An interesting phenomena of most political discussions and debates is the lack or even absence of questions and thoughtful listening as to people’s real concerns about some public measure, proposal, regulation or law. The assumption is all too often made or emphasized that one side doesn’t care about the issue in question, is intolerant of the other side, doesn’t want the other side to succeed because of some jealous rivalry, or seeks to impose their views and preferences on others. Such assumptions while sometimes true, are more often false and lead to an us versus them mentality that needn’t be the norm. This is unfortunate and sad because in reality people probably agree on far more ideas than they realize, but hold fast to the socially destructive illusion that others are completely at odds with their beliefs because they don’t go along.
Consider for a moment the recent debate on embryonic stem cell research. Most of the discussion revolved around the ethics and morality of the research itself. One side said that neglecting to use such a promising tool as embryonic stem cell research to find cures to disease and suffering was wrong because it potentially denied the timely finding of such cures for those for whom the clock was ticking. Some opposed embryonic stem cell research based on their own moral dilemma with the research itself. Others eventually found alternative methods of promising research that avoided being ethically questionable all together. Such noncontroversial alternative options aren’t always potentially available. Sometimes the only existing option to a controversial option is simply its absence.
Before the alternative noncontroversial methods of stem cell research emerged, the debate was largely two-sided: those for or against embryonic stem cell research. Both sides failed to appreciate how much the other side valued life itself. Both sides largely ignored the selfless aspirations of the other. Both sides forgot the real issue at stake — i.e. whether federal funds should be used at all for such research or whether funds should be allocated to ensure that embryonic stem cell research would be pursued in an ethically acceptable way. In other words, the spoken debate as usual focused on the morality of the issue itself rather than on the morality of the funding of the issue in question. Amidst all this debate, the fundamental question of “on whose dime?”was relegated to the practically muted realm of background noise.
How often are real issues that affect taxpayers disputed in ways that ignore this fundamental question – “on whose dime?” Whether the argument is over healthcare or fine arts in school, the underlying true debate is rarely given center stage. This in turn fosters the illusion of greater divisiveness over things than truly exists. Most political debate really boils down to the real question of “Why should your priorities be my priorities?” which can often be reduced to the question of “On whose dime?”.
The generosity of the widow’s mite looms larger than the Phariseean pledge, but would the Phariseean pledge be any more Christ like if the Pharisee had been surcharged a state sponsored church tax on top of that pledge? We sometimes fail to remember that the widow’s mite was so generous and the Pharisee’s so meager because they were their own to give.
We might be able to create a society without money or its equivalent, but would we want to? Take away money and you might take away some of the ill effects of greed, but you might also very well hinder the practice of individual generosity. Society certainly would have fewer options for voluntary exchange. As Ayn Rand once stated “money is coined liberty”.
The next time an issue is publically debated, remember not to fall into the mental trap of simply debating the issue itself, but remember to keep the question alive: “On whose dime?”. Then you can assert as did Frederic Bastiat the following (from his book “The Law”):
Socialism, like the ancient ideas from which it springs, confuses the distinction between government and society. As a result of this, every time we object to a thing being done by government, the socialists conclude that we object to its being done at all.
We disapprove of state education. Then the socialists say that we are opposed to any education. We object to a state religion. Then the socialists say that we want no religion at all. We object to a state-enforced equality. Then they say that we are against equality. And so on, and so on. It is as if the socialists were to accuse us of not wanting persons to eat because we do not want the state to raise grain.