The Venn Diagram of Politics
Updated: Oct 29, 2020
There is no lacking in our ability to identify issues currently present in the United States today and no shortage of subsequent discussion. Inevitably, when discussing any issue (especially those of the societal variety) beyond just identification, there is the question: “What shall be done?” Equally true is that there is also no shortage of potential solutions that individuals have been able to produce. Therefore, the question of “What shall be done” has never really been left without response yet we feel as though it has, either because there is a failure to implement a resolution or the problem seems to be persistent regardless of previous attempts. This has coincided with the fact that the solutions put forward for our ailments have almost exclusively been of the political persuasion—that is to say that the American public has become accustomed to relegating the act of problem solving to the political arena and the legislative powers that be.
This is not to say that the idea of a political solution is always a negative, that is certainly not the case. There are a great deal of instances where the actions of government are both necessary and helpful. However, there is a necessary question that must be addressed prior to our asking of what should be done and that is: “In what manner shall we act?” Or put more plainly: first asking whether the issue at hand is a political one or a private one. Does this issue require the public to bear its burden or is it best left up to our private institutions: the family, churches, unions, businesses, and charities to handle? Of course, this question is also subject to just as fierce of a debate as the subsequent resolutions but that does not mean that the importance of asking such a question rather than assuming a political approach is nullified. To that end, it must be asked whether such a question holds any plausibility in present circumstances.
A Culture of Instant Gratification
There is a certain attractiveness within the swiftness and strength of a political action. The resources of the United States government are vast and the implementation of a law has a degree of finality to it such that there is no wonder why the role of government has expanded at such a pace in the last century. There is also good reason for this as well, as society has grown denser, more urban, and more complex, the government has had to follow suit in regards to its role and its involvement in daily life. It is not the role of this treatment here to assign such a change a moral value but instead to see it, in many ways, as an inevitability. Therefore, the problem is not so much as seeing the state as a potential solution but rather confusing its strength for efficiency and effectiveness.
There is no private organization that can match the weight of power behind the government(s) of the United States in both enforcement of law and spending power. This kind of power can easily be equated to an untapped potential in solving any number of issues that plague our present society. Mass shootings becoming frequent in our schools? Ban the guns. Millions are living without health insurance? Provide a single payer healthcare system. The environment has become degraded due to human development? Regulate the businesses, create a green economy. In any of these examples there is almost a beautiful simplicity to these solutions, no one can act in the same way that the authority of government can and even if they did it would be too slow in an age where our problems seem so tremendous. However, despite the power and simplicity of such resolve, we are forced to acknowledge that our desire to see problems immediately resolved is not the means by which we should seek answers to our problems.
At some point, the American public must become aware of its history and the stark reality that there never has been a time nor will there ever be a time in which all problems have been resolved. No one would admit that they had such a hopeful outlook for the future but we certainly operate as if the issues we face are solvable and with the right legislation we will be much nearer to utopia than we think. Let us put such fanciful notions out of our heads immediately as if it is a bad dream. There is no combination of action to be had, political or otherwise, that can contend with the weight of immorality and ignorance present within all of humanity. History demonstrates this fact time and time again. Even the actions taken would be riddled with the presence of deficiencies, that in many cases, the cure proves just as deplorable as the disease. Therefore, the desire for quick resolutions is ill-fated, as Seneca says: “Prolonged help is needed against evils that are ceaseless and fertile- not to stop them, but to stop them from winning.”
Arguments of Efficiency
Still, the argument persists that even if one were to accept the premise that the desire for quick action is a poor basis for legislation, does not discredit political responses to problems. This is true and in no way does the argument seek to discredit wholesale the functions of government. There are certainly actions on the part of the state that must be swift and decisive, such as with a declaration of war. In fact, all political actions hold, in their very essence, an element of speed since the passage of a law can be quite quick and following the signature from the executive its implementation is near instant. Instead it is the democratic process of deliberation and debate that creates friction in the gears of government, it is the subsequent implementation that is easy.
Following this the more common argument for the assumption of political resolution is what could be called: “Arguments of efficiency.” In this scenario the deliberations of democracy are regarded as a strength rather than a weakness in the functions of the state. With enough planning, with enough data, and with enough technological advancement, legislation may reach a point in which it is efficient and effective in solving most societal woes. The ideals of Transhumanism come to mind in this case where the future scientific and sociological progress of humanity will soon outstrip present material concerns. Once again, the utopian dream finds its way in political thought, except this time it takes the form of evolutionary hopes.
