Thursday, November 15, 2018
The Inevitability of Incivility
Many observers are lamenting the loss of civility in American political debates, and calling for a return to civility. The general theme is that incivility is a fundamental problem that has "poisoned the well," so to speak, and that if we would be more civil and more willing to listen to each other, we could solve many societal problems. Public discourse would become more contemplative, political campaigns would be more focused on issues and less negative, Congress would function better, and the public less divided.
This view is wrong.
I suppose that at the margin increased attention to politeness and civility would result in a more civil society, tautologically. But incivility is a consequence of something much deeper, an effect, not a cause, and the cause cannot be eliminated by simply trying to be civil. The cause is fundamental disagreement over political principles, and in particular, what are the proper limits to the use of force, and how force should be directed. Let's first look at this in a very general, abstract framework.
Imagine a country in which 49% of the population believes that the fundamental purpose of government is to enforce policy A. Another 49% believes the fundamental purpose of government is to prevent A. The remaining 2% is undecided. Suppose further that each of the opposing sides sees the matter as literally life-or-death. Political debates in this society will be heated, opponents will be seen as existential threats, and the battle for supremacy will be bitter. Those on the fence will be both wooed and condemned. Among the partisans, only the most stoic will remain civil. The problem is not incivility per se, it's the differing visions, the absence of agreement on fundamental principle, and the perceived seriousness of the contended issue. In such a scenario, calls for increased civility will be fruitless. Incivility is a consequence of the conflict of visions. In the presence of existential conflict, real or perceived, incivility makes sense.
That's America, and much of the Western world, today. The Western world was founded on a (classically) liberal worldview, one in which individual rights are fundamental, institutions such as government are simply means to the ends of promoting these rights and are subservient to them, and no individual is subservient to another. This worldview has never been fully implemented, but to the extent it has been, people have thrived. Individual rights are protected, decision making is decentralized, organization is left to free individuals, and human action is directed towards cooperation via mutually beneficial voluntary exchange. The system is the free market with limited government.
Rights are protected first by organized force, i.e. government. Except for a few anarchists arguing for a system that has never existed, advocates recognize that government will be a monopoly. Individuals retain the right and ability to defend themselves, but government becomes the primary protector of rights. Various names are attached to the variants of the resulting systems: free market, liberalism, libertarianism, constitutional conservatism, and others.
Within this system, there's room for disagreement. What's the proper highest marginal tax rate: 0%? 25%? 50%? Flat tax? Are there significant externalities that require government attention or are these minimal? If there are such, what's a better approach...strict liability? Regulation? Injunctions? Pigovian taxes? It's imaginable that people who agree on the fundamental principles might disagree on such particulars. And they might do so civilly. If government adopts one position, this does not preclude switching to another should it seem warranted. If there is agreement on the fundamental social contract, then political discourse over implementation can be civil. Hubert Humphrey, Richard Nixon, and Ronald Reagan may strongly disagree over policies, but at the end of the day all believe in the same basic framework, the same social contract, and all three can shake hands and disagree civilly. We need a name for this worldview -- let's call this the liberal viewpoint. (If you, the reader --assuming we have readers -- prefers a different name, go ahead and substitute it. Maybe explain yourself in the comments.)
On the other hand, there's at least one competing worldview today, which holds a diametrically different view of "rights" and the role of force. This view sees a collective of some sort as the fundamental organizing force of society. This collective -- typically "the people," or perhaps the Ummah or the proletariat or das Volk or the "99 percent" -- is superior to the individual. "Rights" of the individual, in this context, are entitlements that have been granted by the collective -- certain amounts of, say, health care, income, education, freedom of action, etc. The embodiment of the collective is the government, i.e. organized force. Organization is to be centrally directed -- whether this central direction is decided democratically or by a single dictator is beside the point -- central direction for the alleged good of society, "the people," is fundamental. Call this the leftist viewpoint.
Debates in this context are not over marginal tax rates or the extent of externalities. They are over things such as whether resource allocation and production is determined by private citizens producing and trading voluntarily, or central planners deciding what will be done. Will the owners of the means of production be, de facto, private individuals or government? Will individuals have freedom of thought, speech, and publication, or not? Will they have the right to defend themselves and to possess the means of defense, or not? These sorts of debates are over the fundamental social contract and the nature and role of force. Socialism vs. Capitalism, hierarchical central planning vs. decentralized voluntary relations, ruler and governed vs. a free and self-governing people, disarmed subjects vs. armed citizens, cultural marxism vs. normal human values... these things are so fundamentally different that compromise seems impossible. You can't try one approach and then another. These are fundamentally different views of the social contract. There's no common ground. Incivility is a natural result when visions are so radically different and mutually incompatible.
There's an asymmetry with respect to incompatibility, though. The liberal society has room for leftists, so long as they simply organize themselves on a voluntary basis. Form communes, organize collective farms and enterprises, disarm yourselves, redistribute your wealth so that you're all equal, march together in lockstep, and preach to others to do the same, as you see fit. Just don't force those others to follow your bright ideas, should you fail to persuade them of your brilliance. On the other hand, the leftist society has no room for liberals, or any other dissenters, because the leftist vision is about how society must be organized. Ultimately, those with different ideas cannot be accommodated or tolerated. They must conform or somehow be neutralized or eliminated. It's perhaps a bit much to expect polite behavior if these are the stakes.
So long as people are divided by such fundamental differences, calls for civility are futile. Incivility is inevitable.
Photo: Member of Antifa (endorsed by the New York Times!) celebrating at a Boston Free Speech rally, August 2017.