Saturday, June 02, 2007


Liberal vs. Conservative: a Personal View

My friends H, M, R, S, and I have a lively and continuing debate or discussion going by e-mail. Recently R and M started using the term "liberal elite." They are Conservatives and to them the term refers to "liberal" elected officials in the federal government (e.g., Ted Kennedy) who, they say, impose restrictions on the use of federal land. In particular, the "liberal elite" are opposed to drilling for oil in the Alaska National Wildlife Reserve (ANWR). They, the Conservatives (specifically H, M, and R) are eager to have drilling proceed so that the oil will be available to us Americans who otherwise must buy petroleum from the Arab sheiks and emirs and the Persian ayatollahs.

R in particular has recently pointed out that local people in Alaska are very much in favor of drilling. I am concerned about possible damage to the delicate ecosystem of northern Alaska. Besides, I believe that we Americans should turn our attention to expanding renewable and not-carbon sources of energy, such as geothermal, solar, and wind power rather than searching for and exploiting new sources of petroleum. However, I recognize that we do need other sources of petroleum in the immediate future and I don't have any strong objections to drilling for oil in ANWR. It's not a life-or-death matter for me. My indifference to the project seems to annoy H and R, who seem particularly eager to let the drilling begin.

However, drilling or not drilling in ANWR is not the point of this essay. I am more interested in teasing out what R, H, and M really mean by "liberal elitel." I had an interesting exchange with R on the subject.

R is disturbed by government reglations and limitations that impose a burden on local people and about which local people have no say. These limitations are, according to R, part of the "liberal agenda," which involves imposing rules on people that are supposedly good for them even though they are not popular. He argued that local people ought to have a vote on these rules and regulations.

It is no surprise that I agree with him. I think that preserving the environment is something that has to have support of the local people affected. If logging is to be prevented or limited in Montana, the people of Montana who make their livings by logging must, in the long run, support the limiting rules. Otherwise, some different administration in Washington will change the rules to gain a few thousand votes in Montana. I argue that we can not depend on the federal government to be a permanent protector of the environment. The Bush Administration has taught us that much. I wrote as much in my e-mail reply to R.

I went on to give an example of local control that is stymied by a State or federal limit: rent control. Local voters in, say, Santa Monica, impose rent control on apartments. The State associations that look out for the interests of landlords and others who obtain revenue from the use of land try to persuade either the State legislature or the public at large to enact a law or an amendment to the State constitution to prevent local voters from imposing rent control.

R and M went ballistic at my example of local control. R's response was that rent control is "unethical." It took a couple of e-mails back and forth to find out what he meant. Finally he and M wrote that it doesn't work. Rent control puts landlords in such a bind that they may have to burn down their apartments and build new ones to get out from under a rent control ordinance that forces them to rent their apartments at below market rates. M cited his own experience as a landlord and concluded that only an idiot would seek to own and rent apartments if rent control is imposed.

My response was to concede that rent control alone doesn't solve the housing problem. The problem is that in cities such as Los Angeles the inflation in housing prices have pushed rents to a level that many people who work in the city can not afford to live in it. Many of our policemen live outside the city, or even outside the county where they can find affordable housing. The problem is more severe for poorer workers, those that can't afford cars with which to make the long commutes between home and workplace. We Angelinos need to create a program that will provide housing for low-income people that they can afford. I asked my Conservative friends to suggest some things that might be done.

The responses were telling. My Conservative friends have no interest in discussing a low-cost housing program. M suggests that I, who have a fairly large house in Woodland Hills, should invite several poor people to live with me, rent free. My previous suggestions about subsidies for builders to build low-cost housing and for landlords to charge rents below market rates went past him like a whiff of air. We are talking past each other. Conservatives look at the situation in terms of its effects on them personally. In addition, they tend to identify with the landlord. Their advice to the tenants who are faced with high rents and low-paying jobs seems to be like that of President Coolidge: work hard and save your money.

How does all of this relate to the title of this essay? Liberals and conservatives both look at how a situation affects individuals. In the example above, conservatives look at how the landlord is affected; liberals look at how the tenant is affected. Conservatives think of solutions to such problems in terms of what individuals can do for themselves. Poor tenants should find cheaper housing or better-paying jobs or go somewhere else to live. Liberals think of collective action by society, acting through a representative government, to deal with the problem of an inadequate supply of housing that low-income people can afford.

This is not to say that conservatives are greedy and heartless. Many of them would urge churches and other non-governmental organizations (e.g., Habitat for Humanity) to undertake projects to help people find affordable housing. They don't like the idea of government doing it and forcing them to pay taxes to pay for it. They may be willing to contribute generously to their churches and their benevolent organizations, but they are not willing to pay higher taxes. It is also not to say that liberals are altruistic and generous. They believe that history has shown that private charities have not been able to do all the things that should be done to improve the living conditions of the poor. They are willing to have government try, to experiment, to fail and try again. They don't believe that private charities will be completely free of bias or prejudice. Private charities may be more willing to undertake projects that benefit "white" people (people of European extraction) than "colored" people. Government should be free of such bias.

When I write "liberal" I am, of course, writing for myself. I do not attend any church regularly and I do not make generous contributions to any religious or fraternal or benevolent organization. I favor public welfare rather than private charity. I regard Habitat for Humanity as a useful private organization, one whose projects should be emulated by government.

My friend, the late John Crowe, would tell me, if he were still alive, that the differences between me and my Conservative friends depend on whose ox is gored. If I owned a string of rental houses, I might share M's distaste for rent control. Since John is not here to respond to my argument, I have to concede that he may be right.

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