The issue with the argument of efficiency can be best outlined in using the philosophical language of Aristotle. The problems are only materially considered rather than given both formal and final consideration. So as to say that the question of legislation is how to improve projected figures and data points in which struggles are removed and some arbitrary measure of prosperity is secured. Or, more simply put, politics becomes about science rather than philosophy. Little attention is given to the justice of an action, whether it forms a more virtuous citizenry, or cares for the moral well-being of a nation. The actions of government would no longer be rooted in any longstanding principle of how we should seek to live and organize ourselves within a society. Individuals become nothing more than percentages and data points as governments seek only the infinite goal of improving projected figures.
Legislating Our Way to Morals: A Few Counterarguments
Immediately there are counterarguments to the previous points that must be addressed before continuing. One is that the “morals” or “virtue” of citizens is of no concern to the state whatsoever and is only a concern of the private sphere, the separation between that of church and state is absolute. The second is the belief that any action taken by the government has its genesis in some principle. There is no way to eliminate this as it is the nature of our political behavior. Rather than providing each of these claims with its own treatise, some general remarks will be sufficient for present purposes. An entire reorientation of our political thought is necessary, down to the very foundation of how we perceive and consider, meaning that the concern is one of definitions.
The first thing to note is that the belief that the virtue and morality of a country is abjectly not a political concern is both impractical and perhaps even immature. It is inevitable that the actions of government will in some way establish or set the example of some moral or virtue; even for the most ardent libertarian who would advocate for government to be as minimal as possible would be establishing the belief that the flourishing of a society requires the maximization of individual liberty. Perhaps this is a conflation and what is really meant is that the state cannot dictate the morality of a free people. Once again, this falls into the trap in which the belief of being free is moral and if the government actively protects said freedom then it is enforcing that moral belief, but let us entertain the argument even further.
Typically, what is imagined is an allowance of religious belief to dictate political policy which would inherently threaten the autonomy of citizens and represent a theocratic overreach. It should first be stated that all government dealings should err on the side of autonomy as it is foundational to human flourishing in both an individual and communal sense. A theocratic tyranny (or conservative authoritarianism in a more modern sense) is a possibility when political systems become wedded to a religious dogma. However, the concern of the community or the state over the virtuous well-being of the individual should be a primary function of statecraft; theocratic overreach is a concern regarding practice rather than principles. This is because freedom is a tool that is used to secure the proper ends of how we should live, to become people of character that are well orientated towards the virtues. Thus a symbiotic relationship formed: the nation having helped to secure freedom must aim at setting the example for its fulfillment in common while individuals in their autonomy become the virtuous citizens that are capable of being those model leaders in their respective communities.
The previous point can be clarified still further in countering the argument that all legislation finds its inception in some principle which is once more a confusion of terms. As an example, the passage of a single payer healthcare system could be argued as being rooted in a principle of compassion. The argument would claim that there are certain sectors of the economy best left out of the hands of private enterprise and that the government has a vested interest in ensuring that everyone has access to quality healthcare through the provision of state funded insurance. Certainly it is true that some or most people that make such an argument believe such a policy demonstrates compassion for the plight of the uninsured and maybe they are right but this counter falls short in one distinctive way: such a policy of compassion does not, in its essence, form compassion in people. It is the final cause that is curiously left out of the discussion.
The same could be said for say economic deregulation where some would argue that the principle is the maximization of the freedom of the individual but in no way is concern given to true maximization of an individual’s freedom beyond a purely economic sense. The modern political dichotomy should cease pretending that their policy is [mostly] aimed at anything other than the material cause. As a general statement, most legislative action today primarily cares for the pursuit of material ends, which once again returns to the original problem of only considering issues from the vantage of data points and percentages. The inevitable result is an atomistic society where the political body of our communities are seen as something that we take from rather than give to. Purpose becomes centered around material success and achievement at the individual level with little to no concern given for altruism, inclusion, humility, virtue, and love as the community withers away into nothing more than the halls of political debate. Thus we are presented with an uneasy tension: morals cannot be achieved legislatively as this does violence to the individual but a political body that is not concerned with the character of its citizens does violence to the community.
Small Towns on the Plains of Texas
There is no simple solution to the tension that underpins politics. It is best to view politics as a scale that is constantly in the act of finding balance between the individual and the community, as well as the material and the final cause. It should once again be reiterated that this is a ceaseless act where political action must always be willing to adapt and never believe that any specific course of action will bring an end to present concerns. Once again, we return to the dichotomy of the private and the public spheres. The issue is one of orientation, politics is only one part of the equation, one part of the scale if you will, in which the other side consists of our private and cultural institutions. Their importance cannot be understated; it is the private institutions that we participate in that are primarily responsible for the moral development of the individual both consciously and subconsciously.
