Tuesday, February 21, 2012

A Nation Divided

I am utterly and completely baffled that Rick Santorum is being taken seriously as a candidate for the Presidency of the United States. I always try hard to see things through the eyes of others, including those with vastly divergent views from my own. In fact, I take a sort of pride in my ability to do so even when I personally find a particular set of beliefs to be reprehensible. I feel that only by fully understanding why a person would come to believe such things can you form a decent argument against those beliefs.

Now, I didn't intend for this blog to be a political blog. However, we Americans are heading into election season, and it's hard to avoid thinking about such things when you're reading about them wherever you look. Besides that, there is a lot to think about beyond merely this election. The future of the country as a whole is something less clear than it was once thought, and there are issues that will need to be addressed in the coming years.

Back to Rick Santorum, though. This man has an extremely regressive belief structure with gaping holes in every argument he makes. He is a bigot who is blind to his own blind spots, a fatal flaw for any leader as far as I am concerned. But, unfortunately, he is also expressing views held by a large swath of the country, where a very strange mix of libertarianism and Christian evangelicalism has taken hold (never mind that Christianity and libertarianism are not particularly compatible). Essentially, they want the government out of their financial matters (i.e., they don't like taxes), but they want strong government presence in social matters, with an emphasis on Christian morality (on which they believe this country to be founded).

This view is completely at odds with reality in many ways. For one, the country was demonstrably and explicitly not founded with Christianity at its center. While it's true that Christianity was the dominant religion at the time (and still is), those whose ideas shaped the country clearly wanted a country whose laws did not depend on the popular myths of the day. The original ideas are very humanist, not particular to any religion.

Another issue I have is that you can't defund the government and also make it a moral guardian. Defunding the government - the libertarian ideal of making it as small as possible - has gained traction as a way to stop it from being wasteful. After all, if the government has less ability to act, it has less ability to waste. But there are many areas where the government is the only party equipped to act properly (defense, law enforcement, infrastructure), so you need it for some things. And you need it to maintain the collective good in cases where individuals damage it by acting toward their own ends.

As an example of what I mean, I turn to baseball, ten years ago. Steroid use is rampant among major leaguers and gives anyone who uses it a leg up on the competition (i.e., other players). It's a highly competitive sport, so a large number of players use steroids, despite their dangers. If a player doesn't want to use steroids, well, he puts himself at a disadvantage and, if he's a borderline player, may shut down his career. So even though he doesn't want to, he uses steroids. It requires an external force, a governing body, to impose a regulation on player behavior, mandating a lack of steroid use, in order to stop this spiral from continuing, one that will end with all players being collectively worse off but no one having an advantage (because everyone is on steroids). It's better for everyone if no player uses steroids, but it's better for each player if he uses them. Therefore, you have to maintain the collective health by imposing rules that limit behavior.

This is what the government can do that private industry cannot do.

Unfortunately, the government is indeed wasteful. But the way to cut the waste isn't to defund it. That just keeps the same proportion of waste to good work and doesn't fix the problem of what to do about all those things for which a government is needed. Do you think that pork projects will be the first thing to go when you cut government funding? No. Realistically, there will always be waste in the government. All we can do is create incentives to mitigate it. But that's for another diatribe.

Getting back to my point, a portion of the country sees pluralism and the embracing of our changing culture as a bad thing. It sees all movement as degradation. Those who are railing against gay marriage are the modern equivalent of those who railed against miscegenation. They channel the neophobic tendencies of the people into specific causes masked as religious ones (e.g., if being against gay marriage is so against the will of God, where are all of the people protesting divorce, which is much more explicitly condemned by Jesus in the Bible?).

It deeply bothers me that this country has so many people in it who think Rick Santorum is presidential material. Mitt Romney isn't as scary because he doesn't actually stand for anything. He's all of Bill Clinton's sliminess and ideological meandering without any of the charisma. Newt Gingrich is intelligent but a total hothead and clearly not a man who believes in what he says.

So I've been thinking that it would be kind of cool to try out splitting the country up. I say let the south secede. Let them try it their way. See how far it gets them. Let them see how it works out when you remove social safety nets and force religion down people's throats (see Virginia's soon-to-be law), when you stop regulating companies. We'll see if that invisible hand forces them to stop poisoning the water.

Of course that won't happen. We're stuck together. I guess I'll just have to figure out some way of understanding how people can think these things.

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