Scraping to find what left and right have in common
We live in highly contentious times. In bygone days, politicians not only worked with each other across the aisle, but made actual friends of one another — for example, Republican president Ronald Reagan and Democratic House speaker Tip O'Neill. Nowadays, this is pretty rare, if it exists at all. At one time, Senators Joe Biden and James O. Eastland were at least civil to one another; they were of the same party, but not the same philosophy.
At present, there is much more heat than light in political discussions. It occurs among the famous and has percolated down to ordinary folk. Numerous long-term loving marriages have broken up due to the rampant acerbity. One side calls the other communists; the other replies with charges of Nazism. Epithets such as "racist," "profiteer," "callous," "selfish," "deplorable," and "free-market ideologue" emanate from one side. From the other we hear "wokester," "virtue-signaling," "snowflake." The din percolates throughout the airwaves and the print media.
Is it possible to pour any oil on these troubled waters?
One way to do so is to focus on the undoubted fact that while the disputes are indeed ferocious when it comes to the means to attain what each side sees as the good society, this does not hold true — at least not so much — regarding the desired ends.
It would appear at the outset that there is a 180-degree difference between these two sides. Not so — at least not when it comes to goals. Both seek an end to poverty and favor prosperity, freedom and economic development. Consider, even, support for egalitarianism, an end, not a means. Even here it is possible to at least partially reconcile the differences. Those on the left favor heavy taxation of the rich and financial support for the poor; many, but not all, free-market economists would go partway in that direction with a negative income tax (those at the bottom end of the income distribution receive a subsidy).
Yes, many liberals oppose economic growth for environmental reasons. But they also acknowledge that it disproportionately helps the impoverished and thus promotes egalitarianism, another goal of theirs. Prosperity brought the nobles from candles to chandeliers, from a coach and six to a Maserati; the poor went from darkness to lightbulbs, from walking on foot to a Volkswagen. It is clear who gained more.
Consider the minimum wage law. Supporters maintain that present compensation levels for those at the bottom of the economic pyramid are pathetic and want to "Fight for $15!" They believe that this legislation actually raises remuneration. They see it as a floor undergirding wages; boost it, and pay scales rise. Those opposed do not at all relish poverty. Rather, they maintain that this is a poor means toward raising wages; they contend that this law is instead a barrier over which the unskilled have to jump to get a job in the first place! And the higher it is, the more people there are who cannot exceed it. Goals? There may be a "dime's worth" of difference, but no more. Means? There is a gigantic chasm.
What about reducing pollution? There is no person of good will, on either side of the political spectrum, who does not wish this goal to be implemented. We all have to breathe. Many of us have children and grandchildren. However, the means are again entirely different. On the one hand, there are those who favor water, wind, and solar power, higher mileage standards, and an end to coal and oil; fracking must go. On the other, there is reliance on nuclear power, tradeable emissions rights, and even suing perpetrators for violating private property rights by trespassing dirt particles.
There are deep dark chasms between left and right concerning means to an end, but less so, far less so, regarding goals they both share.
Walter E. Block is Harold E. Wirth Eminent Scholar Endowed Chair and professor of economics at Loyola University New Orleans.