schiz•o•phren•ic, adjective: Of, relating to, or characterized by the coexistence of disparate or antagonistic elements.
Let’s talk about one reason why politics makes us all a little crazy — its incoherent mix of laws and regulations. (Warning: overcharged metaphor ahead.) Not only does the left hand of government often not know what the right hand is doing, the two are often pointing in opposite directions and independently smacking and caressing us.
What should governments do?
Here is one principled answer. “The purpose of government is to manage the nation’s health.” We might take that principle and reflect on the fact that there are too many fat people in America. And we might then propose a number of policies to address the problem. Here are three options:
- The government should mandate group exercise every day.
- We can offer subsidies to fitness centers to encourage people to work out more, or mandate that people join fitness centers — and charge them a tax if they don’t.
- The government should ban fat-causing foods and drinks.
Dissenters will object. They will argue that health is a matter of personal responsibility and that we should leave people free to make their own choices.
But current public policy is moving strongly away from the “hands-off” position. Our government has long implemented controls on alcohol, tobacco, and other stimulants; it has long established nutritional standards for food and drink; it is increasingly paying for medical and pharmaceutical services for a larger portion of the population; and it is now mandating insurance coverage. Government-managed health is high on the public policy agenda.
Now suppose we change the subject from health to religion. We say instead: “The purpose of government is to manage the nation’s religious life.” We might take that principle and reflect on the fact that there are too many religious people — or too many irreligious people. So again we propose specific policies to address the nation’s spiritual health:
- The government should mandate religious attendance.
- It could charge a tax for those who do not attend church or synagogue or mosque or temple or shrine.
- The government ought to offer subsidies for construction companies that specialize in building churches.
Or from the other side of the debate:
- The government should tax religious institutions to discourage them.
- It should lower the immigration quotas from especially religious nations.
- The Department of Education ought to increase the number of hurdles religious education institutions must clear in order to receive accreditation.
Of course none of those proposals are on the political agenda, because they are about religion and our religious politics are hands-off. We mostly agree that religion is a matter of personal responsibility and that we should leave people free to make their own choices. So controlling religion is low on the policy agenda.
But suppose we again change the subject — from religion to sex — and say as a matter of principle: “The purpose of government is to manage the nation’s sex life.” We reflect on the facts that sex leads to babies and that the birth rate affects the rate of population growth. And maybe we want to encourage population growth, so we argue:
- The government should mandate that everyone be married by age 25.
- Bars and nightclubs should be allowed to stay open later so more people will get tipsy and hook up.
Or perhaps we think that overpopulation is a problem, so we propose:
- The government should subsidize condom manufacturers.
- Bars and nightclubs, those dens of sin and lust, should be closed by 9 p.m.
Or maybe we’re outraged about the unequal distribution of sexual favors — 1% get a lot and 99% get not so much. So we demand new regulations:
- Intercourse will be organized in a more equitable fashion.
All of those proposals sound bizarre to contemporary American ears (to most of those ears, anyway) and, consequently, none of those proposed laws are on the agenda or has a chance in the near term.
But suppose that we change the topic again — from sex to the economy. We say as a matter of principle: “The purpose of government is to manage the nation’s economy.” Therefore:
- Important businesses should receive subsidies.
- The Federal Trade Commission ought to monitor the content of business advertising.
- Government immigration policy should determine which foreigners companies can hire.
- The Internal Revenue Service’s tax policies should be used to discourage or encourage nationally-important businesses.
- The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission can regulate the terms of employment contracts.
- And so on.
Suddenly any and every possible tool in the government’s toolkit is back in play and active in managing the economy.
The point is that we have a schizophrenic politics: If the subject is religion or sex, our policy is mostly laissez-faire freedom. But if the subject is health or money, our policy is very much paternalist and authoritarian. Some of us say, Let the government control people’s money — but hands off my sex life. Others say, Sure, manage everyone’s physical health, but leave me free to pursue my spirituality. So our overall political discourse and practice becomes incoherent.
The incoherence is driven by two forces, one big-picture ideological and one day-to-day democratic.
The ideological debate is between two antagonistic, principled political philosophies. One side argues that sex, health, religion, and money are primarily individual responsibilities, and the purpose of government is to establish the conditions of freedom within which we individuals can make our own choices. It is no more the proper job of the government to manage our economic lives than it is to manage our love lives or our religious beliefs or our health. All are important, interconnected matters that individuals must take charge of for themselves.
The other side argues the opposite: everything is primarily a matter of social or collective responsibility, and the purpose of government is to manage society’s important functions. There is no principled distinction between sex and health and money and religion. All are interconnected, and all are important, so all are properly subject to government control.
In day-to-day democratic politics, most voters and politicians are somewhere in the middle — mixing-and-matching positions semi-consistently — and the give-and-take of lobbying and log-rolling leads to a mishmash of actual policies. A political party comes to power and succeeds in passing a compromise bill, which is partly undone and partly re-focused after the next election cycle when another party comes to power.
The first step toward a solution is recognizing the problem.
Within individuals, psychological health requires that we each have a coherent outlook on life and that we act consistently upon our beliefs. Individuals who don’t know what they stand for, or who are a bundle of conflicting goals, or who act semi-randomly — cannot succeed in life. Life requires principled, long-range action.
The same holds true for political health. Politics is one of the enabling conditions for individuals to live well, and to lessen the craziness we have to work to get the principles right and enact them consistently.
So a homework assignment for those of us who care about politics (and a future column assignment for me): What is the more important first step to achieving greater consistency in politics? Should we focus on education — teaching ourselves and others to think better about political principles? Should we focus on activism — acting directly to change the worst of the inconsistent laws? Or in the hodgepodge of clashing interests that is democratic politics, is greater consistency even possible?
Don’t miss last week’s column: Does Money Buy Elections? When Billionaires Court Voters.
Stephen Hicks is the author of Explaining Postmodernism: Skepticism and Socialism from Rousseau to Foucault and of Nietzsche and the Nazis. He blogs at StephenHicks.org. For future columns on The Good Life, feel welcome to send your philosophical questions and moral dilemmas to him at .