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Thoughts on the Really Big Picture

John on January 10, 2012 at 3:19 pm

Recently the President said this:

I’m not sure the Native Americans or the wagon trains who encountered them on the trail west would agree. But I think this one statement gets to the heart of many of the biggest divides in American culture. It plays out all over the landscape in ways political, practical and religious. At base it’s a simple question about the nature of man and the universe. It’s so basic that it often goes unremarked.

For conservatives you see it in the embrace of faith (mostly Christian faith in the US) and related to that in the rejection of unguided evolution, which is unusually high in the US. Both positions are to some degree guided by a desire to escape unpleasant alternatives about the nature of existence, i.e. that the universe is cold, uncaring and ultimately pointless.

Progressives tend to be far more secular and are more likely to to accept evolution. If this makes the world cruel, that’s simply how it is. Indeed, progressives tend to idolize the environment, not as it is but as it should be without man’s control, i.e. in its pristine state.

But the situation is reversed when it comes to more practical matters like economics. Here conservatives embrace free markets which while efficient can be cruel to individuals on the wrong side of the deal. And so we see a contradiction wherein the same people who see evolution as too cruel and who reject Darwin’s “natural selection” as too blind simultaneously tout “the invisible hand” as self-evident and ultimately for the best. There is a conflict here which goes to the core of religious conservatism.

But the situation is just as confusing on the other side of the aisle. When it comes to economics, progressives tend to favor collectivism and the idea (as the President suggested) that rise or fall we’re all in this together. Toward that end, they believe markets need planning and guidance from the top down to manage highs and lows and insure all parties are treated appropriately. But of course they don’t believe any such thing when it comes to their ideal economy, the natural environment. Progressives believe strongly in laissez–faire nature. In fact, many progressives believe leaving nature unspoiled by man is an ideal so important that it should be our number one priority. Yet these same folks would never describe an unregulated capitalist economy as “pristine” or unspoiled. On the contrary, they would consider it a disaster badly in need of regulating. This too is a fundamental conflict which gets to the core of modern liberalism.

Ultimately, both sides aren’t entirely consistent in their arguments and aspirations. Many of the social and political hot button issues we wrestle with are the ones that straddle these fault lines. So, for instance, abortion is an issue over which progressives seem to abandon their concern for softening nature’s hard edges in exchange for something that benefits one individual at the radical expense of another. Meanwhile, conservatives are rejecting the rugged individualism of free markets for concern for the weak and helpless who will be harmed by it. It’s as if the sides have traded priorities on this one issue.

Where you come down on all this is ultimately a matter of faith, but it’s not hard to see how answering just a few of these fundamental questions about the nature of man and the universe trickles down into everything else you believe, including where you stand on the 2012 elections.

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