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A nation of two different tribes

It is being heard more and more that Americans are divided into two different camps. It is even mentioned that they do not even communicate because they do not speak the same language. Indeed, the verbal combat is escalating and intensifying. Although such talk might have once been considered idle conversation, each day and every philosophical debate that passes seems to add credence to the notion that the United States is becoming a country of two increasingly divergent tribes.

Conservative thinker and pundit George Will added conciseness to the debate recently when he suggested that a simple answer to a simple question would be quite revealing. Referring to the current economic turmoil, he posed the question: “Keynes or Hayek?” The implication was that, whether one realizes it or not, a citizen of the United States today must be one or the other.

John Maynard Keynes was the British economist who believed that government intervention is appropriate and necessary to mitigate rough places such as recessions that occur over the course of economic cycles. Keynes was certainly an advocate of government stimulus of the type recently favored by the Obama administration to shore up the economy at those points where the pure free market approach faltered.

On the other hand, Friedrich Hayek stood firm on his belief that the free market economy in its purest form had a life all of its own with many moving parts, and that it was preposterous to believe that such an economy could be understood by individuals. Hence, government intervention into the natural workings of the free market is futile and dangerous.

Perhaps these different views have been the undercurrents of dispute all along, and that it is only during times of great economic stress that we feel we must choose sides. One thing for sure is that the debate, and the growing animosity among debaters, has spilled over the top of the economic boiler and into the social and political arenas. Furthermore, the belief in the respective philosophical positions has become so intense and so purified that there is no apparent possibility of compromise.

It is worthy to recall that the hyper-government intervention of the Depression-era Franklin Roosevelt years were concluded by the greatest incident of government intervention of all, i.e. World War II. Until recently, reunions of those who were in the camps of the “make work” Civilian Conservation Corps were common. Then there was the “War on Poverty” of President Lyndon Johnson. Medicare and other social programs remain as relics of Johnson’s Great Society notion that a wealthy nation such as the United States had the ability to place a “safety net” under everyone. This, however, is only half of the story.

The other side holds that United States greatness can only be attributed to the freedom of the individual to fight his or her way through adversity to be whatever they can make of themselves. From British conservative philosopher Edmund Burke to the late father of modern American conservatism, William F. Buckley, Jr., to the current day pundit George Will, conservatives hold that the individual, unfettered by either government-enforced responsibility or government regulation, should be paramount in a free society.

So these are the sides that have been chosen. They are not only in terms of economics, but politically and socially as well. Furthermore, those of each tribe are expected to adhere, without fail, to its core principles. It is evident that old-fashioned social and political debate is futile. The rhetoric of both sides tells the stories. One side has drawn a line between the one percent of the population that is most affluent and the remaining 99 percent. It is demanding government intervention to bring greater equality to the two sides. The language of income redistribution is unabashedly creeping into the debate.

On the other side one finds a vigorous defense of the individual. It is characterized by the notion that there will inevitably be winners and losers. It maintains that government harms the individual when it intervenes to prevent some individuals from losing. It is noteworthy that Congressman Paul Ryan (R-WI) has made the philosophy of Ayn Rand required reading for his staff. Rand emphasized individual rights (rational self-interest), including property rights. She believed completely in laissez-faire capitalism based on the protection of those rights as the only moral system.

If the reader is planning on attempting to engage in such a debate he or she should know that even the issue of Biblically-based morality has been divided down the middle. Religion, as always, tends to bring certainty to the validity of our positions, and as such it seems that we are reading and interpreting two different Bibles.

America is now poised to embark upon one of the most philosophically divisive national election seasons ever. Already the claims of the accomplishments of one side are totally discounted.

Dr. William Martin Wiseman is director of the John C. Stennis Institute of Government and professor of political science at Mississippi State University. Contact him at marty@sig.msstate.edu.


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