Sunday, July 17, 2011

Evolution in Thought

For whatever reason, I find the shower to be a very contemplative place. Before jumping in, I was reading from Mao: A Life by Philip Short about Mao's plan for a Hundred Flowers Movement in which intellectual diversity would be encouraged by the state. Unsurprisingly, it was a ruse to get intellectuals to raise their heads and identify themselves as targets, but it generated a different question in my mind: how many people in their late 20's and 30's have almost the exact same political beliefs as they did at 18? I'm willing to bet that the political thought of most people doesn't evolve much, which is rather frightening. Then, as I always do, I turned self reflexive and pondered my own evolution of thought. 27 is still young, very young in terms of politics, and most biographies on famous leaders show a great deal of change in their philosophies throughout life. As is, though, I'm kind of surprised by how much my own has changed.

  • At age 15-16, I would have been considered a hawkish American Liberal. I supported Clinton during the impeachment mess (I still think that was uncalled for), supported attacking Iraq and Serbia, and generally believed that the government should help out he less fortunate. The 2000 election result was the result of a political Supreme Court. Bush's tax cuts were a waste of money that could be better spent elsewhere.
  • When I was 17, 9/11 happened. This was really the first time I was willing to consider Bush in a positive light. Foreign policy trumped all else in my mind at this time and I began to slide into the Republican camp. Similarly, I had begun a turn to Christianity that tied in well with preexisting social norms I possessed. My first encounter with Ayn Rand occurred by reading The Fountainhead for a scholarship essay; I loved the story but hated her philosophy.
  • From then until about 24, I was a conservative. As I immersed myself into politics and history, I began to consider the economic side of politics, but foreign policy remained the most salient issue for me. To the extent that I cared about politics, it was to lower taxes and spending, but the Republican Party at that time wasn't particularly good about such things. At this time, government still looked like it could be a positive force in shaping society, and I found myself disagreeing quite a bit with Henry David Thoreau.
  • At 21, I read Plato's Republic and Isaiah Berlin's The Proper Study of Mankind. This combination of books would ultimately put me on the road to being a Libertarian, as I learned that "good" is not a unified concept; there are many types of goods that can contradict each other. If that is the case, somebody must decide which goods to pursue and which to leave behind. The only question is, who decides, the government or the individual?
  • At 24, I read J.S. Mill's On Liberty. Reread John C. Calhoun's Disquisition on Government and Locke's Second Treatise of Government. It begins to dawn on me that perhaps the government only exists to keep others off of me (and, of course, me off of others), rather than to improve anyone.
  • At 25, in the wake of Obama's election, I picked up Ayn Rand again, this time reading Atlas Shrugged. I was enthralled by this book; its 1,000 plus pages is full of notes comparing her 1950's fiction with current events, with bailouts and stimulus spending and regulation of companies in favor of unions.
  • Since then, I have picked up the likes of Hayek, Nozick, Rawls, Rothbard, and von Mises. I'm not an Objectivist because I do not believe most people have the same life goals as Rand did. Rather, I see each person's subjective goals as legitimate so long as they respect the life, liberty, and property of others. Though I disagree quite a bit with his analysis, Rothbard has done quite a lot to show me the connection between liberty and economics. The right to liberty and the right to "pursue happiness" or, as Locke put it, property, is not so easily separated. The idea of natural law is giving way to positive law as I wonder about the origin and nature of rights.
This is far from a complete recounting of my political thought, but I think it is clear enough that over the last 10 years I have changed quite a bit in my ideology. I would vehemently disagree with my 18 year old self. In fact, I wish I could find a paper I wrote for my English 101 class taken in high school, in which I argued the First Amendment should be changed in various ways that restrict speech. I would tear it to pieces now.

Looking back, it does not strike me as surprising that my thought would change. Politics and ethics are huge fields. Unfortunately, they also are matters of choice that reflect upon the person holding those views. As most people fundamentally see themselves as moral and ethical, they have a strong psychological reason for not finding out otherwise. The only way to be disabused of false notions is to have them proven wrong before your eyes, when the choice is to admit you were wrong and change your thought or continue unchanged but knowing you are wrong to do so. I put my thought out to be challenged. Unsurprisingly, it has been found wanting more than a few times, but in the end I have a more coherent political philosophy than most people. Many of the dead limbs have been trimmed off.

If we are to live in a successful democracy, more people need to be willing to do this. Hiding behind the "impoliteness" of discussing politics is ridiculous. I consider it far more of an insult for someone to intentionally be ignorant and make decisions over my life than to have a discussion. As the great philosopher Gregory House, MD, once said,

You know I get it if people are just looking for a way to fill the holes. But they want the holes. They wanna to live in the holes. And they go nuts when somebody else pours dirt in their holes. CLIMB OUT OF YOUR HOLES, PEOPLE!

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