Sunday, February 12, 2006

Mormon Topos Amongst the Political Quadrants

I am no political scientist, but it seems to me that to a large extent politics consists of arguments about where policies should fall along a ‘control continuum’ ranging from paternalistic government compulsion to personal discretion, judgment, and responsibility. In a comment, Robert C. says it is hard to reconcile what he calls Ezra Taft Benson’s “libertarian” views with President Hinckley’s expressed willingness to legislate morality. But I think Robert’s dilemma is somewhat alleviated by conceptualizing two orthogonal axes of control continua, which off the top of my head I will call ‘economics’ (taxation, welfare, and so on) and ‘pleasures’ (sexuality, gambling, and so forth).

This results in four quadrants, to which I give the following impromptu labels:
  • Republican: Personal responsibility over economics, government control of pleasures
  • Democrat: Government control of economics, personal responsibility over pleasures
  • Libertarian: Personal responsibility over both economics and pleasures
  • Totalitarian: Government control over both economics and pleasures
I have named two quadrants after the two dominant contemporary political parties, whose current philosophies roughly fall within the given descriptions. Libertarianism is also a recognized but not currently ascendant political philosophy (and political party). ‘Totalitarian’ requires more explanation, as I am using it idiosyncratically: I do not mean the autocratic rule of a dictator or oligarchy, but a government that, in controlling both ‘economics’ and ‘pleasures,’ regulates the ‘totality’ of life to a greater extent than the philosophies of the other quadrants—a totality of regulation which can, however, be brought about in a democracy, imposed on a minority by the electoral will of the majority.

Now, back to Robert’s dilemma: I think the 20th century Church has been consistently willing to endorse legislation along the ‘pleasures’ axis. In this, there is likely no distinction or inconsistency between Ezra Taft Benson and Gordon B. Hinckley. However, things get a little more messy along the economics axis.

In recent decades at least, the Church as a whole has been rather neutral along the economics axis, which, when combined with a preference for government control of pleasures, means that official Mormonism today straddles the line between the Totalitarian and Republican quadrants.

However, some past individual official voices (Heber J. Grant and Ezra Taft Benson come to mind) and most individual Church members seem to absorb ‘work ethic’ together with ‘pleasures’ under a rubric of ‘individual worthiness,’ and seem to prefer its ‘schizophrenic’ implementation in the Republican quadrant, rather than one of the ‘consistent’ Libertarian or Totalitarian quadrants. (Weird! My guess is that this is a legacy of Heber J. Grant’s underappreciated transformative and lasting imprint on the Church, which among other things included a combination of willingness to endorse Prohibition with his revulsion at ‘the dole.’)

Those less common Mormons for whom social justice is seen as a government imperative tend in practice to go Democrat rather than Totalitarian, probably both to be in a party that actually has some power, and also to avoid the despised ‘communist’ or ‘socialist’ labels. (These are so despised that pseudonyms seem required. Cases in point: RoastedTomatoes of LDS Liberation Front and Watt Mahoun of MormAnarchy. I’m not sure where these guys fall, but if in addition to their social justice concerns they agree with the Church’s support of legislating the pleasures axis, their placement in the Totalitarian quadrant would make their title concepts of Liberation and Anarchy highly ironic!)


This is an old idea, I'm afraid. See the Political Compass .

I don't like legislating personal morality, either with regard to "pleasures" or economics. But we have to be pragmatic about trage-offs, don't we?

If you pay attention, you'll note that most of my discussion of social justice involves trying to motivate individuals to act voluntarily, however. I'm not sure why that raises the kind of ire that it seems to create. 

Comment by RoastedTomatoes | 2/12/2006 08:17:00 PM  

I am also no fan of government involvement in decisions that the individual handles things that you refer to as the pleasure axis...but which inclused much more than what "pleasure" suggests.

I think government is a tool of the people, and as long as the people ar able to influence remains a necessary evil.

Also, as I've mentioned in my about page , I’m not championing general anarchy…more like agitating for a move away from general authority through individual acts of anarchy.

One way to move away from general authority is to demand and protest and act for change when it appears necessary. Ridding the world of war, and hunger, and poverty, and ignorance seem like good reasons to question authority.

I don't think RT or I fit neatly into your matrix...I think most people are much more complex than the system that constrians us.

Thanks for this thoughtful post, Christian.

Comment by Watt Mahoun | 2/12/2006 10:24:00 PM  

As far as the Church's willingness to support moral/pleasure laws, I think you're right that there's been a history of this (starting with Prohibition I think, maybe earlier). But I don't understand the justification for this based on the criteria ETB gives for the proper role of government.

