Three Confounding Concepts in U. S. Politics


Christopher Ebbe, Ph.D.   7-18,7-20

ABSTRACT:  If liberals and conservatives understood and valued each other’s basic motivations, which are human and common to us all, they could begin the dialogues that are needed for working together in the U.S. Congress.  These motivations are explained in terms of human psychological needs for stability vs. change and esteem for membership vs. esteem for being.  Populism and socialism are two other political concepts that are used incorrectly in our political interchanges to bully opponents.

KEY WORDS:  politics, empathy, emotions, self-esteem, security, motivation, populism, socialism

In the current political scene in the United States, three concepts that are often misused and which confuse many are the liberal-conservative divide, populism, and socialism.  It is assumed, given recent behavior, that liberals and conservatives can never understand each other or cooperate.  It is generally thought that populism must be a good, though somewhat dangerous, thing, since it is of the people but might involve a mob, and it is generally assumed that anything that the central government does for people that could be done by themselves or by “the market” must automatically be socialism.  These false assumptions prevent better political dialogue in our society.  (Classical conservatism and liberalism are addressed in what follows.  The current Democratic and Republican parties are so focused on social justice and populist themes, respectively, that they do not visibly represent the two classic political viewpoints well, but the fundamental motives described here for the two parties are still applicable.)


There is great need in our country for persons of all political persuasions to work together for the betterment of the country, since lawmakers have lately had difficulty in taking care of business due to elected officials focusing on and disputing differences and divisions between liberals and conservatives and insisting on converting or vanquishing the other side instead of creating needed, meaningful compromises.  These differences and divisions are based more fundamentally on our emotional reactions to things than they are on differences on what needs to be done or how to do them.  The brouhaha over immigrant children being separated from their parents at the border is an example of the resulting war of words, with liberals trumpeting how children are being “torn from their parents’ arms” by unfeeling border agents of Mr. Trump, and conservatives blaming the immigrant parents for putting their children in danger of being separated from them by bringing them across the border in the first place.  Neither claim is accurate or cogent.  Agents did not “tear” children from parents, and parents were not notified by agents of the potential separation before they crossed the border.  This kind of exaggerated, emotional responding seems to scotch any serious discussions of immigration reform in Congress, and the current administration seems to have nothing to offer in this regard, beyond frightening citizens about murders by immigrants.

To construct a platform for liberals and conservatives (and those of every other political stance) to work together, it is important for all of us to understand the emotional roots of each side’s stance.  Conservatism is basically a worldview that seeks survival and security through doing what has worked before (tradition), and liberalism is a worldview that reacts to what is being done currently as not good enough.  Conservatism and liberalism therefore need each other, for without a critique, conservatism would never improve our lives, and without stability, critiques can create chaos.  Our mistake is conceiving of them as different when the one is actually a reaction to the other.  Conservatives, at root, value tradition and stability (and are therefore wary of change), while liberals seek to use change as a means of improving lives (and are more tolerant of the negative effects of change than conservatives).  Conservatives thus put the brakes on change, in order to preserve what is good already, and see liberals as attacking their precious way of life.  Liberals see tradition as impeding needed change and claim that conservatives are hard-hearted because they do not embrace making things better for all citizens through change and experimentation by government.

The conservative worldview probably came first historically, as human beings gradually figured out how to survive.  Various methods were tried for various tasks, more or less randomly, and the best were repeated (where to find game, when to plant corn).  Being basically superstitious regarding things that are not understood in more concrete terms (as science tries to do), people tended to revere or hold sacred traditional knowledge about how to survive, since this knowledge gave survival, and corruption of this knowledge was a serious threat to the survival of the group—starving, for example.

The liberal reaction to conservatism began when people had the leisure and confidence to experiment in an effort to improve life, which unfortunately was seen by many as threatening to their essential cultural knowledge and beliefs.  This was fairly simple when small amounts of the crop could be risked in exploring when it actually was best to plant the corn, but it was much more fraught when it was suggested by liberals that a different god might work better or that slaves could be given some rights.  Conservatives responded as if revealed truth was threatened, risking lightning bolts from heaven, etc.  The Enlightenment was a time of great threat and change, as religion itself was threatened, along with the legitimacy of the prevailing monarchic political arrangement.  In more recent times, the questioning of slavery, the servitude of women as chattels, and the absoluteness of our two-gender form of reproduction have understandably all provoked great angst for conservatives, and we have experienced the rage of human beings on both sides when feeling threatened or held down.

