I do philosophy. By philosophy, I mean thinking about the meaningfulness of the relationship of the things in this world. It is a very important thing to do, and we all do it to a greater or lesser extent. We all think about what it is that makes our lives meaningful. We all want to make the world a better place, and we all want to do the right thing. Granted we all have to provide for ourselves and our families, and we all want to enjoy our lives. Yet we are all very serious about wanting our lives to mean something. We pray. We read about various civic and political events. We consider politics, and we vote. In all of that, we are doing philosophy. We are thinking about the meaningfulness of our relation to the people and things of our world.

Lately, however, I have discerned a certain avoidance of, and even hostility to, that kind of thinking. Instead of honest discourse and give-and-take discussion, our conversations on the issues of the day have become shouting matches, or, likely much worse, complete silence. For instance, I was talking to a neighbor of mine who had made it clear that his view of things was decidedly right-wing. Another, like-minded neighbor, came along, and the first man said to the second, “Don’t talk politics with him. He is a liberal.” I probably laughed at the comment, but I cringe now thinking about it. That is, in fact, the case. We simply do not discuss the issues of the day with those we meet. We take our positions, however we arrive at them, and then we build walls around them to prevent any challenge.

This disease of the avoidance of thought seems to have become standard practice among our politicians. Recently, presumed presidential candidate Scott Walker took a trip to Israel. We have no information about that trip other than that he was there for a few days and apparently got a guided tour of Jerusalem. He returned from that trip and announced that, apparently as the result of his guided tour, he had developed an opinion on the Israeli-Palestinian problem. He was actually questioned about the problem, and he actually spoke about the problem, and someone actually wrote down what he was saying and published it in a newspaper. Where he got these opinions, I have no idea. However, I have been to Israel, and I have talked with many people at length about the problems facing Israel and the Palestinians. I think I am beginning to understand that complex and centuries-old struggle. The only one thing I am absolutely sure of is that a tour of Jerusalem is not sufficient to qualify me as an expert on the subject.

That, however, seems to be the state of things today. If you are a public official, you do not think about the subject at hand. In fact, you avoid thinking at all costs. Instead, you check with your party boss or your campaign director. You identify the party message. Then you sing that message at the top of your voice, and, if you speak at all about opposing views, you ridicule.

We are in trouble, big trouble. Our physical and political infrastructure is crumbling, and we are creating ever widening gaps in the various sectors of our country. Bigotry — racial, religious, political, financial — is becoming the order of the day. I put it all to a refusal to think, to a ban on thinking, to the mindless building of barricades against any sector of the country opposed to our own. We need to think. Most of all, we need to listen, really listen, and try to understand opposing views. If we do not think, if we do not listen, we will face the alternative. The opposite of thinking is not ignorance. The opposite of thinking is violence. We all deserve better than that.


In the state of Wisconsin, Scott Walker came into office with the state having a surplus. He used that surplus to give a very large tax break to the wealthy and to corporations. The surplus was not sufficient to make up for the reduction in state income, so Walker cut benefits to the poor and the middle class. For instance, he made various municipal and state employees pay more for their fringe benefits. Thus a school teacher making $50,000 a year was required to pay $600 a month more for health benefits. In effect, he reduced a middle class worker’s income by $7200 annually and gave a several thousand dollar tax reduction to someone making $500,000 or more. Now, we discover that, because of these tax reductions, Wisconsin has a two billion (2,000,000,000) dollar deficit. Walker’s solution? Cut middle class income more and give the wealthy another tax break. And, when that tax reduction causes yet another deficit, … Well, the rest follows logically.

It is, however, not the logic that is in question here. It is the principle that gives birth to that logic, a principle that those who pursue such logic are loathe to discuss. One would assume that this principle is the time-honored shibboleth of conservatism, namely, that smaller government is better government. To put it another way, if we have a choice of doing something through government or through private industry, then we should choose private industry because it is more efficient and effective. That principle has been proven true far too many times to be doubted. Private effort, whether driven by profit or by charitable dedication, has time and again provided results that no governmental bureaucracy could possibly have accomplished.

You will notice, however, that the conservative principle is only effective if we have a choice. It is universally admitted and goes without question that there are areas where we do not have a choice. The most obvious of these is the area of military defense. It is simply incovceivable that we could provide anything approaching an adequate defense of this country by use of private armies. Even in defense, however, we use private industry to equip our armed forces, because private industry can do that more effectively than any kind of state-run manufacturing system.

So now we can come to the real issue for discussion between rational conservatives and rational liberals: in what areas do we not have a choice? The answer depends, ultimately, on what the ideals are that constitute your form of government. If, for instance, your form of government is based upon the ideal of an all-powerful state, then you likely will never have a choice. Government must do everything, must nationalize industry and control communications and eliminate the profit motive altogether. Such was the disaster of the Soviet Union.

What, then, is the American ideal? “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that each is endowed by his creator with certain inalienable rights, among which are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness…” To put that another way, to be an American is to be unconditionally dedicated to seeing that all human beings are provided with those rights fundamental to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

Herein, I propose, lies the difference between true liberal and true conservative. Both camps must, on pain of losing their right to be called American, believe that every human being deserves these fundamental rights. I think it obvious from the fact that they are the constant topic of conversation, that these rights include the right to basic medical care, the right to a living wage, and the right to an education befitting their abilities. A rational discussion between liberal and conservative would be about the best means to provide these rights to all Americans. There are those rational liberals who make a good case that, for instance, on medical care, it is only the government that can implement a program of adequate medical care for all Americans. There are rational conservatives who make an eloquent case for the argument that private industry could do a better job of providing that care.

The logic of each of these positions is both formally and substantively sound, because both positions honor the fundamental ideals that constitute what it is to be an American. There is, however, rampant in the public fora, a far less sound logic, a logic that, while specious, is diseased by its founding principles. How else can one explain a policy of cutting education, cutting health care, cutting wages and benefits? The principle driving such policies can only be: that is good which profits me. This diseased logic, this ill logic, is fatally flawed at its core. It is flawed because it is an abandonment of the American ideal for the ideals of self-interest. It not only serves itself; it promotes itself by encouraging others to serve themselves. It promises its advocates to reduce their taxes, eliminate their need to be safe and to protect the environment and honor the rights of others.

This appeal to self-interest is, I put it to you, is a core problem in American politics. It may not be new, but I doubt that it has ever been more pervasive or more loudly and openly promoted. Taken to its logical end, oligarchy, it would end with the abandonment of the American ideal that stands in such stark contrast to it. I know that every human being deserves basic medical care, basic education and a basic living wage. I am convinced that every rational conservative in American agrees. I fear that liberals and conservatives alike are being ignored and their ideals rejected in the name of self-interest.