The New Politics: Open versus Closed

I previously discussed Tony Blair’s memoir, A Journey. One of the striking things he talks about in the final pages is how screwed up and unhelpful our customary political categorizations have become – right versus left, liberal (or “progressive”) versus conservative. Blair, throughout his career, considered himself entirely “progressive,” yet became a villain to many others who so consider themselves.

Part of the problem is that political mindsets tend to change more slowly than the world does. And there’s a tendency to think any position taken by the “enemy” must be wrong, so one takes the opposite stance. (Newt Gingrich advocated intervention in Libya, until Obama intervened, then Gingrich opposed it.)

And one can get so ensnared in an ideology that you forget the values that should underlie that ideology. You take a wrong fork in the road, and you’re inexorably pushed along, part of a herd you can’t break from. Thus, for most of U.S. history, Democrats and progressives understood clearly that trade protectionism was a conspiracy by business interests to rip off consumers and the public. But when labor unions bought into the conspiracy, the Democrats were dragged along. “Progressive”?

Blair suggests that the old right/left dichotomy really doesn’t work when it comes to modern policy dilemmas. He proposes a different political taxonomy: open versus closed.

Openness to free trade and globalization is on one side; on the other, a hostility to free trade and a wish to close our doors against the rest of the world economy. Likewise some want to close our doors on immigration; others favor openness. The person with the open orientation thinks we can and should be pro-active in improving the rest of the world; the closed side is deeply suspicious. Some are indeed suspicious of everything and want a muscular government to closely supervise human activity. On the right, they want such intervention on “moral” issues; on the left, they clamor for clamping down on business. The open side wants society to be more, well, open, with people left free to pursue their own paths in their own ways – freedom in both the personal sphere and in the economic sphere.

As Blair observes, these differences often cut across the conventional political divides, and perhaps it’s rare to find anyone who is completely on one side or the other of the open-vs-closed divide. But, again, that’s partly because core values often get lost in debates on such issues. Yet I detect a basic underlying ideal that I am glad to say I, for one, totally support, on the open side.

Blair argues that the open side is not only the right side, morally and policy-wise, on all these types of issues, but it’s politically a winner too. Or, at least, winnable. Being an optimist, I think he’s right, and in the long run openness will prevail. Looking at the big picture of the world, in fact, I see a tidal wave in that direction.



10 Responses to “The New Politics: Open versus Closed”

  1. Michael Harvey Says:

    Dera Mr Robinson

    I came across your article in defense of capitalism in Philosophy Now which I purchased in Hobart Tasmania today (late considering it’s the March edition). I am strongly opposed to competition philosophy. I am however a great fan of Darwin and Dawkins. I am opposed to free market philosophy because of the environmental cost. I am also opposed to competition philosophy because in my field (contemporary classical music) it has resulted in craven conformity. Products in my field all converge to look and sound the same through capitalism and I see this in other areas e.g. cars. This is especially irksome to me as I spent 3 years in the former Eastern Bloc. Surely the point of understanding the struggle for survival is that we should come up with a sustainable alternative, not simply emulate nature and use that model as an excuse? That is to say now that we
    understand the Selfish Gene for our own survival as a species surely we should now transcend competition philosophy? Kind regards, Michael

    [FSR Response: Michael, thanks for commenting. The problem is simply this: what is your alternative? It is all well and good to talk in vague terms of a “sustainable alternative” and “craven conformity” but do you actually have an alternative to free market capitalism that would actually promote the values you advocate? As a former Eastern Bloc resident you should certainly know the problems with what has been the chief alternative to market economics, which rather more spectacularly failed in promoting human values. Craven conformity? Certainly that was highly characteristic of socialist economies. I find the USA with its “harsh” market economy to be vastly more hospitable to human diversity. I myself am very noncomformist in many ways, but in the American social model I and my family have been able to thrive in our nonconformity, and I am profoundly grateful for it. And profoundly skeptical of any radically different model.]

  2. Michael Harvey Says:

    What is my alternative? How on earth should I know? But I suspect an emphasis on developing the mind rather than the economy would be worth investigating. The education systems in both our countries are broken because of the free market monoculture and I would humbly suggest that fixing this situation would be a first step in providing an alternative, sustainable system. We are cheating in Australia by using our country as a quarry, pretending our economic success is due to market forces instead of pure luck. I was struck in reading the entire oevre of Ayn Rand that she never mentioned children. What will yours (and mine) do in a world of increasing natural disasters driven by an economy which refuses to take into account the cost on the natural environment? Jared Diamond is eloquent on the subject of civilizations being locked into suicidal ideologies.

    [FSR: All platitudinous oversimplifications which could be answered at length. (And, come to think of it, are answered at length in my sublime book, The Case for Rational Optimism.) But, since you offer no alternative to the institutions you would so blithely tear down, I can hardly take your argument seriously.)

  3. Michael Harvey Says:

    OK now I seem to have simply irritated you, which was not my intent. I will read your book as you suggest which I hope does address the concerns I have about competition philosophy. Thank you for your time.