Liberals tend to be more prone to perfectionism than conservatives, since they are always focused on criticizing the way things are and proposing changes.  Liberals are the ones who found utopias, in an effort to create a perfect society.  The fact that these utopias always fail points out how liberals want to believe that people will be good and conform to new rules, where conservatives know that people must have external controls to keep them on the straight path.

Conservatives prefer to focus on symbols of stability and success in our society (statues of founding fathers, high stock market prices, the 4th of July, the national anthem at football games) rather than attending to ways in which current customs and rules aren’t working to the benefit of everyone.  Speeches by conservatives tend to be strong on praise for society’s successes while leaving out mention of its failures (a growing economic underclass, a growing homeless population, lack of upward mobility by Blacks, increasing dependence on other countries due to globalization) or blaming those who are disadvantaged for not pulling themselves up by their bootstraps.  If some are not benefiting sufficiently from society as it is, conservatives are prone to blame them for not participating correctly in established routes to improvement, ignoring the ways in which poverty and ignorance can destroy hope and motivation to do the work necessary for improvement.

Liberals are wary of praising the country while leaving out the needs for change, since the praise could be a way of avoiding change.  Liberals want to value everyone, even those who are different or don’t conform, but ignore the needs in society for a certain amount of sameness and conformance.  Liberals want ever greater freedom but want this freedom to have no costs.  Conservatives are big on “paying dues”—that if people want something, they must work for it, while liberals are content to give people things for free.

Liberals and conservatives are both human and therefore both need a certain amount of security/stability in life and a certain amount of change in order to adjust our society to changing conditions as problems arise, but conservatives value stability more than change, and liberals value change more than stability.  (This framework is not new but is consistent with my conclusion after years of psychology practice that almost all human motivation relates to needs either for security or for self-esteem.  For a more elaborate analysis of conservative and liberal values, see Jonathan Haidt’s book “The Righteous Mind:  Why Good People Are Divided By Politics and Religion.”  In addition, both liberals and conservatives need the esteem of others, but conservatives want to esteem those who follow the traditions and traditional paths to success while liberals are willing to esteem everyone just for being human.

All human beings have a strong need for predictability in the environment, and tradition and stability help us to find and maintain this predictability.  Whenever we encounter something that we don’t understand and therefore cannot predict, we become fearful and either avoid the unknown or try to destroy it—e.g., bats and foreigners, and there is much of this fear of the unknown in our society right now.  We also tend to see in negative terms people that we can’t understand, criticizing or demonizing them in order to justify pushing them away.  All societies need a certain amount of sameness and behavioral conformity (language, social customs, body language) among their members, in order for members to be understandable and predictable to each other, but an overemphasis on conformity reduces the flexibility and sense of freedom in a society.  Conservatives try to find predictability through keeping things the way they are, while liberals assume that their proposed changes will create more good than harm (people feelings better about themselves, societal structures working better) and will not disturb traditions or social structures that much.  Both approaches are workable, but each has disadvantages.  Hanging onto tradition does stifle change, to some degree, which makes it hard for conservatives to make improvements in citizens’ lives (aside from those on which everyone agrees, such as increases in wealth).  Large amounts of change, on the other hand, create fear and insecurity in everyone (even followers of liberal factions).   We might hope that people that are aware of and take seriously our needs for both stability and improvement could include appropriate levels of both in their design and implementation of policies and projects.

All human beings also need to feel valued and worthwhile (i.e., to have reasonable amounts of self-esteem and the esteem of others), but liberals and conservatives differ in how to achieve this.  Conservatives tend to look favorably on people who know their roles and place in society and who fulfill those roles faithfully (i.e., those who do their duty and follow tradition).  Liberals have lately focused mostly on giving special considerations to those who feel devalued because of some aspect of their being or status—people who tend to be looked down on by much of society, like the poor, immigrants, those of disliked races or religions, those with unusual gender orientations, and criminals (i.e., those whose differences from the norm are upsetting to conservatives).  Liberals want to value everyone just for being human (which is certainly consistent with Christian teaching), but they downplay the problems and costs that subcultural differences in a society cause.

