Monday, January 6, 2014

Competing Values - Political Matrices

Why are tensions and conflicts necessarily part of political life? If asked, the overwhelming majority of voters would certainly say that they desire justice, peace, prosperity, and security. But this apparent agreement does not lead to harmony. Why? At least two reasons are apparent: first, because each of these good-sounding concepts is susceptible to competing definitions (exactly what are justice, peace, prosperity, and security?); second, because while each of these four is desired, they sometimes are in conflict or in competition with each other.

Consider justice and peace. Both are desirable. But if military force is required to obtain justice, then the quest for peace might be compromised: hence the famous tension between peace lovers and peace makers.

Security and prosperity are both appealing; but an economic system which maximizes prosperity is a system which includes risk, and there compromising the sense of economic security.

Political conflicts can therefore arise among voters who agree about the importance of a set of values, but who weigh these values differently when they come into competition with each other.

Political scientists conceptualize this as a matrix with four dimensions. Consider each of the four axes:

  • In a system of freely-elected representatives, and of different layers of government, one value will be to move as much decision-making as possible to entities at the lower end of the scale: cities, counties, and townships should have more decision-making power than the state or federal government. Local governments are more accessible to citizens and more adeptly absorb petitions and appeals, and more flexibly respond to them.
  • As one nation-state among others, one value is to project an image of strength - politically, economically, and militarily. Weakness is provocative, and the failure to convince other nations of one nation's resolve and willingness to act is to invite aggression.
  • The liberty and dignity of an individual are maximized with economic freedom: therefore, one value is to keep taxation at what is agreed to be a practical minimum; to reduce or eliminate governmental spending, debt, and deficits; and to reduce regulation or interference in manufacturing, in consumption, and in the marketplace.
  • People enter voluntarily to various associations, the natural organs of society. There are a wide range of such groupings: clubs, teams, music groups, professional associations, chambers of commerce, religious groups, neighborhoods, etc. Just as individuals seek freedom, so the liberty of groups is also a value: cooperative activity should not be impeded by government; therefore, legislation prohibiting actions in private life is to be avoided, to the same extent as legislation prohibiting these social groups from regulating private life is to be avoided. Just as a government has no right to require or prohibit private actions within the private sphere, it also has no right to restrict a private and free association from determining private actions within the private sphere.
If each of the above is considered as an axis along which increasing or decreasing levels of preference for that one value, relative to the other three, is measured, then we have system for categorizing various political points of view. One voter may value the ability of the nation-state to robust among the other countries of the world, but this same voter may be willing to sacrifice the freedom which the private voluntary associations within society have. A different voter may value the primacy of local governments over national governments, and in the process be willing to sacrifice the notion of a free market, if it is the local and not the national government seeking to regulate.

To the extent that such a framework allows us to accurately characterize political disagreements, it also allows us to perhaps envision the types of compromise which might be negotiated to the satisfaction, if not to the delight, of various parties. To the extent that this framework is nuanced, it allows a more detailed and perceptive discussion than the polemics which distill disagreement to binary opposites: liberals/conservatives, Republicans/Democrats.