Let’s Argue

Harvard undergraduates of opposing political philosophies have a remarkably difficult time discussing any political issue. The reason is that we are too busy feeling superior to each other to really contend with one another’s beliefs.

I should not be too hard on Harvard students; this is a societal problem. Charles Krauthammer, in a recent Washington Post article, tried to explain the communications difficulties between the American right and left. “To understand the workings of American politics, you have to understand this fundamental law,” he wrote. “Conservatives think liberals are stupid. Liberals think conservatives are evil.”

This is a particularly blunt exposition of the problem. Still, Krauthammer’s basic model of American political culture is both correct and starkly noticeable here in Cambridge. Campus leftists tend to feel the moral high ground is automatically theirs; conservatives tend to believe they are the true intellects and that, while the liberals they oppose have soft hearts, they have softer heads.

This moraller-than-thou versus thoughtfuller-than-thou approach to politics illuminates the split between conservatives and liberals over numerous campus issues. Should Harvard change its sexual assault policy and not adjudicate accusations of assault through the Administrative Board? Yes, say conservatives, Harvard can’t try these cases properly. No, say liberals, Harvard has a moral obligation to its female students. Should we create a “queer studies” program or a Latino studies program? Yes, say liberals, these are important groups in society that have a right to a full fledged department. No, say conservatives, these are subfields that can’t be divorced from broader intellectual categorizations, it is silly to continually balkanize new fields of study as groups decide they are owed a department of their own.

The mother of all the issues falling in the moral- versus intellectual-political framework is the “living wage.” Left-wingers think that Harvard has the money to pay its workers $10.50 an hour (or whatever the wage du jour is) so it therefore has the moral responsibility to do so. And by merit of having coined the term that is the issue of the debate, liberals have set up a rhetorical conundrum for those who oppose it. To be opposed to the “living wage” would logically suggest one supports a “non-living (death) wage,” which doesn’t seem very fair. Right-wingers, on the other hand, cast the issue as an economic one; they argue that the higher wage would alter the composition of the low-wage Harvard work force. In the long run it would not help the people it was intended to. Or they say it would cause the University to shift to less labor-intensive methods for cleaning and landscaping or any other number of possible economic arguments.

When a conservative and a liberal argue about the living wage, the back-and-forth often goes like this:

A cranky conservative: This whole living wage thing is just ridiculous. You’re taking away people’s incentive to learn in hopes of earning a higher wage, introducing inefficiency in the labor market, and increasing long-run unemployment.

A pompous progressive: Why do conservatives always bring up economics? Economists never agree with each other and base arguments off unknowable assumptions. I’m talking about real people.

C.C.: I’m talking about real people too. You have no moral monopoly. In fact, your morality is simplistic and condescending. You think we should throw money at people who don’t have the skills to earn it themselves. I think its better for people to improve themselves.

P.P.: What are you talking about? Look, read this study that shows living wage ordinances don’t raise unemployment even when implemented across entire municipalities. Besides, what do you know about morality if you don’t think people are entitled to a basic standard of living?

C.C.: What do you know about economics?

The problem in many Harvard arguments arises when, as in the above conversation, the conservative tries to make a moral argument or the liberal tries to make an empirical one. The conservative feels his liberal opponent is fudging the numbers (“the study you cite was a load of malarkey!”) and the liberal feels the conservative is dissembling about his true motivations (“come on, why are you really opposed to a living wage?”) . All too often, we are deaf to one another.

Is understanding possible? Starting a new school year in the midst of a war, a fragile economy and an impending election, we’re going to have a lot to talk about and nearly as much about which we’ll disagree. The hope for more productive political discussion seems remote.

Therefore, my entreaty to both conservatives and liberals on campus is to drop the pretense that we know the answers to the questions that bedevil society and recognize that our professors don’t entirely either. Our futures are shrouded in uncertainty. Specifically, liberal need to understand that conservatives often, though not always, have the same ultimate moral goals as (many) liberals (e.g., equality of opportunity, minimize hunger, etc.) but take different routes to those goals. Conservatives need to appreciate that sometimes, though it might be difficult to believe, liberals come to their beliefs after plenty of hard thinking about an issue.

That said, neither liberals nor conservatives need respect people who are unwilling to justify their own beliefs or who ignore opposing arguments. These people, on both right and left, are fools.

Let’s argue.

Andrew P. Winerman ’04, a Crimson editor, is an economics concentrator in Cabot House.

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