April 15, 2004

The Politics of Prioritisation

One of the benefits of being on European time is that I can see the blog posts from late at night on the American West Coast before most of the rest of the anglophone world. So, I see the top post at Oregon based Alas, a Blog is something that might, but has not yet, kicked up a shitstorm.

Hierarchy of Needs

During a recent conversation about political opinions, the topic of "mixed" political opinions came up -- meaning, those people who are socially liberal and fiscally conservative or vice versa. Now, I'm sure most of you here will already know that I believe being liberal both socially and fiscally is the best way to change the world for the better; however, if given the limited choice, is it better to be socially liberal or fiscally liberal? I have experience with both types of people, and I've given the subject a bit of thought over the years, and I've come to the conclusion that, on the whole and all else being equal (and assuming this will still only apply to a some people, not all people), I think it's better to be socially conservative and fiscally liberal.

Perhaps this will come as a surprise to a great many people (or, perhaps not). Certainly, a lot of the issues that are most near and dear to my heart would fall under the "social" label (liberal views, of course). It's not that I think these issues are "less" important (most of the time) -- and taken on an individual basis, there might be a lot of times I'd think the opposite was true. There are always exceptions.

OK, well, maybe for me there are a few issues that I feel are, while extremely important, simply not as important. The environment, animal rights, and gay marriage are three such issues that come to mind. Yes, yes, extremely important, I know. I really do. But I don't think they are as important as certain fiscal issues such as fair welfare benefits, affordable healthcare, affordable childcare, a living wage, to name a few. Given the choice between supporting a candidate who was pushing for more restrictions on corporate pollution (and/or for legalizing gay marriage) but in favor of the welfare "deform" of the type that Clinton & Gore enacted (or worse, stronger "reform") and the candidate who was pushing for a living wage, affordable healthcare, and affordable (quality) childcare but in favor of lessening restrictions on corporate pollution (or against gay marriage), I'd vote for the latter in a minute. [...]

A lot of my reasoning for this belief comes from Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs theory. [...]

Like the Hierarchy of Needs, I feel that there are certain issues which must be addressed and rectified before we can seriously work (to the full benefit of everyone) on other issues. Fighting for most social causes is incredibly important -- indeed, necessary. But when our most basic needs, both as individuals and as a society are not being met first, we can't really work on those other important issues.

There's another reason for my opinion -- also based on the Hierarchy of Needs. The fact is, if we want to enact social change in our society, we can't do it alone. We need others to be fighting that fight with us. [...]

I think Bean is right in the sense that abstract freedoms almost always take second fiddle to fundamental needs. But I have to question whether she really knows what this sort of thinking has gotten other folks into.

The history of political movements - left, right and other - is replete with this sort of thing, and the results have been deeply mixed. Socialists had this debate as far back as Marx' lifetime. Do we make alliances with the bourgeois liberals, the peasants, the rural parties, the nationalists? Quite a few people on the far left, like Milovan Djilas, complain that part of what destroyed the socialist movement was this very sort of thinking: the desire to industrialise at all costs because it was only in that manner that standards of living could rise. Those freedoms trampled in their wake were simply labelled as "bourgeois" and given second place. Most socialists - I'm tempted to say virtually all of them - believed in civil and political liberties. They just accorded them a lower priority. As many or more people are critical of the old socialists for their willingness to adopt nationalism as a cause, claiming that it was just an instrument for the establishment of economic justice, but ultimately letting nationalism control them.

I think Bean is right to see a lot of hot issues - environmentalism, gay rights, animal cruelty - as taking away from the more fundamental cause of economic justice. But, the single focus on the elimination of economic injustices is one of the reasons that the Old Left is "old". Economic injustice is not quite like civil liberty issues. We can envision a future where public homophobia is at most a very marginal phenomenon. We're not there yet, but it requires no great stretches of the imagination to do it. It takes a bit more imagination to envision a future where the colour of your skin is largely irrelevant to life, but that too is at least a mentally accessible future, even if I suspect that it is a bit further off. But, it is challenging just to imagine a future without economic injustice. It is not impossible, but it is vastly more difficult. One of the great complaints about socialists - and one that is not wholly off-base - is that they went off half-cocked without having genuinely undertaken that act of imagination.

Economic injustice is one of those continuing causes where it is unrealistic to expect, one day, to be able to sit back and say "we have abolished economic injustice, or at least fatally marginalised it." In the mid-60's, in North America and western Europe, humanity came as close to marginalising economic injustice as it ever has in recorded history, and it was still far from gone. A day may come when we can declare victory - I'm not one of those people who thinks that it is inherently impossible - but if we hold off all other causes until that day, we'll be waiting a long time.

I also have some problems with the Maslovian approach to political priorities. The whole problem with it is that different people are at different places in the hierarchy. The personal is the political, but the political is also the personal. I suspect that for the majority of gay people, gay rights issues really do address the biggest sources of oppression in their lives and economic justice doesn't. I don't think much is accomplished by saying "you gay people are just going to have to wait your turn to get justice." Movements fail when they start asking people to act in interests that they can't see to be their own.

This why I've always preferred to make a leftist case on the claim that empowering others also empowers yourself. It enables people to balance the causes that empower them directly against the causes that empower them indirectly. It is possible to say that it is better to sacrifice microscopic gains in economic justice for significant gains in other forms of empowerment than to get insignificant gains in economic justice and nothing else.

