Saturday, February 09, 2008

The Left vs. The Right

In a recent conversation with my daughter she had some questions about politics and needed some answers. The following is essentially what I told her.

Q: Dad, this is an election year, and we're supposed to vote between the Republicans and the Democrats. What's the difference between the two parties?

A: Well, some of it is more historical than current. It's changed over the years. Originally, the Republicans used to be more toward the Right, which means they were Conservative, and the Democrats would lean more toward the Left, which meant they were more Liberal. But these days, it's more like just two competing teams trying to win power for their side. The ideological differences are less important to them now, because both are just trying to appeal to everyone to get power. So they just both say what they think the majorityof voters want to hear. The historical ideological differences of Left vs Right have given way to in-fighting and negative campaigns where they try to accuse each other of all sorts of things, in order to damage each other's electibility. Now, election campaigns seem to be more like Demolition derby or Roller Derby. They try to wreck each other and the last one standing at the end is the winner.

Q: What is "The Left" and "The Right", anyway? And which is better?

A: Well, the scale is basically about the size and power of the government. Traditionally speaking, to the right, you have less government, and to the left you have more government. Neither one is "better" than the other necessarily. Some people prefer it more right and some prefer it more left, but there are always trade-offs with both. Your preference depends upon which trade-offs you prefer.

Q: What does that mean - to have "more" or "less" government? Does it mean more employees working in the government?

A: To some degree, yes, but really it's not specifically about the number of government employees, but it's more about how much the government does vs. how much is done by companies in the private sector. The best way to illustrate the point is to look at the extremes of each side. In the most extreme "Left" model, you have a government which controls everything. Like a communist government, where everybody works for the government, the government owns everything, and provides everything. There is very high degree of control, and they control every aspect of the lives of the citizens. They decide what you will do a living, where and how you will live , whether or not you deserve a car, and what kind of car you deserve, the kind of furniture you are allowed to have, where you can go on vacation, etc. In that world you have a lot fewer decisions to make. You have very little freedom. China is an example of a country that is closer to the left end of the scale than most.

On the other hand, in the extreme "Right" model, you have the ultimate freedom, but you also have complete anarchy. There is no government to speak of. No central power that sets the laws or has the power to enforce them, it's basically the Old West all over again. Lawlessness. Criminals everywhere. Organized crime typically takes over in these cases, or nowadays, you get terrorists running the place - which is just another form of organized crime. But they have better weapons, and a religious angle added in. A good example of an extreme Right country is present-day Iraq. They have a small government that is not yet fully functional, so people are running amok and there is war and crime everywhere. Terrorists are everywhere because the government is not strong enough to control them.

Q: Why does freedom have to include anarchy? Isn't freedom a good thing?

A: Freedom is a complex thing. For instance, you think it's great if you have the freedom to do as you like. To go where you want and live as you want and don't have any rules or controls limits placed upon you. That sounds like fun, doesn't it? But if YOU have those freedoms, then the guy next door to you ALSO has those same freedoms. What if he is free to have an arsenal of machine guns and rocket launchers, and bombs, and missiles, and grenades at his house, and has the freedom to shoot them in any direction and any time in any way he wants. Freedom means having choices. Without controls, he can do things which threaten or endanger you and the other people around him. It works like this for business, too.
In a completely free society, you might have the freedom to open up a store that sells the things you love - say, a tack shop selling horseriding equipment like saddles, etc. Well, criminals could use the lack of controls to rob you and take your money, or even take your store away. In a completely free society where there is only a small government, they cannot control that kind of thing because they simply don't have the strength or size to fight all the injustices that people can inflict upon each other. It's like the Old West all over again. The frontier mentality. When people explore new frontiers, they go into new situations where there is no government, no control, and they have the ultimate freedom, for a while, but that carries with it a lot of risk, and crime is rampant. Things are completely unfair in that kind of a society.

Q: So freedom is a bad thing then?

A: No, of course not. But, like everything else, it's a question of degree. Too much freedom is bad. And too little freedom is bad, too. You want there to be laws. You want a safe and fair society. You want a government to create laws that support that vision, and then have the power to enforce those laws. But you don't want them to have too much power and too much control because that then restricts the things you can do by too much. It's a question of where the best balance point is between too much freedom but anarchy on one side vs. too little freedom but safety on the other side.

Q: So it's about controlling violence then, mostly?