    [FSR: No, not irritated. Your viewpoint is actually quite common, griping about capitalism without really thinking things through. On a personal note, the effort of writing that book forced me to think through what I really believe, and why, in order for it to be intellectually robust rather than just spouting off. If you actually do read it, I would hope it will transform the way you look at these sorts of issues.]

  4. Michael Harvey Says:

    I have done quite a bit of thinking about capitalism actually, as I have benefitted greatly from it. But I am a musician not a philosopher so my skills at arguing are remedial. I am not afraid of the truth though.

  5. Lee Says:

    Except in toy examples, neither the totally “open” nor the totally “closed” approach is ever correct. We, conservatives and liberals (opens and closeds??), are seeking the ideal balance.

    For instance, free markets are good, but child labor laws that somewhat “close” these free markets are necessary. Freedom to behave as you will does not extend to the right to abuse your children or, in many cases, pets, the environment, etc. There are a number of temperings of the open approaches that are so obviously correct that even the proponents of “totally open” no longer advocate for them. Similarly there are examples of going overboard for “closed.” But, in between, there are many topics about which reasonable people disagree, and saying that open automatically beats closed in these cases is unjustified.

    [FSR comment: Libertarianism — rational libertarianism, anyway — does not mean freedom to do whatever you please. It means freedom to do whatever you please so long as it harms no other person.]

  6. Lee Says:

    Yes, so we debate what we mean by harm and how much of it we can tolerate. I claim that within the realm of reasonable disagreement, it is unjustified to claim that open / more harm, is automatically better than closed / less harm. We have to decide these issues on their individual merits precisely because the open vs. closed metric is insufficiently precise in this middle ground.

    [FSR: Sure; yet it’s important to have fundamental principles as a template for evaluating such issues. Perfect example: gay marriage. A fundamentally open stance makes the answer clear. Without it, the issue can seem confounding.]

  7. Lee Says:

    I am in favor of marriage equality / gay marriage. (Go, New York!) However, it is only fundamentally open if we refuse to open it further. What about polyamory / polygamy? (Up to how many people?) What about freedom to marry over parents’ wishes for minors? What about people marrying other mammals?

    Maybe I have found a level of openness that goes beyond what you consider sane, or maybe I would have to keep trying. Regardless, one can get much more open than marriage equality, and not every possibility is desirable. The fundamental principle we strive for is not openness, but, an evaluation and balancing of costs and benefits, whether they are derived from being open or from being closed.

    In the case of marriage equality, it is easy. The benefit is the further enabling of LOVE. The disadvantage is … are there any disadvantages?

    [FSR: My basic principle is that the burden of proof is on the proponent of any restriction to show why it’s necessary for some valid public policy reason that benefits society. Polygamy? In practice it tends to be abusive; in principle I see no objection if all parties freely consent. I actually know a woman with both a husband and a wife. Minors are always subject to parental control for obvious reasons. Other mammals? I doubt any other mammal would be deemed capable of informed consent to marriage with a human. So there.]

  8. Lee Says:

    Yes, there is benefit to individual freedom, and in decisions where there is an impact to individual freedom, we should not restrict it unless we have reasons that are even more important. But, I continue to find the focus on individual freedom as odd; we have many other ideals to aim for too.

    For instance, instead of labeling yourself an “open” to constantly remind yourself of the benefit of individual freedom, why not label yourself a “rationalist” to constantly remind yourself of the benefit of rationality. Oh wait, you have. In a battle between Blair’s “open” and your “rational,” I’d chose the latter every time!

    Why not label yourself a “lover” (?) to remind yourself of the power and benefit of love at the individual, family, and societal levels? I am not sure I am ready to commit, but that too would probably trump Blair’s “open” in my book.

    [FSR: One is not just one thing. I am a lover; I am a rationalist; I am an openist.]

  9. Lee Says:

    But those who are opposed to openness in some cases are labeled by Blair as closeds (e.g., hostile to free trade) rather than as rationalists or lovers. Don’t you think that his focus on the open vs. closed dimension is an attempt to belittle those who think there are sound rational/love/etc. reasons not to be open in some cases?

    [FSR: Hey, c’mon, it’s not a religion for Chrissakes. It’s a helpful principle, a guideline. Not an absolute!]

  10. Lee Says:

    You wrote “Some are indeed suspicious of everything and want a muscular government to closely supervise human activity” and similar. Perhaps I misunderstand Blair, but, to me, that sounds more like religious nonsense than fact. In the vast majority of cases, it is not unfounded suspicion but rather rationality, love, or similar argument that is being made.

    Sure, reasonable people can disagree as to where to find the right balance, but labeling someone who isn’t on the side of open as “hostile,” “suspicious,” or similar is as unhelpful as labeling someone on the side of open as “irresponsible,” “simplistic,” or similar. Blair is not arguing rationally; he is trying to divert attention from the actual arguments made by his opponents.

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