Liberals feel that if they shower liking on these “different” people (treating them as equals, celebrating their differences), these people will feel and function better, ignoring the fact that a person’s self-esteem will never be stably positive if his own self-valuation is not positive, and ignoring the fact that not all of those “different” individuals “deserve” approval and valuing simply because of their difference, since as individuals they may also be destructive to others in society.  Conservatives believe that liking and approval have to be earned, through behaving properly (traditionally) and through contributing to society by one’s work, so they resist celebrating cultural differences and viewing everyone as equal unless those people are following cultural expectations in the conservatives’ view of culture (doing what is expected and traditional).  Liberals want to value everyone just for being human and try to do this by celebrating differences, ignoring the negative results of differences and ignoring the fact that in some ways, everyone must earn the respect of others by her behavior.

Both sources of self-esteem are legitimate and necessary.  Our basic sense of morality is based on the assumption that everyone “deserves” fair treatment and consideration, and this almost requires that we attribute some degree of inherent, fundamental value to all others.  Hence, we like and need to be valued just for being alive, without receiving value only for what we do for others.  On the other hand, we do value others differentially for what they do for us (what they are like to be with and how their actions make our lives better), and our valuing of others is appropriately based on both sources—both just for being and for what we do for others.  Valuing others just for being, though, does not excuse anyone from participating appropriately in society, including acting properly and contributing through work to the welfare of the total group, and liberals often seem to go too far in their valuing just for being.  Conservatives sometimes seem to completely withhold valuing just for being if a person is not first sufficiently conforming and contributing.

The stronger one’s emotional responses to these issues are, the more “hard core” one will become ideologically and therefore politically, which creates a desperate battle for control of government, since the choice seems to be so black-and-white to most liberals and conservatives.

Compromise is required between conservatives and liberals in order to address the problems of the country.  If either side waits until it has the power (the votes) to pass bills in spite of the other side’s opposition, those laws will always be subject to repeal by the other side when it rises to power, thus creating a see-saw battle and constant uncertainty about whether current laws will last or be changed.  It is better for the country to pass laws that both sides can support, however grudgingly, than to have this see-saw process continue.  To work together using the best compromises available will also help “bring the country together,” which makes for a more congenial and comfortable society, rather than appealing to one’s own side to fight against the other side as “opponents” and “enemies.”  It is also important for both sides to seek what is best for the entire country, rather than for only those it represents, and it is critical to minimize competition and motives to gain power and to subjugate the other side from our legislative efforts.  The motive to “win” against opponents is destructive to our democracy, since the very essence of democracy is that every person counts.  Our relatively young country’s habitual recourse to “fighting” to solve problems (the war against poverty, the war against drugs, the war against illegal immigration) is also a hindrance to effective government, since fighting sharpens one’s sense of differences and contains the inherent assumption that the opponent must be “wrong” and not just different.  In order to have effective government, we must all give up fighting to get our own way (blaming, bad-mouthing, demonizing, slandering) and seek to get our way, as much as is reasonable and possible, through discussion and working together cooperatively.

Black-and-white thinking (everything must be either one way or another) contributes to the apparently opposing views of both liberals and conservatives on these issues, with both thinking that the way the two groups are thinking about things are the only two possibilities.  In fact, if we are willing, we can easily see that both tradition and change are needed.  It is not a struggle between these two as opposing options, but rather both are important and must be honored and balanced in our solutions.  This is similar to marital disputes in which each partner sees a problem as a forced choice between only two completely different options, when solution is most likely to come from being able to think of more options or to accept that both views have their merits (and their blind spots).

The righteousness that each side displays regarding its supposed superiority to the other side arises from an inappropriate assumption we make that what we believe is automatically moral, since we know, for instance, that what one believes (slavery is ordained by God; everyone should be able to live anywhere on the globe he/she wants to) is often not defensible if seriously considered.

