Philosophy and Physiology

It will be interesting to see if President Obama and the likely Republican nominee Mitt Romney actually engage each other in a clear debate over the vision each has for America’s future.  If so, this could be one of the most important elections in recent memory.

The core question is what sort of government do we want?

Both laid their respective visions out in speeches they gave to the American Society of Newspaper Editors.

The choice is between the collectivism described by Barack Obama and the individualism described by Mitt Romney.

The Democrats talk about the pain that others feel and our responsibility to build a society that is inclusive and leaves no one behind.  That’s why Democrats see government as a necessary agent to mitigate the myriad of individual risks that cannot be reasonably controlled or predicted.  The grand bargain of the FDR’s New Deal, for example, was crafted in the wake of the great depression which was caused by the unregulated economic expansion and speculation of the 1920’s.  The bargain was that in return for workers continuing bear the risks inherent in even a regulated capitalist economy, the government would also create a social safety net to protect workers when businesses failed or workers could no longer work.

The Republicans only want to talk about success.  Winners should not be encumbered by concern about others.  They should be able reap the full reward for their success without any obligation or responsibility for the repercussions of their success.  Losers, on the other hand, have only themselves (and presumably their dependence on others) to blame.  That’s why Republicans want a much smaller government that doesn’t get involved in protecting individuals or families, doesn’t attempt to regulate business activities, and certainly doesn’t impose higher taxes on the rich than the poor.

This difference in view is consistent with a recent study about the values and language of liberals and conservatives.  That study was described in Jonathan Haidt’s book “The Righteous Mind”.

Liberals value caring for the weak, fairness, and liberty.  They feel that individual success can only occur in an environment where that success does not take advantage of the weak, is not the result of an unfair advantage, and accounts for all potential externalities (e.g. environmental pollution).

Conservatives share those concerns, but define fairness and liberty a little differently.  They also care about loyalty, respect for authority, and sanctity.  That’s why we have seen conservatives attempt to define themselves during the Vietnam era by their respect for institutions like the flag and the military.

Haidt found that these values can be traced to infancy.  Children who were described by their nursery-school teachers as curious, verbally expressive, but sometimes messy and disobedient often grew into liberal Adults.  Children who had a big startle reflex in response to loud noises or disgusting images (think eating worms) grew up to be conservative adults.

In fact a University of Toronto study found that people expressed more conservative views when asked a series of questions about drug use and pornography if they had first washed their hands.  A similar study at Cornell found that subjects only had to be near enough to hand sanitizer to either smell it or see it in their plane of view to behave similarly.

Other studies have suggested that because conservatives share three of the values that motivate liberals, they are able to appreciate why liberals feel the way that they do, even though they may strongly disagree with them.  Liberals on the other hand find it very difficult to understand why conservatives would pick church over the individual on issues like contraception or gay marriage.

If you think about it in the context of language, conservatives can speak the liberal’s language because it is part of their own language.  Liberals, however, are unable to communicate with conservatives when it comes to things like loyalty, respect for authority, and sanctity.  They simply don’t understand the language.  That’s why it has been so hard for liberals to understand why Republicans would waste their time with the flurry of primary issues around loyalty, authority, and sanctity.  From a Democratic perspective these are religious or moral issues and have little or nothing to do with government.  It is why the Democratic Party has had a very difficult time engaging conservative voters in any sort of meaningful dialogue.  It’s also likely why some conservatives characterize liberals as feckless, self-absorbed, solipsistic, and amoral.

This country has been living with New Deal and Great Society institutions for decades.  Those institutions represented by Social Security and Medicare are clearly based on the collectivist liberal principles of empathy, shared risk management, and opportunity creation.  Mr. Obama accurately describes the current Republican ideological position as “an attempt to impose a radical vision on our country”.  He’s right to the extent that the Republican vision questions the fundamental assumptions on which the New Deal and Great Society were founded.

Romney, in articulating the Republican vision, is clearly saying that it IS time to re-examine the assumptions that led to the financial challenges we face in funding the Baby Boomer retirement.  He talks about an earlier (some would say mythical) America where people pulled themselves up by their own bootstraps, didn’t look to others for help, and were successful because they didn’t have any other choice.  That individual success became the foundation for generations of family success, and to hear Romney tell it, our success as a country is based on successful families.  For Republicans, the New Deal was a perversion of the American character rather than an expression of it.  The New Deal led, in the minds of Republicans, to a dangerous dependence on government that robs those at the bottom of the ladder of the incentive to start climbing, and obligates those at the top of the ladder to fund programs that successful people clearly don’t need.  The implication is that if the Democrats hadn’t created this entitlement culture, a significantly larger number of us would be wealthy.

This is the salient question.  Do we want a government whose priority is creating more wealthy people, or do we want a government whose priority is reducing the number of poor people?

Future posts will dig into the implications of both of these visions.

11 Responses to “Philosophy and Physiology”

  1. keith says:

    I’m reading this blog while listening to a debate about Joe Bidens 1.46 percent giving to charity and al gores .02 percent. Finally, no one on the panel argued with one point made siting three studies that conservities give to charity double what librals do. This was atributed to, by the panel, conservetives giving at church. Absent church its the same……

    A lot of spritual wickedness happening out there Jeff…….. Might want to comment….

  2. Jeff Beamsley says:

    If you would like to post a link from a credible source discussing this issue I’d be happy to read it.

    This does get back to the basic question of what sort of government do we want.