A: No, it's about a lot of things. Essentially it's about fairness. It's about what different people think is fair. For example, some people think that if they buy a parcel of land then they should be able to do anything they want on that land - almost as if it's their own little country. But what if the owner of the land is a company that runs a factory and they pollute the water in the river that runs through it, and they pollute the air over it. That pollution then affects all the neighboring properties. So it's completely unfair for them to have to deal with the pollution that this company produces. So we need rules and controls over how much a company can pollute, and we need to have the power to enforce it, or else the company will ignore those rules. Also, we need common infrastructure for things like roads and bridges, etc. and we need someone to maintain them.

Q: Okay, I can see why we need controls and laws, but why does it have to be the government? Why can't it be companies in the private sector that do these things?

A: Well, for one thing, if we cut back on the taxes to the point where the government was much smaller than it is right now, then in the absence of a government with the resources to take care of the infrastructure, companies certainly would not step in and bear the burden. When that bridge in Minneapolis collapsed, you wouldn't see 3M or Sony, or IBM rushing out there to fix it. They would just let the infrastructure rot. When Katrina hit the gulf coast, if there was no government assistance, then there certainly would not be companies rushing to the rescue. Wal-Mart sent a truckload of waterbottles as a PR gesture, to get some good press to counteract all the bad press they get all the time, but they weren't about to buy families thousands of trailers, and pay them compensation for their lost homes, etc. They do not have the common good or common public interest as part of their mandate or mission.
Companies don't serve the public. They exist to make money for their owners. Period. That is the purpose and function of any company. Anything else they do, such as making products, providing services, or hiring employees, is just a by-product of that primary function. So when they operate, they are always looking for ways to cut costs and increase revenues and profits. If the police department were a private security company, they would not be so interested in catching the bad guys and keeping the streets safe, but rather they would be trying to cut back on officers as much as possible, and charge large tickets to get more revenue coming in. There can't be two competing police departments in the same town, so there is no competition to control them and keep them honest. Companies are essentially driven by profit. A single company with no controlling mechanism would take advantage of the people, until they finally lost their contract when the expiry date came up. Then they would be replaced by another company who would just do the same things all over again because they also want to maximize their profits, and there is no one to control THEM either.

Q: But governments always have more bureaucracy. Aren't companies more efficient?

A: Companies ARE more efficient usually, (but not always), but this is because competition in an open market forces them to be efficient. They are forced to cut costs to keep prices down, and they are forced to provide better quality products because that is what will sell better in the marketplace, and if they can't sell their products they go out of business. Competition keeps them honest. But the government provides services in areas where there cannot be any competition. You can't really have four fire departments, and twelve police departments, and seven federal immigration services, and nineteen central tax authorities, and twenty three armies, and a bunch of airforces, and a dozen navys, and eight national park services all trying to manage the same resources, etc. It just doesn't work that way. So, since there is no competition to keep them honest, we have to have rules and laws to keep them honest. We have checks and balances, and oversight committees, etc. So there are forms to fill out so that senior people can approve actions, etc. If this control layer gets to be too much, it is considered bureaucracy. We have to have the right balance of this too. The goal is to make sure that people in the government do not abuse their power or authority since they have singular control over things in their purview.

Q: Why doesn't everyone agree which things should be run by the government and which things should be handled by companies? Isn't it obvious?

A: No. Not always. The army, and the police and fire departments, and immigration, and the mint, and several other things are obvious perhaps but there are some things, like healthcare, that are not so obvious. Most countries in the world have decided that the government should provide healthcare for their citizens, but the US is one of 3 or 4 countries that don't agree. Here we have a private company-driven healthcare system run for profit. South Africa and Argentina are the only other countries I know of with a similar sort of system.

Q: So, if companies are more efficient than government because they have competition to keep them honest, then why is our healthcare more expensive per person than any other country in the world? And why does it suck? Why can't I get the kinds of treatment I need when I need it?

A: Good questions. I don't know for sure. Some say it's because the health insurance and pharmaceutical companies have joined together to create powerful industry lobbyists in Washington to get legislation that favors them and allows them to keep doing business like this with virtually no controls for quality of service or affordable rates, etc. But other people are afraid that if we let the government run it, like in England and France, and other countries, etc. then it will get even worse than it is now. It's one thing to decide which system is best. It's another thing entirely to be able to switch from one to the other. We already have a lot of huge companies making billions of dollars as health insurance companies. If we switch to the other kind of system, then those companies would go out of business and lots of employees would lose their jobs. It would shut down that whole industry. But that industry is almost shutting down all the other industries as things are right now, and it's forcing millions of people into bankruptcy every year, so we have to do something.

Q: Dad, my head hurts. Can we go home now?

A: Yup. Let's go.


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