Friday, May 30, 2008

Are We Products or Producers?

Politically speaking, Grandma sits on the left, Grandpa sits on the right,
and Aunt Lisa? Well, she's somewhere in between.

Jonathan has thoughts about the nature of the difference between liberal people and conservative people.* He says that conservatives will always take economic growth if it harms no one, while liberals might not want such growth if it led to more inequality.

Another way to look at the difference, hardly new but nonetheless on my mind lately, is in terms of agency. Put crudely, conservatives tend to believe that where a person ends up in life is principally a result of his or her choices, while liberals tend to believe that it is principally a result of his or her circumstances.

Put succinctly, according to liberals we are products of our environment, while according to conservatives we produce our environment.

For example, this past weekend my grandmother lamented that President Bush's policy in Iraq had killed many of our finest young men. In a separate conversation, my grandfather talked about how the Iraq war displayed for one of the first times in history a professional army - in other words, one in which all of the the soldiers have aspired to be there.

A conservative might counter my grandmother by saying that President Bush did not kill these men, but that they chose to enlist in the army fully knowing that they might die. The conservative might go farther by saying my grandmother dishonors the memory of these men by denying that they chose to lay down their lives - calling them victims rather than heroes.

A liberal might counter my grandfather by saying that the choice anyone makes to enlist in the armed forces is constrained by his or her circumstances. In particular, those of lower socioeconomic standing have far fewer alternatives to the military available to them. To many, the possibility of being killed in Iraq may still be lower risk than the next best alternative. Calling what these people face a "choice" may be misleading - sure, the liberal might say, they made the best with what they had to work with, but what they had to work with was not much to begin with.

Another issue in which this narrative plays out is human trafficking. If you are not familiar with the issue you can read this little introduction I wrote at the end of last year. It's basically another word for slavery, or at least that's what advocates say.

Where a lot of controversy comes in is what you actually consider forced labor, and here is where liberal and conservative voices say different things.

Are prostitutes victims of trafficking? Most conservatives would say that in most cases, they're not. The discussion is once again in the language of choice. As one conservative viewpoint puts it, "...women are, in fact, capable of deciding for themselves what they do with their bodies and their time." Far from slaves, they say, prostitutes are prostitutes because they choose to be prostitutes. What's more, conservatives would argue that saying all prostitutes are victims unable to change their situation and thus needing rescue is arrogant, culturally imperialistic, and even dehumanizing.

Liberals would again point to constraints on choice beyond the women's control. Says this handbook, prostitutes "...use their agency every day simply to survive. But their agency is severely limited by the conditions and context of their lives..." Liberals also point to common histories of abuse and the young age at which many enter prostitution as evidence that circumstances are largely deterministic in these women's lives.

Naturally, these different viewpoints give rise to drastically different opinions on how best to address the problem, if you even acknowledge that there is a problem. For one, statistics like the ones thrown out in my article vary widely depending on what you consider trafficking, and policy discussion is heavily influenced by such statistics.

Within policy discussion, conservatives accuse liberals of trying to give an old problem (prostitution) a new name (trafficking) to push through legislation that they would not be able to if they used the old name.

As for the old problem, conservatives might note that prostitution is called "the world's oldest profession" for a reason. It may be lamentable or even deplorable, but it must be called the problem of human nature that it is. They would emphasize that attempts to work against it must be realistic, and branding it something that it is not is counterproductive.

Liberals would say that the age of a problem is a poor excuse for not addressing it. If human trafficking is a new name (the term originated around the 1990's), working against it is no less urgent. They would return to what they view as the root problem: the constraint of prostitutes' choice by circumstances beyond their control, almost the definition of slavery. Liberals would say conservative ideas of choice and prostitution vanish in the face of the experience of actual prostitutes. If prostitution were understood for what it is, they say, it would be possible to work significantly against it and help millions of oppressed women and children.

Such debate is by no means limited to discussions of prostitution. Very similar discussion surrounds other issues within trafficking, most prominently migrant labor. People in poor families often leave home for work elsewhere. This work often requires illegally crossing borders and often takes place in deplorable conditions. Are these people trafficked, even slaves? See above for the gist of the debate.

So there you have it. A great deal of the difference between liberals and conservatives can often be understood in terms of how much control people have in what they do.

Even so, such differences need not keep us from loving one another. After all, my grandparents have been happily married for 53 years. The rest of us should be able to get along.

*One thing I really dislike about the terms "liberal" and "conservative" as nouns is that, particularly in the case of the former, they are often used to dehumanize. It's easier to belittle your opponents (and their arguments) if you overlook their humanity, but there are fairer and more productive ways to have discourse.


l e i g h c i a said...

an astute often our opinions and arguments are more dependent on our assumptions than on pure "reason" or "logic"....

Ben said...

Quite similarly, I have heard Josh on several occaisions draw the line between process and outcome. This makes sense in light of your post here, if you consider the importance of agency in political and economic processes. If individuals have a broad and meaningful ability to choose, it makes sense to focus policy on elements of the process. If their choices are severely constrained, the best way to effect change is to directly manipulate the outcome.

Jonathan said...

An interesting take. Your emphasis on "agency" is enlightening, though still perhaps an over-simplification.

Personally, over the past several years I've become convinced that environment plays a huge role in determining who we are. I don't only mean the environment in which we grow up; rather, our surroundings constantly affect our mood and actions.

Yet we humans are capable of manipulating our environments to a degree unprecedented among living creature. We exercise an incredible level of control over our surroundings. Yet this is a two-way street; a perpetual feedback system in which our environment informs our decisions about how we interact with it.

What's interesting is that, although this change in views has made me much more conscious of my own environment and its critical role in shaping my actions, it hasn't lead to my becoming more liberal.

Nicholas said...

I think a more liberal minded person would point out that many of the people in question have much less control over their surroundings than you seem to indicate.

A situation in which a child is born into a very poor family and must work the only jobs he or she can from a young age rather than receive an education seems to involve very little control over surroundings.

I think education is far and away the biggest factor in setting a person free to do what he or she wills. Growing up in our very well-educated context might present a somewhat skewed perspective on how much control people as a whole have.

Of course, all of this says nothing about the Truth which sets truly free if embraced or truly condemns if rejected.

Jonathan said...


Sorry for the confusion. I was saying that modern man has an extraordinary ability to manipulate his surroundings compared to pre-modern man, who in turn had an extraordinary ability to manipulate his surroundings compared to other species.

I agree that there are power inequalities among people today. They pale, however, compared to the power inequalities between almost anyone today and almost anyone a few centuries ago.

To take a simple example, a homeless man in the US has access to better health care (through emergency rooms) than anything Queen Elizabeth or Nelson Rockefeller had access to. That isn't to excuse his lack of access to quality health care by modern standards, but merely to point out that modern standards are historically pretty unique.