    Conservative Republicans are saying that it is NOT government’s role to help those that are in need. Folks like Rep Ryan believe that this is a role more appropriate for families, churches, and charities. I haven’t gone looking for the data, but my gut tells me that the math doesn’t work. You only have to look at things like Katrina, the BP Oil Spill, or the challenge of purchasing hurricane insurance in Florida. But clearly this isn’t about math, it is about philosophy.

  3. keith says:

    Please review the mainstream media reporting of;

    GSA – spending….

    Cartagena hookers

    Military personal posing with dead corps

    Now imagine the same events and the mainstream medias reporting under a president bush. The posing with dead corpses and Aubu grab are probably pretty similar with personal doing what ought not be done.

    Also notice how the republicans are NOT, at least yet from what I’ve seen, blaming Obama and how we are a lesser nation and in general helping lead the rest of the world, including our enemies, in cheers of how rehensible we are.

    I DO NOT blame Obama for this. None of the above is the policy of his administration. Just as I didn’t not blame Bush.

  4. Jeff Beamsley says:

    Wasn’t too hard to find these.

    The criticisms the Bush administration received for Abu Ghraib were deserved because they revealed a POLICY of interrogation which included torture and humiliation and were clearly violations of the Geneva Convention.

    The difference is that in the most recent cases in Afghanistan, these were Marines who were violating military policy.

    In the case of Abu Ghraib, it was MP’s who were replicating techniques used by the interrogators for their own sport. Also the highest ranking officer charged, Lt Col Jordan, was acquitted of all charges when Maj General Fay admitted that he didn’t read Jordan his rights prior to questioning him. Jordan received a reprimand for disobeying on order not to discuss the investigation.

    Brig General Janis Karpinski who was in charge of the prison was demoted to colonel which effectively ended her career. She claimed she knew nothing of abuses, claimed the interrogations were authorized by her superiors, conducted by non-military contractors, and she was expressly forbidden by her superiors to be present. In a BBC interview, she said she was a scapegoat and the real villain was General Ricardo Sanchez who was in charge of the Iraq war, championed this strategy, and brought in the same contractors that were being used at Guantanamo.

    The only people who actually ended up in jail were the enlisted people who took the pictures.

  5. Keith says:

    Your first to links are reporting on Romeny and the republicans complaining about the GSA. I do not hear a daily DRUMBEAT by the mainstream media doing so….NOTHING!!! Obama’s name is not mentioned in connection with these events. I’m not suggesting, today, that it should, only that if it were Bush, purely speculation here, they WOULD BE SCREAMING IT!!!!!!!!!

  6. Jeff Beamsley says:


    I’m sorry but the facts simply don’t support your claim.,0,6292623.story

    If the media were so much in the tank for Obama as you claim and the right wing talking heads bleat every week, how do you explain the HUGE amount of negative coverage that he has been receiving?

    It’s also not just the negative coverage.

    It’s also the outright hostility that appears to pass these days for acceptable speech.

    Ted Nugent, for example, spoke at an NRA convention and appeared to issue a serious enough threat to the President’s life if he is re-elected that the Secret Service paid him a call. The NRA crowd cheered and the best that the Romney campaign could come up with is “Divisive language is offensive no matter what side of the political aisle it comes from. Mitt Romney believes everyone needs to be civil.”

    This comes a month or so after Romney personally thanked Nugent for his endorsement.

    When Obama was in a similar position regarding Rev. Wright, he advised him to tone it down. When Rev Wright refused, Obama cut all ties with him.

    Think we are going to see similar action from Romney?

  7. keith says:

    You fail to understand the broader point. Pointing out what terrible ted said and failing to observe the daily work of ABC, CBS, NBC, CNN and most major newspapers is the point.

  8. Jeff Beamsley says:


    There you go again. Not only using that right wing Murdoch rag called the New York Post, but this is an OPINION column. It’s so far away from truth that even a newspaper that has no claim to any set of journalistic ethics feels compelled to call it out as OPINION.

    This is SO far off the mark in terms of what is really going on that it doesn’t even deserve a response.

    Go do your homework and find articles in reputable newspapers who all covered this same story and come up with very different conclusions.

    As far as the POINT is concerned, academic research by an unbiased foundation says you are wrong and Obama coverage (in all media) has had a huge negative bias ever since the Republican primaries began.

    If you can come up with similar research to support your point of view, please post it. Otherwise given the choice, I’m going to choose to believe the Pew Foundation.

  9. keith says:

    Last try…….
    Please spend two weeks watching the news on abc, cbs, nbc and cnn. Flip the channels very quickly…….then you’ll get it. If you don’t then I don’t know what to say to you…..

  10. Jeff Beamsley says:

    Let’s see if I understand this correctly.

    You’re suggesting that rather than trust the professional researchers who just released a study on the political slant of media coverage I should spend some time doing my own study?

    Remember I’m the guy who already believes that broadcast media (with the exception of public stations) is no longer a reliable unbiased source of information. So what new insight are you suggesting I’m going to gain from this exercise?

  11. Keith says:

    Most casual participents gets their news from the above. They can not
    help but be influeneced by the way it is presented. (since it is a casual participation) If you would at least LOOK and LISTEN to whats being presented I will be satisfied. The most recent example is NBC Andrea Mitchells comment 2 or 3 nights ago…. This is a LEAD person on NBC’s news team….. It never stops

    “I had the advantage or disadvantage, as the case may be, of watching Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich at the same time on side-by-side screens,” NBC’s Andrea Mitchell said on MSNBC’s “Last Word” tonight.
    “It’s my job, someone has to do it,” she added

    This is constant and never ending…..I would invite you to watch….
    It is also interseting to watch the same cordinated news cast on all of them. The news being covered many times are even IN THE SAME ORDER!!!!!!!!!!! Its fasinating to say the least

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