A Conflict of Visions

by Kenneth Hines on July 19, 2011

Apart from both of us breathing air and walking upright, I have very little in common with New York Times columnist Paul Krugman. Krugman is a radical progressive. A leftist among leftists. But as the proverbial broken clock is right twice a day – in Krugman’s case he might be right once a year – Krugman got something right last week.

There is a fundamental conflict of visions in American politics. 

In his column following President Obama’s Tuscon Memorial speech, Krugman wrote:
 “But the truth is that we are a deeply divided nation and are likely to remain one for a long time. By all means, let’s listen to each other more carefully; but what we’ll discover, I fear, is how far apart we are. For the great divide in our politics isn’t really about pragmatic issues, about which policies work best; it’s about differences in those very moral imaginations Mr. Obama urges us to expand, about divergent beliefs over what constitutes justice.”

One thing I can say about Krugman. He is an honest progressive. He doesn’t try to sugar-coat his views and disagreements with anyone even though he will disparage his opponents as he does in this article. Still he nails the key issue dividing the American political scene today. We have fundamental differences in our moral imaginations and divergent beliefs that constitute justice.

He goes on to say:
 “Today’s G.O.P. sees much of what the modern federal government does as illegitimate; today’s Democratic Party does not. When people talk about partisan differences, they often seem to be implying that these differences are petty, matters that could be resolved with a bit of good will. But what we’re talking about here is a fundamental disagreement about the proper role of government.”

Though there are differences between the G.O.P. establishment and the tea party movement, I would extend what he says here to include the tea party. Many have tried to dismiss the tea party as a knee-jerk reaction to a bad economy. But it is deeper than that. It is what Krugman says here: “a fundamental disagreement about the proper role of government.”

This is the same point made by arguably the leading economist alive today, Dr. Thomas Sowell, Sr. Fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, and author of A Conflict of Visions. In it he describes the difference between “big government” and “small government” advocates as a deep-seated conflict between two different visions of the human condition. In this respect the divide has been with us for centuries according to Sowell whereas Krugman thinks this is something new.
 New or not, at least Krugman agrees it exists now.

Until we understand the fundamental divide in politics today we will continue to misunderstand and frustrate each other. Unless we are willing to go below the surface issues and rhetoric we will not be able to rationally wrestle with the foundations of our differing visions. 
Krugman rightly puts a moral spin on the differences between left and right.

As you’d expect he seeks the moral high ground. It’s the Democrats, according to Krugman, who “consider[s] the modern welfare state — a private-enterprise economy, but one in which society’s winners are taxed to pay for a social safety net — morally superior to the capitalism red in tooth and claw we had before the New Deal. It’s only right, this side believes, for the affluent to help the less fortunate.” And Republicans are the other side which:
“believes that people have a right to keep what they earn, and that taxing them to support others, no matter how needy, amounts to theft. That’s what lies behind the modern right’s fondness for violent rhetoric: many activists on the right really do see taxes and regulation as tyrannical impositions on their liberty.” To sum up Krugman’s claim: Democrats care for the poor and needy. Republicans don’t and are even willing to resort to violence to protect the rich.

Well, the difference between the two visions is moral. But Krugman cannot claim the moral high ground no matter how he tries to spin it. It is exactly this kind of “straw man” argument that continues to confuse and short-circuit rational dialogue.
 It is my intention to outline the differences that divide the political world in future posts. I will do so from a decidedly Christian perspective. But to begin we must agree that these differences run along two fundamentally distinct visions of our human condition. I hope I can promote a rational discussion of these differences in a way that humbly challenges us all to be intellectually honest and morally responsible.

Do you think such rational discourse is possible given these two conflicting visions? Is it possible to achieve clarity if not agreement?

  • scruziel

    You write: “Democrats care for the poor and needy. Republicans don’t and are even willing to resort to violence to protect the rich.” I don’t know if this is your belief or you are repeating what Krugman says. In either case, it is not only demonstrably false but precisely the opposite of the assertion. One can measure care and compassion by action rather than words. By that measure, non-wealthy conservatives’ charitable giving trumps that of “progressives” every time it’s measured in tax data. Forget envy of the rich. Rich progressives rarely approach the giving percentage of their incomes that conservatives regularly achieve. You can’t measure care for the poor and the needy by self-righteous bloviating or willingness to “care” with other people’s money. You’re on to something when you point to Sowell’s analysis. Fundamental beliefs about human nature are the key to many things. I believe Sowell’s “tragic” vision of human nature is accurate. “Progressives” don’t. The consequences of those beliefs are either opposition to a leviathan state or worship of it which must not be questioned, which is idolatry.

    • Thanks for your input. I have edited my point in the post to clarify that I am summing up Krugman’s claim that Democrats care for the poor not Republicans. You are right. Statistics prove that conservatives are far more compassionate than liberals. Arthur Brooks of AEI has shown this well in his book, “Who Really Cares.” Liberals are good at grandstanding on the issue while most conservatives are quietly going about the work of helping the needy in a myriad of private ways.

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