Saturday, November 17, 2007

lonely and politically ambiguous

I've been contemplating my social life (or lackthereof) this evening. I have friends here, but I rarely see them, partly because I don't make the effort to contact them. To some extent, I have been busy with DWE and with out-of-town visitors (last night my stepmom and her friend were in town, and last weekend Muffin was here), but I've also just been antisocial and moody. And of course, since I get home from work at 9 p.m. Monday through Thursday, my socializing is generally limited to just weekends. So, I wish I had something to do tonight, but I suppose it's largely my own fault that I don't.

Instead of being social, I'm sort of goofing off and sort of trying to clean a little (after being inspired by Rebel's bout of weekend cleaning). I just took a sort of interesting but sort of dumb quiz at The Political Compass that is designed to situate people on a political spectrum with two dimensions (social and economic), the theory being that it is more insightful than the traditional single-dimension left-to-right spectrum. I agree wholeheartedly with the concept, because socially, I consider myself highly liberal, but economically, I'm moderate-to-conservative. It's why I'm hesitant to classify myself as a Democrat (but I do anyway, more or less). Anyway, after taking the website's quiz, here's where I'm supposedly situated on the compass:

The Political Compass

Economic Left/Right: -2.75
Social Libertarian/Authoritarian: -6.00

Obviously I expected to land closer to the "Libertarian" end of the Social spectrum than the "Authoritarian" end. I'm certainly not a Libertarian (as an overall ideology, I think it's pretty dumb), but I support legalized marijuana and abortion, I oppose the death penalty, I am concerned by anti-terror curbing of civil liberties, etc. But I really don't consider myself to be as economically "lefty" as the quiz is telling me that I am. The reason for the discrepancy brings me to why I think the quiz was kind of stupid: some of the questions had (in my opinion) flawed premises and therefore elicited very misleading answers from me. For example: "The only social responsibility of a company should be to deliver a profit to its shareholders." Well, in theory, I strongly agree with this statement. Companies aren't designed to make the world a better place, and that's not what they exist for. They exist to make profits, and that is what they should do. But what of the environment, the downsized employees, etc? Well, the environmental costs of what the company does should be paid by the business along with all of its other costs through very carefully designed regulatory systems. That way, the business only polutes to the extent that it is profitable to do so (keeping in mind that it's probably not profitable to pollute very much, because pollution is very expensive when you have to pay for all of its consequences). Companies should support the employees that they lay off by paying high taxes that ensure that the government can afford really good public health care, retraining programs, etc.

My point is, I don't think it is the responsibility of a company to be anything other than a ruthless little profit machine. I think it is the responsibility of government, not business, to protect its people and its environment. Business should merely be made to pay their fair share in order to help the government do all this (after all, government is gracious enough to support the legal and property rights that businesses rely on).

So in retrospect, I should have answered that question with a "strongly agree", but instead I said "disagree" because I don't think that business should be given the latitude to tromp all over people and the environment, and I feel like that's what the question was implicitly asking. But maybe I was overthinking the whole thing. But this also brings me to the point that my actual view involves a pretty powerful federal government that collects a lot of taxes and does a lot of stuff, which should probably scoot me a bit closer to the "Authoritarian" end of things.

Yeah, so, did I mention how bored I am?


Rebel said...

Well, I'm about one square to the right of you and a couple squares more authoritarian to you. Which doesn't surprise me too much because you have very much influenced my economic views. And I was quite pleased to be in the same quadrant as Nelson Mandela & Ghandi and in the exact opposite quandrant from Bush! =P

Rebel said...

(than you... not to you)

And I agree that some of those questions were annoying/leading. I always like the option of "neutral" on tests like these.

nathan said...

You're right about the flaws of the Political Compass' test: each question presumes itself to be representative of a larger, underlying ideology that is both internally consistent and able to be measured according to the key, hot-button issues expressed by the statements with which the reader is asked to agree or disagree. (That is, that the matter of drug legalization is necessarily consistent with general attitudes towards government intervention into the lives of individuals.)

Furthermore, as your response demonstrates, its structre tends to reduce complex ideas to slogans (and positions relative to those slogans), when the ideas themselves are often better expressed in terms of a dialectical tension between contradictory values.

