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Liberal vs. conservative activism

As I have said in this post, I believe that the future of activism depends on bringing various groups together, finding common ground, and making a few compromises along the way.

So, I have been thinking then about finding the common ground between liberal and conservative activists. And to be able to find a common ground I had to first define what separates these two groups. Below is my best guess about the essence of liberal/left-wing and conservative/right-wing activism:

Left-wing activism: Government is the solution. We need better regulations and put in charge the right people to implement them.

Right-wing activism: Government is the problem. We need less regulations because only powerful people have enough means to jump through their hoops, which creates a system rigged against the little guy.

Add to this political corruption and you get even more unfair system, in which people with enough influence and resources can get preferential regulation and treatment from the government.

Anacharsis, a philosopher from the 6th century BC, said something very similar:

“Written laws are like spiders’ webs; they will catch, it is true, the weak and poor, but would be torn in pieces by the rich and powerful.”

Left-wing activists want to make spider web stronger, so that bigger flies could also be caught. Conversely, right-wing activists want to make spider web weaker and thus level the playing field.

The above are primarily observations about the outlook on the economic issues; many right-wingers have a different view on government regulation concerning moral and social issues. For example, they may be in favor of free market, but simultaneously support a state ban on marijuana. (Libertarians, though, are more or less consistently against any government regulation).

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I can somewhat understand right-wing position, because I believe that having a bad regulation is usually worse than having no regulation at all. However, I still think that a good regulation can in fact be the best option most of the time.

scaleConsider this analogy: if you want to weight two objects it is helpful to have an accurate scale. However, it is incredibly unhelpful if your scale is rigged. Indeed, you would be better off if you had no scale at all – that way you wouldn’t get false figures and you could still weight the objects by hand and roughly tell which is heavier.

So, the catch with government regulation is that it is incredibly difficult to foresee if a particular regulation will have a positive effect or not, and even small details can make a huge difference in the end. As they say, the devil is in the detail.

Since the effects of regulating certain activities are so unpredictable, we have to be prepared to constantly evaluate all regulations and adjust them through trial-and-error. And in some cases we may find that the best option is indeed to have no regulations in that particular field. In other cases we may be able to find a good one. Therefore I subscribe to neither the left-wing nor to right-wing way; I believe that the best option is to decide on a case by case basis.

The success or failure of a particular regulation depends on the nature of incentives and disincentives that are introduced to society with this regulation. And in some cases, or to some extent, the natural incentives of a free market may prove to be better than anything government could come up with.

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I don’t know if this can be a common ground for liberals and conservatives – the notion that we generally can’t make a priori assumptions on whether a government regulation will be good or bad. The details of any regulation and its implementation will determine whether it will turn out to be a good or a bad one, but we can hardly predict an outcome, if at all. It is therefore desirable to enact disparate solutions in different jurisdictions, observe the results, and adjust as needed.

Honestly, I doubt that this will convince many people, but I had to express my beliefs. I still hope that some other, more practical common ground between liberal and conservative activism will be found. Personally, I’m out of ideas – the split between them seems insurmountable. However, if you have any helpful suggestions, please leave a comment below.

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The Day We Fight Back and the future of activism

The Day We Fight Back is an upcoming protest against mass spying carried by the NSA that was revealed last year by Edward Snowden. On February 11th, thousands of websites will host banners urging people to contact their lawmakers over the issue of privacy protection.

It’s no secret that I’m deeply in favor of this event, as I have already written in this post that

“Privacy of communication and protection of whistleblowers are two of the pillars of democracy, because it’s very difficult to hold governments accountable without them.”

Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1948, explicitly mentions people’s right to privacy:

Article 12.

“No one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence, nor to attacks upon his honour and reputation. Everyone has the right to the protection of the law against such interference or attacks.”

And long before this declaration, in 1791, U.S. states ratified Bill of Rights, which is the collective name for the first ten amendments to the Constitution of the United States. Its purpose was to set limits on government actions with respect to personal liberties, and the Fourth Amendment specifically prohibits unreasonable searches and seizures, and requires any warrant to be supported by probable cause.

