The Shape of the Playing Field, Part 4

During the recent Super Bowl blowout, the real winner was not on the field but found in the commercial breaks.  Topping many lists was the Seinfeld reunion ad.  That 1990’s TV sitcom was famously “a show about nothing” (motto:  no hugging, no learning).

We are now only nine months from the 2014 election.  The media and political classes are obsessed with the latest fundraising figures and poll numbers.  Tactics and strategies will be hotly debated and the issues and candidates defined.

This time, I hope we can do things differently.  Minnesota (and America) desperately needs to have an election about something.  Rarely have the two major political parties offered such clearly opposing worldviews: those who say there is no difference between them have simply not been paying attention.  But not everyone agrees what those differences are.

Minnesota Public Radio describes the debate on the Republican side as follows,
“The stakes are huge,” wrote political scientist Larry Jacobs in a Star Tribune op-ed.  “Will the party’s nominees for governor and U.S. Senate in 2014 hold firm to the right’s pure principle of severely limited government?  Or will the party, as a national GOP fundraiser put it, ‘organize beyond the convention process to appeal to a broader scope of people’—voters who want government to shoulder a larger, if still restrained, range of responsibilities?  Should the party select candidates who will take office willing to accept compromises that advance conservative policy ideas, or who will stay committed to staunchly defending principle even if it produces government shutdowns?”

As usual, Prof. Jacobs misses the point.  The debate is not between “severely” limited government (whatever that is) vs. larger, but “restrained” government (wherever those restraints may lie).  Whoever wins the next few elections will not be able to significantly alter the size or scope of government.

No, the real debate lies in the question of ‘to what use’ that government will be put.  As you may guess, I have a preferred answer to that question.

Will we have a government of the right, an a priori government that works to ensure equality of opportunity?  In this world, government exists to create a level playing field with quality schools for all and an infrastructure (roads, courts, etc.) that will allow for a well-functioning private economy.  Success is then up the individual and his or her initiative and talents.

The alternative of the left would produce an ex post government that seeks to ensure an equality of outcome.  In this world, government redistributes income to produce a “fair” result.

The problem with equality of opportunity is that the outcomes are not always equal.  A free market system will produce the Warren Buffets and the Bill Gates.  In its purest form—Hong Kong, Singapore—this type of society produces great wealth, broad economic mobility, but also a dynamism some view as chaotic, along with clear “winners” and “losers.”  In a conservative society, the most vulnerable will always be protected, but the economic ladder will allow for two-way traffic,

The problem with equality of outcome is that if everyone ends up in the same place, your incentive to work hard and achieve success disappears.  In its purest form—France, Italy—such societies certainly share the misery more equally, but tend to stagnate, encouraging the more ambitious to seek their fortunes elsewhere.  In a progressive society, some will always do better than others, no matter how “fair” the government is.

In the end, our political debate should center on “opportunity” vs. “fairness.”  The most basic questions of political philosophy deal with how will we live our lives and how we ought to organize ourselves.

But where will this debate take place?  Political campaigns are necessarily concerned with name recognition and branding.  The state’s largest newspaper, the Minneapolis Star Tribune, is getting out of the game by dropping a rotating column that served as its only outlet for conservative voices.

For my part, I will continue this series to define the overarching themes of this election and the real choice that voters will have this November.