Lawmakers misuse language to try to cow opponents into submission and to prove to their extreme bases that they are “fighting” for them.  The net result, though, of this exaggeration contest is that many people (both those who issue the exaggerations and those who hear them) become unable to see reality clearly and unable to compromise.  The media (especially cable news) exaggerate to gain viewers, either to change their minds or simply to make money.  All such exaggeration works against our political process by creating enmity and should be exposed for this.  Sticking to reality is hard because we often don’t like reality and we always want our own way, but sticking to reality in our speech would greatly help to make our legislative process more effective.  (In case you think your favorite news outlet is reality, CNN and MSNBC are both liberally biased, while Fox News, Fox News Business, One America News, and Headline News are all conservatively biased.)

Liberals and conservatives both fail to recognize and acknowledge the emotional motives (security, self-esteem) that underlie them.  (In our society, we are trained to hide our emotions for fear that revealing them will lead to criticism, teasing, and put downs from others.)  Both sides would actually do better to share more about these fundamental motives—stability vs. change and esteem for being a contributing member vs. esteem simply for being–because that could allow more mutual respect and therefore more of the compromises necessary for the work of government.  Ideally everyone could better accept legislation if that legislation results from everyone feeling that their needs are at least being considered.  The pros and cons of tradition, change, value for contributing to society, and value for simply for being can be appreciated by all, especially if those in leadership positions acknowledge and address them publicly, rather than simply “whipping up” their bases with demonizing and righteousness.

Take a minute to consider your own positions on stability and valuing others.  Does seeing tradition around you (the annual picnic, the flag, your family’s birthday or Christmas rituals) make you feel good, or make you feel a little uncomfortable?  Are you automatically cautious or suspicious about change?  Are you impatient with people who are cautious about change?  Are you suspicious about people who always want to change things?  Do you want everyone to feel equally good about themselves, or do you want them to feel good about themselves only if they act properly?  Each of us has a slightly different position on balancing these fundamental concerns, and each of us uses disapproval to some degree as a hammer to try to force others to change.  Do you get satisfaction from criticizing or demonizing those who are on the other side from you of the stability vs. change and self-esteem for being vs. self-esteem for acting properly divides?  Do you feel sorry for the downtrodden and want to excuse their faults in favor of just valuing them for being?

If you favor stability over change, consider seriously how a particular issue would be seen by someone who favored change over stability.  Try your best to see that this other person is just as sincere about his or her feelings and needs regarding stability and change as you are about yours.  If you favor change over stability, consider seriously how a particular issue would be seen by someone who favored stability over change.  For every proposal or position that you have, consider how what you favor would affect a person on the other side with respect to his concerns about stability and change.  Are you able to value both our human need for stability and our human need for esteem?  Can you accept that both sides are guilty of narrow, black-and-white thinking?


A first step toward change is to accept that your reactions to the liberal-conservative divide are actually largely your own emotions about (1) stability/tradition vs. change and (2) the inherent value of each person vs. esteeming others for acting properly and contributing to society.  Understanding what you feel and realizing that others’ behavior is also determined by their emotions allows you to wonder why and how both you and others have gravitated toward different ways to achieve stability and self-esteem.  Both liberals and conservatives are equally human.  There are no devils here, and neither philosophy is evil.

The second step toward some rapprochement is to admit that both positions have value for human life.  As stated above, some degree of stability and predictability are essential for both conservatives and liberals as human beings, and since all things are changing around us (culture, environment) faster than they used to, some openness to change is necessary for maximizing human flourishing.  If we admit that both stability and self-esteem are important, then we can combine both in our attitudes toward organizing society.  For instance, as a psychologist I believe that human relationships work best when both parties give each other basic respect and basic acceptance at all times (instead of determining our behavior toward others on the basis of factors such as race, national origin, wealth, beauty, family, achievements, and recent behavior), but I also believe that government works best when it is completely accountable and responsible (e.g., a balanced budget every year, always acting with integrity, preserving what is valuable in our society).