The Fourth Amendment goes hand in hand with the First Amendment which guarantees the freedoms of speech, the press, and the peaceful assembly.

Dilma Rousseff, the president of Brazil, best explained this connection in her speech at the United Nations General Assembly:

“In the absence of the right to privacy, there can be no true freedom of expression and opinion, and therefore no effective democracy.”

British rapper and vlogger Dan Bull recently made a rap song video appropriately titled “The NSA hate this song” in which he expressed similar concerns:

“PRISM is a prison and the prisoner’s your mind”

[…]

“When the NSA watches everything we say, we’ve got to make sure we say what we really need to say”

In other words: obliteration of privacy by government intelligence agencies can lead to self-censorship and stifling of political opposition and unconventional ideas. Watch Dan’s video below:

Some people in power of course want to stifle political opposition that is threatening their current authority. To prevent tyranny it’s therefore crucial that we preserve the ability to communicate freely in private as well as in public; as Steven Pinker puts it in The Blank Slate: “a network of freely communicating citizens can counteract the might of the individuals in government.”

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I’m not against the practice of mass surveillance just because it can eventually lead us to Orwellian nightmare. The other reason is that the implementation of my Manifesto for sustainable living depends upon effective democracy and protection of human rights. Without the rights and freedoms that people living in modern democracies currently still enjoy, the establishment of a network of societies (associations) for sustainable living and self-actualization becomes impossible.

Even though I’m not an anarchist (or even a libertarian), I believe that the biggest future social advances will come through voluntary associations, not through the state.

With regard to the power of the state, I’m a proponent of the Goldilocks principle: the state should not be too powerful, and it should not lack the power necessary to perform its functions; its power should be “just right”.

If the state becomes too powerful, it can easily turn into a totalitarian dictatorship, but if it becomes too weak, then it cannot maintain peace and public order. The primary role of government is to defend citizens from outside threats and from each other, to maintain a legal system where disputes can be solved peacefully, and to protect the rights and freedoms of the people.

I see the state as a foundation, that makes higher levels of cooperation between people possible. It provides a playing field, rules of the game, and a referee – then it’s up to people how they team up and how they play. Of course, part of the whole thing is to make sure that the referee doesn’t get corrupt.

If this foundation works properly, then positive social change can occur either through democratic process (democratically utilizing state power to correct market deficiencies), or through people exercising their existing rights and freedoms and establishing voluntary cooperative associations: a new layer of cooperation can sometimes change the existing system even without changing the legal groundwork. Watch this video for an interesting example of this concept:


How to Change Society (short version)

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The future of activism

This leads us to the final part of this post. Where does the future of activism lie?

I believe that activists need to realize that they can have profound impact only when they collaborate together. They need to form networks and associations and work together. Of course, they already do collaborate. The Day We Fight Back is an example of how different groups can join forces for a common goal. They already did it in 2012 with protests against SOPA and PIPA. However, such coordinated actions are rare.

The problem is that different activist groups have incompatible visions and ideas, so they don’t really want to work together.

The future of activism lies in bringing various groups together despite their ideological differences. They should learn to collaborate on a case by case basis – work together on goals that they agree upon, despite the fact that they may disagree on all the other issues. Finding common ground and making a few compromises is the only way to achieve the critical mass that is necessary for change.

The other important realization activists have to make is that some issues cannot be solved with a democratic process, because there is simply no consensus in society on how to solve these issues (and possibly never will be). That does not mean that I support violent revolutions or any other non-democratic option that would force the views of the minority upon the majority.

However, there is a solution to this deadlock. It involves the concept of voluntary associations – establishing a new layer of cooperation only between people that want it, and leaving others alone. For example, there may be no consensus for establishing universal health coverage in a particular country. Personally, I think that universal health coverage is a good thing, but the majority of voters in that country might strongly oppose this idea. So, rather than fighting for this cause through political means, why not establishing an alternative system: a network of health insurance co-operatives that could eventually grow big and become de facto universal health care?

It’s just a suggestion. You can choose to take it or not.