I would summarize ETB's view like this: the government only has the right to prohibit something if I as an individual have the (ethical?) right to prohibit someone from doing something.

Maybe I'm forcing the harm principle onto ETB's view, but it's hard for me to think of a way that I as an individual would have the ethical right to, say, restrict others from gambling, since I don't think it harms others (I don't use homosexuality as an example since it's less clear to what extent the Church has supported or would support laws prohibiting homosexual behavior as opposed to just advocating a particular definition of marriage...).

I think I've heard arguments to the effect: since gambling erodes the moral fiber of society, they do indirectly harm me, thus the government has (or I, the person investing the government with authority per ETB's view, have) an ethical right to oppose such action. But I think this is a strained take on ETB's view.

[Here's an interesting passage explaining philosophical arguments for alternative criteria regarding the proper scope of laws vis-a-vis individual liberty.]


Comment by Robert C. | 2/13/2006 01:50:00 AM  

RoastedTomatoes,  yes, it is an old idea, but I had no idea what it was called or what the proper nomenclature was or where I picked it up.

I think you peoples' hackles are raised if they imagine  you're promoting involuntary measures. (I suppose they get this apparently mistaken idea from various things like your subtle blog banner and title, talk of Evo Morales, ... ;-> ) I don't think you'd catch any flak at all if you said "I challenge you all to give some extra thought about how much you're contributing in fast offerings" etc.  

Comment by Christian Y. Cardall | 2/13/2006 11:28:00 PM  

Watt:  Ridding the world of war, and hunger, and poverty, and ignorance seem like good reasons to question authority. 

It's not clear to me that these things are caused by authority per se. And I think authority will always arise in one form or another. But I certainly agree that thinking and asking questions are important.


Comment by Christian Y. Cardall | 2/13/2006 11:33:00 PM  

Robert,  perhaps with many vices (including gambling) it could be argued that the inability of the addicted to support themselves and their families results in the necessity of social welfare, which burden is a "harm" to me. 

Comment by Christian Y. Cardall | 2/13/2006 11:38:00 PM  

Christian wrote:
"It's not clear to me that these things are caused by authority per se."

Authority takes many forms, including things like conventional wisdom and accepted paradigms. We must question the authority of such things and the people who promote them if we are to do things that some say cannot or should not be done...we need to practice individual anarchy.

Does that make more sense?

Comment by Watt Mahoun | 2/14/2006 12:38:00 AM  

Christian, obviously I have different ideas about what the best government policy ought to be. And those ideas arise from my religious convictions, but I understand that other people are able to put together perfectly valid versions of Mormonism that have quite different policy implications.

However, when I talk about economics and the gospel, I very often deliberately avoid policy issues. My opinion is simply that we haven't yet found the best policy solution to poverty -- either within the church or without -- and therefore raising the salience of the issue is imperative. See: my evil master strategy unveiled...

By the way, with respect to the website slogan, that comes direct from the Book of Mormon. And the discussion of Evo Morales was, I hope, balanced; I was trying to inform, rather than advocate. Like many others, I feel fundamentally ambivalent about Latin America's current neopopulist leftism.

But my big complaint is simply that people don't actually respond to what I say. Instead, they respond to their imagined version of me and my evil Marxist agenda. (Something that, for the most part, you haven't done -- and thanks.) 

Comment by RoastedTomatoes | 2/14/2006 01:01:00 PM  

Watt,  it sounds like you're using "individual anarchy" to mean something like independent thought and exploration, which I am of course in favor of. Just to argue the other side (since that's my reflexive tendency ;-> ), I would note that much of custom and conventional wisdom is a sort of algorithmic compression of what "works"---or of what worked at some level at some time---and therefore ought not necessarily be thrown out automatically, without thought. And also, that many of the changes you would like to see would surely require the imposition of authority of some kind to bring it about. To imagine a panacea without authority is a pipe dream, IMHO. Authority will always be around in some form or other; the questions are, what shall be its basis of legitimacy, what form shall it take, and how far should it reach.

More later on today's comments... 

Comment by Christian Y. Cardall | 2/14/2006 02:40:00 PM  

Don't let my use of the term "anarchy" get in the way. I'm talking more about changing authority (such is revolution) than getting rid of it. And never forget that what has worked in the past has ony worked well enough to get us where we are...which is obviously not good enough for where we want to go and never will be.

looking forward to the continued conversation... 

Comment by Watt Mahoun | 2/14/2006 04:35:00 PM  

"...the inability of the addicted to support themselves and their families results in the necessity of social welfare, which burden is a "harm" to me."

Good point. To nit pick, if the only social welfare that exists is voluntary (as a strict libertarian would hope for), then I think it's a mischaracterization to call this a harm to me.

