The divide between progressives and conservatives isn’t entirely a schism of opposing principles. While I believe plenty of conservatives do, indeed, live in a parallel universe in which my “bad” is their “good” and vice versa, that’s not true of all of them. In fact, I know several conservatives whose attitudes about treating others with dignity and respect mirror mine. We may differ in the extent to which we believe others deserve said treatment, but we’re on the same side of the equation. We differ, though, in two fundamental ways.
The first difference is that my conservative acquaintances seem to be more attuned to the costs of “doing good” than to the fundamental obligation to do it. That is, their approach to how we provide social safety nets (for example) seems to be: We provide a safety net only to those in dire need and only until the available money runs out. I disagree with that philosophy. You don’t buy only staples for the pantry and then stop when you have no more money—your pantry ends up full of flour and sugar and your menu might as well be poison. In my view, that is a backward approach to meeting objectives. My belief is that you should fashion your grocery budget around meeting needs, in priority order—the budget should be the financial expression of your plan. You plan a balanced menu and determine what it’s going to cost for the ingredients. If the costs exceed available dollars, you look to make adjustments in both income and spending. First, work on generating more revenue. Then, if necessary, modify the menu by removing items in reverse priority order—the empty calories go first.
The second distinction between my conservative acquaintances and me also revolves, tangentially, around money. I get the impression that many of them equate financial stability with goodness. The greater one’s financial stability, the better the person. The reverse, in their views, is also true. They seem to believe that the degree to which a person lives in poverty (or simply is not financially secure) reflects on the person’s willingness to work to accumulate wealth—that is, a person who has less is less.
I can live with a poor approach to spending and planning. A wrong-headed approach to fiscal policy is upsetting, but I can counter the arguments in favor of such a policy with logical arguments against it. But the idea that a person’s worth equates in some way to his or her wealth, or lack thereof, bothers me in ways that stoke my emotional fires. Logic can’t win the game when it’s automatically excluded from the rule book. The belief that levels of wealth defines a person’s value is what allows these conservatives to believe in providing a limited social safety net. It’s what allows them to say, “Once a person has gotten welfare for a year, they should be dropped…let them figure out that they need to work to make ends meet.” These conservatives are perfectly comfortable saying, “There’s a limit to my pity.” That gets at a clear difference between us. They speak of pity clarify that it’s a commodity in limited supply. I don’t look at it as pity. I look at it as compassion. And compassion may have its limits, but I think it’s in much greater supply than pity. Compassion is more likely to engender action, I believe, than is pity.
Yet despite our differing philosophies, I share a limited perspective with conservatives about money. I understand conservatives’ frustration at hearing all the things progressives say they want government to do, things requiring huge amounts of money, without hearing about the sources of funding for these things. It’s as if the progressives have only gotten part way through the planning process I mentioned above. The rhetoric covers the plan, but never adequately gets at how it will be expressed in financial terms. Now, I believe progressives are, in general, conscious of the fact that a burgeoning national debt and monstrous deficits potentially do massive harm. And I think they are optimistic that compassionate policies ultimately will bring about fiscal stability. But optimism is useless unless coupled with well-conceived plans executed and regularly measured and adjusted.
I’m wandering all over the place here, revealing a left-of-center social philosophy with a centrist fiscal bent. I wonder if the two can meld into good policy in the political arena. Not just policy on which the major political parties can agree, but policy that actually works. I have my fears. But if the extreme far ends of the political spectrum can be cast aside for the moment, I believe the possibility exists for an uncomfortable, but workable, middle ground to settle in. Mild discomfort is, in my opinion, far preferable to the agony of today’s ‘normal’ social political discourse ripping us to shreds. Maybe we’ll all simply become too tired to fight and will out of physical and mental necessity just agree to an unsatisfactory middle ground in which everyone gains and everyone loses and everyone’s willing to compromise.