At the same time, I think your "overthinking" of the question turns itself on its head; in fact, your explanation suggests to me that you should have answered "strongly disagree," rather than "strongly agree."

To answer "strongly agree" in response to the statement provided would imply a philosophical understanding that the government's use of taxes and restrictions to limit negative consequences of corporate behavior is itself illegitimate; such a response would, it seems to me, suggest that corporations should only be punished (whether by the state or via lawsuit) for failures to provide profit.

But the issue hinges, in both the statement (as I read it) and your elaboration, on the meaning of responsibility. As you mention, a case could be made that, because corporations are machines of profit, their responsibility is limited to that realm. At the same time, you also say that governmental interference with this process is legitimate, at least inasmuch as it offsets the negative consequences of the drive for profit.

What's lurking behind this, at least as I read it, is an extended notion of responsibility. The argument could be made that the government's legitimacy in such matters is rooted in responsibility. One way of thinking this is that corporations and government are each responsible to a different constituency: the corporation to its shareholders, and the government to its citizens. That is, responsibility is itself a dialectical structure in which contradictory tensions are resolved by dividing responsibility (as a broad concept) into exclusive realms, each of which keeps the other in a sort of check.

This presumes that responsibility exceeds the legal. That is, that responsibility exists -- as a relation of action and consequence -- prior to (or, "on the hither side of," if you will) the juridical realm. Whether or not a system exists to enforce or punish responsibility, it nonetheless exists: even in the absence of any government, a corporation carries a social responsibility in the sense that its actions have consequences for the social body itself. Governmental pressures work, at least in one way of thinking it, to identify, codify, and regulate those consequences, with the goal in mind of either offsetting them (as you suggest) or discouraging them (another result of taxation, and thus another way taxation can be used to engineer particular behaviors).

Of course, the trouble is that governments too often fail to properly enact or enforce the sort of regulation that would effectively engineer the desired behavior. But that's another conversation...

nathan said...

Incidentally, no matter how much I moderate my responses, trying to be very selective and discriminating in my choice of the two "strongly" categories, I always end up in the very lower-left corner.

nathan said...

Oh, and the reason your explanation of the government's role in offsetting the economic damage caused by corporations doesn't place you in an "Authoritarian" quadrant has to do with the ways the Poltical Compass employs the term "authoritarian."

While your description -- which effectively legitimizes governmental regulation of corporate profit and behavior -- certainly is authoritarian in the broadest sense of the word (that is, it allows for the state's intervention into matters that would be considered "private" by certain philosophies), this measure of governmental control is limited to the fiscal side of things, rather than to the social.

jenn said...

Grrr...I just wrote a really long comment and then my internet was stupid and the comment got deleted before I posted it.

Let me recreate it more briefly:

First I teased Rebel that my attempts to brainwash her are working. Then I was agreeing that the test reduces complex ideas to slogans. And then I was saying something to the effect that every entity in society has some social responsibility, including companies, even if that responsibility is just not to steal or hurt other people (both of which could increase a company's profits in certain situations). Other than the need to stay within the bounds of what government tells them to do, I think companies should only have to worry about making profits because that's what they do well, and that's part of what makes markets work so well.

But, markets wouldn't exist at all on any large scale if government didn't provide the proper framework and support for them. And in my opinion, companies should pay for pollution just like they pay for labor and machines. If they don't, the market isn't working properly. Since goverments create the conditions for markets to work in the first place, it makes sense to me that they should fix the problems with them.

So that's why I want to strongly agree that companies should only worry about profit. But I suspect that most people who would agree with that would also argue that government shouldn't regulate pollution as much as they do (or as much as I want them to), and I think those people are either in favor of pollution or have beliefs that are internally incoherent. Either way, I don't want to be associated with them, so I answered in a way that is somewhat contradictory to my actual beliefs.

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marissa said...

jenn, no wonder i agree with you on just about everything! i am one square to the left of you and exactly the same top-to-bottom. :)

One tightly shaved scottish terrier said...

Hmmm... I land about the same as a libertarian, but am five squares to the left of you economically. You'll come around eventually, once we all have to bow to our corporate overlords.

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