Also, your line of reasoning seems to land quite a blow to individual liberty. After all, video games and blogging can be quite addicting, so if the public thinks these activities are retarding social welfare significantly shouldn't they be banned too? What's different between your argument and Satan's pre-mortal plan as Mormons understand it (forcing everyone to do good)?

Seems to me the answers to these types of questions are a bunch of compromises which form the divide between messy politics and the more elegant world of philosophy.... 

Comment by Robert C. | 2/14/2006 05:19:00 PM  

RoastedTomatoes,  I wasn't talking about the slogan/subtitle of your blog (which I of course recognized from the BoM), but the phrase "Liberation Front" in the title and the red star imagery, which both have Marxist connotations, and this gives people an initial sense right off the bat. Yes your discussion of Evo was balanced, but probably even bothering to bring him up, let alone treat him even-handedly, seems to many conservatives like something only far-lefties would do.

I appreciate your fuller descriptions of where you're coming from. In describing you and your writings I did try to be careful in using the tentative CYA weasel-words careful academics like so much. But to the extent I may have caricatured the lefty stuff, it was meant in good fun and not as a serious personal jab. I was sincere in saying I'm a fan of your blog---you're obviously a smart, thoughtful guy and a good and even-handed writer, and I would enjoy reading you even if you really were  Marxist!

More responses will continue dribbling out... 

Comment by Christian Y. Cardall | 2/15/2006 03:41:00 PM  

Robert C.,  I agree that the argument is logically strongest in a context where contributions to welfare are compulsory. Paradoxically, however, the reverse seems to be true in its (often hidden) application. While some religious people would be loathe to admit it, wanting to avoid the guilt that compels them to help others regardless of circumstances may be what motivates them to press hard on issues of 'public morality.' Conversely, desire for their own ethical freedom may motivate social liberals to allow gambling even though they know it may cost them in the context of the compulsory welfare contributions they believe in. 

Comment by Christian Y. Cardall | 2/15/2006 08:11:00 PM  


I'm sorry to be coming to this a little late; it's a good discussion. I further apologize in advance that I almost certainly won't be able to help the discussion along further, as I'm heading out of town. But just to throw out a couple of comments:

I don't see why anyone should assume that, from a Mormon perspective , the labels socialist and communist are necessarily to be "despised."

Moreover, there are numerous more accurate and more thoughtful labels for those who see need for public involvement in both "economics and pleasures." Why not "communitarian"? Or "populist"? Even plain old "authoritarian" is better, since at least then you can start thinking about how that quandrant relates more to JPII and Christian social democracy than Vladimir Lenin. 

Comment by Russell Arben Fox | 2/16/2006 11:27:00 AM  

Christian, good point about the possible ulterior motives of conservatives and seeeming contradictory motives of liberals in terms of social cost. 

Comment by Robert C. | 2/16/2006 06:37:00 PM  

Russell,  thanks for the link, which predated my exposure to T&S. As you probably guessed I was referring to the fact that "socialist" and "communist" are  despised labels, without really saying anything about whether it ought to be that way.

You're definitely right there must be better labels, and I appreciate the input of someone with your expertise! "Totalitarian" and "authoritarian" both have connotations of dictatorship which I am not sure is necessary as I said in the post. I'm ignorant of the details of how "populist" has been understood philosophically (and historically), but to me it has the opposite problem of the connotations of "totalitarian" and "authoritarian," viz., not enough structure to enforce anything (mobs and rioters can have an impact but it tends to be emphemeral and transient). I guess "communitarian" and maybe "social democracy" seem like the most promising among the possibilities you offer.

However, it may well be that the nomenclatural difficulty is not merely semantic, but a signal of a deeper problem: there seem to be severe practical problems in realizing this particular quadrant in a way that is not top-down authoritarian. "Communitarian" and "social democracy" suggest hope for a liberal bottom-up implementation, but all instantiations to date, from totalitarian dictatorships on the secular side to Mormonism and Catholicism (philosophically at least) on the religious side, are in fact heavily top-down.  

Comment by Christian Y. Cardall | 2/17/2006 04:44:00 PM  

Just to follow up on that, the "Libertarian" quadrant seems also not to have had any more success that the "Totalitarian/authoritarian/communitarian" one in being implemented. Perhaps that the "Republican" and "Democratic" quadrants are the only ones to find lasting influence tells us that people have significant needs, one way or another, to both do what they want and also tell people what to do. We need both freedom and structure. I find it interesting that the "mixed" quadrants that reflect this turn out to be the ones that arise and persist. 

Comment by Christian Y. Cardall | 2/17/2006 04:51:00 PM  

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