At this point, the use of a quote by political theorist Simon Yves in Philosophy of Democratic Government is relevant to the purpose at hand:
The progress of society and of liberty requires that at every given moment in the evolution of a community the greatest possible number of tasks should be directly managed by individuals and smaller units, the smallest possible number by the greater units. But, with regard to the essential functions of authority, there is no conflict whatsoever between authority and liberty. The more definitely a community is directed towards its common good and protected from disunity in its common action, the more perfect and the more free it is.
There is no downplaying the importance that such institutions have in both the preservation of liberty and the progress of society in general. The private institutions: family, religion, common language, private education, freedom of the press, free enterprise, labor unions, common law etc. all form what could be generally regarded as the social fabric of a society. These all uniquely and organically develop over the course of history and form the foundational principles and morals by which free and private citizens live, work, and commune with each other. It is by no accident that there is such a fundamental belief in a trial by a jury of our peers here in the United States, a hope that all children will grow up in a healthy home with both mother and father, and an expectation that one should be honest and abide by the terms of a contract.
Politics simply cannot be the substitute for character development, provide the impetus for moral behavior, nor can it sufficiently recreate the authenticity of individual compassion and charity. The erosion of the private sphere has necessitated that politics begin to fill a role that it simply cannot. This is because when politics fills such a space, the very things that once formed the principles of our beliefs and banded people together are now subjected to the political sphere: a place of debate and power. However, there is one thing that institutions cannot provide: unity of purpose. The private sphere may be bound together by common belief, culture, and even law but it lacks a sense of nationhood. All private institutions seek their own particular goods but these goods are usually never held in common or fail in being a transcendent good that does not diminish itself through individual participation. Without supplying an exhaustive definition of what is meant by “transcendent good”, let it suffice to say that politics provides the means by which we may rise above our own particular goods and instead share commonality in final ends as a nation.
At the core of this pursuit the common good and the balance of the public and private spheres is the fundamental need for community. The concept of nation is as much a community (albeit far more complex) as a labor union or a small membership of friends. In every case, individuals find themselves supported by interconnected networks of relationships that form ever more complex communities and institutions. It is important that we acknowledge this pursuit of community and respect it. Every individual is an integral piece to the whole and we must make the decision as to whether or not these communities we form are strong bonds of friendship and common purpose or are mere contractual relationships easily broken at the first sign of trouble or profit. Equally important to the balancing scale, however, is that each community is given its proper place. So as to say that we should expect the family unit, as an institution and form of community, will have its role to play but we would not seek to imitate its method of organization at every level. This bears stating because there are times in which the success of an organization leads others to believe that such actions should be imitated at greater levels of authority and complexity. Such as when urban voters place small rural towns under their purview, they are unwittingly committing an injustice because the city and the farming community have, in their essences, two different ends. This works both ways, an overlap in desirable traits between groups does not necessitate a policy of conformity; society is messy and should remain that way.
Big Government Conservatism and Unyielding Progressivism
There were a number of terms that were used in the previous section whose definitions are neither completely self-evident nor contextually obvious. In order to further explain what is meant by these terms and what the desired end goal is, it would perhaps be best to identify what they do not mean. The present US political system is certainly a far cry from balance and well order between public and private spheres. The root of the issue lays with the philosophies that form the modern renditions of conservatism and progressivism rather than the structure of the system itself.
To begin with, progressivism holds an outlook that is orientated towards the future. In its very name it seeks to be forward thinking, empathetic, egalitarian, and reforming. These are all fantastic qualities, political systems and private institutions should always be self-reflective and seek to reform as society and circumstances change over time. There is also the virtues of compassion and empathy that the progressive places within the public sphere which are qualities sorely lacking in government. It is fundamentally important for both the character and health of a nation to acknowledge and care for the disadvantaged, the vulnerable, and the invisible just the same as the common working man or woman. A proper progressive is someone who brings all of these groups to the forefront and seeks after the liberty, fulfillment, and advancement of all people through the egalitarian reform of unjust hierarchies.
