The Human Condition:

Money vs. Ideology – May 12, 2013

A lot of concern in the political world—among the people you run with, and those you’re running against—involves motivation. What does that guy want? What makes her tick? Where’s he coming from? And the biggest question of all: Can I trust him/her/them?

The common perception is that people on the right are driven by money. They want to acquire it, save it, get a good return for it, and avoid spending it foolishly, giving it away, or paying more than they have to—or, in some views, any of it at all—in taxes. These people—some would say—have no personal beliefs or moral grounding that stands higher than the love of money. They will shape their psyches, bend over backwards, and kill their own mothers in pursuit of the demon gold.1

The common perception is that people on the left are driven by ideology. They value a vision of the future, a personal set of values, beliefs, morals, and intentions. They believe in a kind of moral purity, guided—some would say—by what “feels right.” They believe that the heart is the truest expression of the human soul, and that a rational mind and the pursuit of personal advantage come second. They will follow their beliefs and morals no matter what the cost in money or time or personal inconvenience.2

All of us mix these tendencies to some degree. The man who labors for money and strives for wealth and security may certainly have personal morals. The woman who feels compassion and votes with her heart may certainly be careful with her money. But it’s in the name calling, and one’s dim view of the other party, that these leanings toward money or ideology come out most strongly. People of the left decry the right for its concerns about wealth, taxes, and federal spending. People of the right decry the left for its ideological purity, political correctness, and magical thinking.

As a man of the middle but with rightward leanings, especially in fiscal matters, I tend to trust the monetary motives on the right. I’m more comfortable with people driven by greed and self-interest than with those driven by ideals and vision. That’s a hard thing to say, I know, and will earn scorn among those for whom vision and compassion are the highest ideals. But I’m going to explain myself anyway.

People who act in their own self-interest and value money—and the personal advantages in terms of time, convenience, indulgence, and security that money can bring3—are fairly predictable. You know what drives them. You can also guess the limits of their ambition. Although they may have no upward limit to their desire for stacks of folding money, their sphere of action is going to be limited to the advantages, tricks, and ploys that benefit them and their family and, more rarely, their neighborhood and class.

The damage that a greedy person can do is both limited and self-limiting. His drive to get and spend may ruin his family relations and his reputation in the community. He may indulge in shady practices, cheating his employees, suppliers, and customers. He may cut corners in production and sell shoddy goods as a result. He may dump wastes and pollute the local stream. But the cheat and the producer of low quality are quickly discovered and repudiated by reputable people. Damage to the stream is detectable and traceable back to the polluter.

In a free society, with open communications and speech protections, a supplementary market will grow up to provide reviews of and recommendations for those who provide products and services. Think of the various institutions, like the Better Business Bureau and Consumers Union, or the magazines and websites, like Car and Driver or Rider, and the consumer service sites, like Angie’s List, that test and recommend products or gather and publish people’s personal experience with service providers.

For those whose customers may be unable to judge the quality of their work—for example, the doctor whose patients must trust in his or her knowledge and skill—or whose customers may be at some distance removed from acceptance of the product—for example, the engineer or construction contractor on a bridge, whose faulty workmanship endangers the drivers who cross it—society erects barriers and protections in the form of licensing, inspection, and regulation. The doctor who mistreats her patients will lose her license. The contractor who skimps on bridge construction will be discovered during inspection, forced to repair the work, and lose his performance bond. Government agencies at the county, state, and federal level exist to monitor air and water, issue operating permits, and punish illegal dumping and polluters. The mere existence of such safeguards are usually enough to keep the average professional, contractor, manufacturer, and supplier honest.

In a free society with an open market, consumers are generally able to choose their products and suppliers, and take responsibility for the quality of service or workmanship they will accept and where they will place their trust.

The damage that an ideological person can do knows no such limits. In the private sphere, as a concerned citizen, opportunities for imposing one’s beliefs, vision, morality, and intentions on other citizens is certainly limited. Think of writing a letter to the editor of the local newspaper or putting a political sign up in your front yard. But in a free society, with open communications and speech protections, like-minded people can come together to form parties and pressure groups. And in less-free societies they can operate outside the law, as vigilante groups and secret societies.

My fear is that the ideologue—who may be as blind to the needs and wants of others as the miser and the moneygrubber—will impose his or her vision, values, beliefs, and intentions on those who do not share them. That tendency has always been present in human society. But in earlier societies, with more limited forms of communication and cohesion, like-minded groups had fewer opportunities to clump together, link up, spread, and build consensus. It’s hard to form national parties with specific agendas in a rural society connected only by newspapers printed on a hand press. Building consensus, selecting priorities, and launching campaigns takes time—usually measured in years.

But with the growing communications vehicles brought about by technology in the 20th century—the telegraph and telephone, radio and television, and now the internet and email—our age has seen a flowering of political ideologies. Campaigns in favor of certain programs or against certain practices can launch, gain momentum, and take over the public awareness and imagination in a matter of months—sometimes in weeks or days.

Principles and values that once took a generation or more to develop and build now sweep the populace in a year or less. Think of the campaigns against personal choice in the matter of energy use (fossil fuels, incandescent light bulbs), everyday convenience (recycling, composting, plastic shopping bags), and societal values (abortion, same-sex marriage). Peer pressure is now applied on a national and even international level through public and social media. If you happen not to share the values being promoted, you can be criticized and ostracized both on a local and a national level. If you are not with us, you are against us, a selfish wrecker and destroyer of the world, and the weight of public opinion falls hard and fast.

When people break free of the shackles of self-interest, they can dream big, envisioning a world where everyone must participate in a utopian future or risk destroying the very planet itself. Then things can really get out of hand. Ask the Germans. Ask the Russians. Ask the Poles and the former Eastern Bloc. For myself, I’d rather put up with the machinations of a greedy capitalist any day.

1. Of course, another side to the politics of the right supposedly derives from Christian fundamentalism, and this motivation not only dictates how its followers should act but also wants—some would say—to impose its will on all of society in a state of theological fascism. Politics is a messy business, and any drawing of lines is going to wander across such boundaries.

2. In most cases, time and personal convenience are also an expression of money, which is simply a storable and tradable form of human energy. See The Economy as an Ecology from November 14, 2011.

3. Here I’m going to make a distinction between the lust for money as a form of personal wealth and security and the lust for money as a form of power over others. The man who buys and sells corporations, and seeks money in order to pay for these acquisitions, is not going after money per se. He seeks power as an end to which money is simply a tool. The same lust drives a politician, who seeks money in order to buy advertising and sway opinions in order to obtain votes, or a military officer, who seeks combat honors and praise from his superiors in order to obtain promotion.