on the three branches of government to protect the people from tyranny.
Adhering to the spirit and the letter of the constitution can be a frustrating path, because it slows the speed and extent to which we can pursue our desired policies. For example, I (reluctantly) admit that it makes economic sense for the federal government to mandate that all citizens purchase health insurance, but I am quite certain that this is in violation of the constitution. And even though it may be economically beneficial to have the federal government mandate that banks increase their loans to the public, nowhere in the constitution is this power granted to the federal government. And although I have zero tolerance for Al-Qaeda terrorists, I believe that it is a violation of the constitution to indefinitely hold enemy combatants without trying them, be it through a military or civilian court. Curtailing the ability of the federal government to react rapidly and resolutely to social and economic problems is a small price to pay for maintaining safeguards against the arbitrary and tyrannical expression of political power.
So next time someone asks you if you are "right wing" or "left wing," "liberal" or "conservative," walk away because the conversation will be as informative as a box of chocolate chip cookies.