The degree to which this kind of analysis matters depends on what kind of politics we're talking about. I'm never terribly bothered to see people working harder for the causes that touch them the most. Gay people, and the people close to them, fight for gay rights. Minorities tend to fight for minority rights. Women are more likely to respond to sexism than men. This doesn't have to be an exclusionary kind of politics. Causes that are able to attract broad, even if only passive support go further than causes that are only able to reach exclusionary demographics. But, inevitable failure awaits political programmes that cannot accept that each person will tend to support the primacy of their own cause.

When it comes to voting in elections, where choice is inherently limited, the politics of the least evil really is the best you can do. This is a criticism of electoral politics, and it's a good one.

But, if you're looking for a cause to support, economic justice is, and remains, the most fundamental cause of them all. And there is no real risk that you might win and turn conservative afterwards. Bean is on the right track, it's just that prioritising your causes does not directly lead to good decisions on action. It's usually a lot more complicated than that.

Posted 2004/04/15 13:42 (Thu) | TrackBack

Nice post, Scott; thanks for bringing Bean's thoughts to my attention. Since I actually AM "socially conservative and fiscally liberal," more or less (it depends on how you define the terms), the way he arrives at his conclusion doesn't impress me all that much; think the connection between social solidarity and fiscal egalitarianism is an internal and organic one, not a strategic assessment of the reality of certain needs. Indeed, I would agree with you that "prioritization" is a poor way to arrange a political strategy; while it has a strong pedigree on the left (e.g., Frederick Douglass side-lining women's rights activitists during the 19th century in the U.S., saying that if the black man didn't take what was offered at that moment it might never come again), it is flawed in its grasp of the interconnectedness of social and economic rights. Interesting ideas, nonetheless.

Posted by: Russell Arben Fox at April 15, 2004 19:00

Russell - I just got an e-mail from Kip Manley pointing out that Bean is a she. I changed the text, but I'm putting this note up to make clear that it's my fault you used he.

I haven't been reading the blogs enough the last few months.

Posted by: Scott Martens at April 15, 2004 20:23

Oops. Thanks for the correction.

Posted by: Russell Arben Fox at April 16, 2004 3:27

I too have a problem with this sort of absolute prioritisation. I think it should be a matter of degrees; there are some levels of economic injustice so severe that addressing them is more important than most "social" issues. On the other hand, if large numbers of people are dying due to environmental problems, living wages and childcare suddenly don't matter as much; even good affordable healthcare isn't as important as not getting poisoned in the first place.

And as the Sierra Club has started pointing out in the last few years, a lot of "environmental" issues turn out to also be "social justices" issues. Poor people tend to have the least power to protect themselves and their neighborhoods from pollution.

Note too that this sort of "hierarchy of needs" is part of some conservatives' argument against further progress towards racial equality. The claim is that because American blacks are so much better off than they used to be (not slaves, no more explicitly racist laws, no more lynchings) that they should stop asking for further help from society, because other issues (reducing the deficit, fighting America's enemies, strengthening the economy, etc.) are more important.

My feeling is that compromise is nearly always unavoidable. However, the details of exactly how to compromise, which issues to concede and which to give the highest priority, depends on the details of the specific situation, and the details of each person's particular preferences. It's important to remember that other people of good conscience may choose different compromises.

Trying to establish an absolute hierarchy of issues based on some theoretical analysis strikes me as the archetypical flaw of the Left (though see Libertarianism and some forms of religious fundamentalist politics for non-Left examples).

Posted by: Jeremy Leader at April 17, 2004 17:26

Hmm. Every now and then I produce a post attempting to outline where I fit on any political spectrum. I don't think I've ever come to any satisfactory conclusion, other than that at least a fuzzy position of 'socially liberal, tending towards fiscal conservatism' avoids any regrettably doctrinaire positions.

I'm surprised Bean cites Maslow, since it is very far from being a neutral model in this case. It works best in individualist 'Anglosphere' nations than more collectivist states.

Posted by: Richard at April 19, 2004 21:01

but in favor of the welfare "deform" of the type that Clinton & Gore enacted (or worse, stronger "reform") and the candidate who was pushing for a living wage, affordable healthcare, and affordable (quality) childcare

except that the appeal of economic issues like welfare reform were rooted in "social" issues like racism and sexism, and the aversion to affordable childcare is rooted in ideas about gender, parenting etc. they're not really separable.

I suspect that for the majority of gay people, gay rights issues really do address the biggest sources of oppression in their lives and economic justice doesn't.

are homosexuals more often found in the upper classes or something? assuming random distribution, gays have been as affected by the "politics of rich and poor" as the rest of us.

Posted by: drapeto at April 20, 2004 16:00

Yes, drapeto, but I suspect they are more disproportionately affected by the politics of who you sleep with than most other people, and that that sort of sexual politics probably weighs more heavily on them than many economic issues do.

Imagine black people during the era of segregation having to decide which issue they ought to be more active about: the decline of employment for unskilled labourers or segregation? I can't say I'd blame any black person for saying segregation did more to make their lives difficult than the state of the labour market.

That is not to say that the labour market didn't affect them. It clearly did. But, I suspect the day to day oppression of having to go to an underfunded "coloured" school, having to use unmaintained "coloured" bathrooms and having to give up your seat on the bus to a white person weighed more on people than the larger issues of economic structure. I imagine a similar sort of statement might be made about gay rights issues.

Now, I am also not saying that economic issues are wholly separable from civil liberties and human rights. Again, the experience of the civil rights movement in the 60s shows that it's a mistake to forget about economic issues. America is some areas even more segregated now than when segregation was part of the legal code. Economic issues have everything to do with that. All I'm saying is that the choice of actions is more complicated than an ordering of priorities.

Posted by: Scott Martens at April 20, 2004 17:33
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