However, there is a deep-seated philosophical issue with progressivism, a problem of inordinate love. It is in the name: progressivism is an orientation that advocates for a ceaseless movement forward, and forward being loosely defined to whatever suits the issue at hand. It is not respect and adoration for private institutions that drives the desire for reform but rather the supposed bounty of an imagined future. This love of future possibilities tends to prevent the modern progressive from loving or appreciating what is currently at hand in the present, and in more extreme cases, detests current circumstances. Institutions do not adapt and change as quickly as desired, individuals of various cultures and beliefs prove to be sluggish or resistant to what is seen as necessary changes, the imagined future must be brought to the present for fear of continued injustices. So, the movement begins to devolve and appeals to the power of the government to force rapid change upon the whole of society, if the nation must be dragged along kicking and screaming then so be it. But what is truly occurring is a scorched earth policy; institutions, communities, and ways of life will be attacked and even destroyed as necessary sacrifices for the progressive dream to the point that the very things they hoped to better will either be defaced or destroyed.
Conservatism is harder to grasp as it is not necessarily a specific political orientation but rather a perspective or attitude. Conservatism can be generally defined as a belief and love of the private sphere in general and hopes to preserve the tradition and social institutions that comprise it. Whereas progressives can be characterized as looking towards the future in hope, conservatives look towards the past with fondness and respect. This is important because it establishes a love of place, of nation, that creates and preserves the unique identity and rights of a people. The work of the conservative is not as tangible as the progressive and presents itself as far more organic in nature. Perhaps the best example would be the body of common law established in the Anglo-American political tradition in which judges are able to create legal precedence over time by analyzing the past and the moral character of the society through the application of stare decisis. Conservatives seek to love and cultivate the organic development of such institutions that together weave the social fabric of a nation together and makes the bonds of community, tradition, and commonality strong.
Conservatives can degenerate in several ways but mainly it is through the adoption of hypocrisy. The neo-conservative camp has lacked an intellectual consistency and has focused more upon an issues platform rather than remaining true to its philosophical dispositions. Modern conservatives have coalesced around particular issues such as free markets, illegal immigration, and foreign policy as an argument of efficiency rather than from the traditional conservative philosophy of the preservation of institutions and beliefs. In fact, neoconservatives have shown an equal degree of willingness as the modern progressive to use the forces of government to infringe upon liberty and attack other private institutions for the sake of preserving others. There are numerous examples: the protection of the rights of corporations while attacking the work of labor unions or avidly defending the freedom of speech only to attack the legitimacy of educational institutions or journalism writ large. Granted, the conservative task of balancing all of these disparate, competing concerns among the varying institutions is not an easy one and has only grown more difficult in recent years. However, conservatism remains more of an attitude rather than an ideology, varying from nation to nation dependent on history and culture. The more it is treated as a political platform or party, then the more inclined it is to carve out enclaves for itself as desperate bulwarks against progressivism through the strong arm of government.
The Elusive Goal
There is a symbiotic relationship between that of the common good and the private and public spheres. Our political and social institutions must always be orientated towards this elusive notion of the common good in order for us to act appropriately, yet in order for the common good to be actualized there must be a well-ordered balance between the two spheres. Just as there is an inherent difficulty in the ceaseless balancing act between the public and the private; the pursuit of a definitive definition of the common good at the individual and communal level will always remain an arduous yet noble pursuit.
The common good can be manifested in a number of ways and is not exhausted by the participation of individuals but is rather expanded. When an individual devotes herself to consistent study habits, when a father plays with his daughter after work, when a business maintains a caring relationship with its employees, and when motorists all obey the rules of a four-way intersection, these are all examples of the common good materially actualized in the everyday. Acts of love, respect, and an acknowledgement of communal values and ethical norms that bind us together and cause us to flourish. However, it is not the responsibility of the individual to consider how best to bring about the common good and should only really think or be aware of the common good in a theoretical or formal sense. Individuals should be dedicated to the perfection of their craft and to the communities and institutions to which they belong, to be concerned with the common good as a whole detracts from our individual efforts that help to bring it about.
Yet still the common good is not the summation of individual, particular goods formed into a whole. It is not millions of tiny individual acts that form to make a whole but rather it is the common good which allows those same acts to occur in the first place. For the common good to be actualized in the life of the individual it must first be pursued in the halls of our political institutions. It is the charge of the government and the public sphere to materially consider what the common good is; to balance competing interests, to implement justice in the correction of wrongdoing and the preservation of rights, to help preserve our institutions and values, and if need be, to reform those institutions as an act of preservation. The pursuit of the common good for a society is the vital predicate for securing the blessings of liberty for each and every individual.
 Yves, Simon, Philosophy of Democratic Government (Notre Dame, Ind: University of Notre Dame Press, 1993).