I am not a Liberal …

… nor am I a conservative. If you need to give me a label I prefer “Progressive”, but be certain you know what I mean when I say that. Progressive comes from the word “progress”; to move toward a goal. To me progressive begins and ends with the following definition…

Acting on a pattern of decisions and policies that will make tomorrow better than today.

When I look at the behaviors and positions of liberals and conservatives alike I often see someone who has decided that a particular restricted set of policies will work in all circumstances. They can now stop thinking about it and are free to turn their brains off. I prefer to keep all of the tools in the toolkit. Each tool will do the best job for a particular set of circumstances and a lot of tools will do a crappy job when misapplied to a circumstance. Evaluating this, unfortunately, requires a greater cognitive load than subscribing to unabashedly biased news sources, hanging out in the echo chamber of social media or sitting in a pew. I actually have to think about the problems that need solving and the capabilities of the tools that might apply to each of them.

Humans, unfortunately, have a natural but often weak bias against thinking. I’m no exception. It requires an increased expenditure of energy. In other words, it takes work. Our evolution biases us against expending energy without urgency (e.g. some very immediate threat to our survival). The good news is that some humans have discovered that this “thinking thing” can have a lot of benefit even when the threats and opportunities are less urgent. This enables us to overcome our natural reluctance to engage in it. One outcome is this thing we call civilization. So far it’s helped to make humans a very successful species. I don’t think we’re done with civilization building yet and I hope we’re not about to give up on it. Improving it will require making tomorrow better than today, which requires us to make real progress. This, in turn, will require real thinking about our problems and opportunities and not just assuming we have “the answer”.

An example of perhaps not being sufficiently liberal is that I’m pretty skeptical of minimum wage laws. A business owner, when faced with an increase in the price of elements required to run their business is faced with the following options:

  • Reduce their profit percentage – Even though this is what minimum wage advocates believe will happen, this is not only undesirable for the business owner it’s often not even possible to do this and maintain a viable business.
  • Raise prices – In general, this is what really happens assuming adequate price elasticity. As this tactic ripples through the economy the perceived benefit of raising minimum wage disappears because everything costs more. Nothing has been gained and the cry for minimum wage increases is heard again only to repeat the cycle.
  • Shut down their business – If they’re caught in the box of being unable to raise their prices or viably reducing their profit margins then the best alternative may be getting out of the business. This has the broader effect of adversely impacting everyone who was benefiting from that business. Their overall quality of life has been reduced and, if they’re a business owner, their businesses may even cease to be viable.
  • Go around the law – Examples include paying in cash under the table. The employee gets paid market rate rather than minimum wage so the minimum wage law becomes pointless. In addition this behavior undermines the stability of our society by encouraging “unlawful and a dishonest” behavior even in the face of a perhaps less than rational policy.
  • Develop alternatives – The good news is that this encourages technology advancement. The bad news is the people the minimum wage laws were intended to help are out of a job.

To be fair, minimum wage laws, even given their weaknesses, may be the best available policy. Given their weaknesses though a more prudent approach might be to include consideration of other policies that might actually make things better rather than kicking the can down the road. Who knows, some of those may even be labelled “conservative” in the way we categorize such things today.

On the flip side, the overall bag of tricks in the liberal’s toolkit tends to more frequently do a better job of improving life for all of us; including the currently wealthy. I despair at the inability to effectively make this case. Too many liberals seem to take the position that “You should be nice to people just because” and then give themselves permission to believe that that’s a sufficient argument. You’re “nice” to other people because it helps YOU and the things YOU care about. Education, providing sustenance for reserve human capacity, and insuring an adequate level of health care are all ways of INVESTING in and MAINTAINING your nation’s human capital and making it more VALUABLE and COMPETITIVE. The effectiveness of that human capital will create more value which leads to us all gaining some benefit we wouldn’t have had otherwise. As an example, publicly funded infrastructure projects have been shown to be a terrific way of obtaining an often huge return while providing near term sustenance for reserve human capacity. People get jobs, businesses get infrastructure they can leverage and a labor force they can reapply, the government gets taxes they can plow back into further enhancing our economy. There are a lot of winners in that game. Oh and, by they way, creating this amount of benefit for so many people should make you feel good about yourself, too. Today’s conservative, especially today’s greedy conservative (those willing to sacrifice a greater sustainable benefit for many including themselves for a much smaller near term personal benefit), seem unable to wrap their heads around this. If I were to advise liberals, I’d recommend that they put less emphasis on being “nice” to people and start being more clear about how enabling and empowering the human assets in our country benefits us all. This may sound cold, but perhaps it’s time to stop doing the same thing and expecting different results. In the end everyone might receive a higher quality of benefit and we’ll have shown how being “nice” achieves it.

Change is hard, really hard; especially changing the way that we make decisions. In a democracy we can’t outsource our thinking and expect our interests and concerns to be met. We have to own it no matter how much energy it may take from us. We’ve put ourselves in a position where not only our society and country are at risk but, for the first time in a couple of million years, our species is at risk as well. We’re the only ones around who can dig ourselves out of this mess. It can only happen by thinking clearly about the problems we face and the solutions available to us.

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