Next, see things realistically, rather than in the way that you want to see them.  We would do better to see other groups realistically, instead of idealizing them or assuming the worst about non-conformers.  Liberals inappropriately idealize disadvantaged groups, while conservatives view efforts to change one’s status (except by making more money) as challenging the stability of the culture’s status hierarchy and role expectations.  (Conservative and liberal views also differ across cultures.  Conservatives in this country find changing one’s status gradually, through hard work, to be acceptable, but conservatives in England in the 1800’s, for instance, would have seen cultural status as determined by blood and unchangeable by the acquisition of wealth.)

Finally, allow yourself to gain from participating in the “other side’s” viewpoint.  If you are liberal, identify your sources of stability (some of which you probably hide from yourself and others to avoid criticism from fellow liberals) and allow yourself to enjoy them.  Feel good about open-hearted patriotism!  Patriotism and pride in country are not ipso facto racist or a prelude to war.  Feeling good about one’s group/country does not in itself imply that one has a negative view of other groups/countries, and if you think it does automatically imply a negative view of other groups/countries, then you could/should think more carefully.  You can have a positive view of your own country without also having a negative view of others.  Accept that no matter how much you wish for total equality, human societies will never have total equality, because you yourself probably view yourself as superior to those who have other views!

Conservatives, honestly identify (write down) some types of inequality in our society that are unfair, and formulate what should be done about them.  Your tendency will be to not do anything about them because you think everyone should pull themselves up by their own efforts (without your help), but consider how your own behaviors (your investment decisions, your wish to keep “those people” out of your neighborhood, your approval of elite colleges favoring the children of alumni) make it harder for the disadvantaged to do better.  Anyway, do you really want our society to be just one big competition?  Wouldn’t you appreciate having more trust and positive feelings about others in society?  Many of your advantages were not of your own making.

Realize and accept that the needs of every person are equally important.  The needs of every person for both stability and for self-esteem are important.  Every time you advocate for something dear to your heart politically, add a statement to your proposal recognizing how those who identify more with the other side of the issue will feel about it and be affected by it.  If you want more equality, do it in a more focused way, so that you don’t try to get your way by putting down others.  If you want more stability, don’t demonize those who seek greater equality for some or all citizens.  Both liberals and conservatives, talk to each other about these values, recognize that there are other persons who sincerely have somewhat different values, be willing to figure out how both of these values can best be honored in any legislation or change, and be satisfied with those comprises.  It is destructive to democracy to assume that it must be a fight and to identify those with other views as enemies.  Urge your Congresspersons to talk to all sides and do the same—construct legislation that honors both major values/motives.  Tell your elected officials that you want the feelings and needs of all sides to be considered (and explained publicly) before votes.  Vote for candidates who can balance these very important needs for stability and change, and add willingness to compromise intelligently to your requirements for the officials and Congresspersons you vote for.


Populism (a political movement by the grass roots of a country) should really be understood as populistic upwellings, rather than as an actual political philosophy.  Populistic upwellings occur when large parts of the population feel mistreated or unhappy, which is underlined and given voice to by leaders that come to prominence during that unhappiness and promise to do better by those who are unhappy.  These leaders usually distance themselves from the traditional politics and politicians.  Populistic upwellings usually have a tone of rebellion, since they are in effect saying that the government isn’t “working” and needs to be changed.  Populistic upwellings last only as long as the unhappiness, after which time they die down and the longer term approaches of liberalism or conservativism become prominent once again.  (Another possible outcome is that the unhappy people conclude that nothing is being or can be done about their unhappiness, and they withdraw, disillusioned, from publicly trying to effect change, or they turn to violent means for change.)  The current example of a populist upwelling is the unhappiness of many workers in this country whose jobs have moved overseas as companies seek cheaper labor or whose jobs have disappeared because U. S. companies cannot make certain items as cheaply as workers in other countries.

If the size of the populistic upwelling is large enough, government has to pay attention and at least promise to address the complaints.  Unfortunately most upwellings and leaders of populistic movements oversimplify the issues—blaming others (Wall Street, “the swamp” in Washington, immigrants) for the unhappiness and assuming that if those boogeymen could be dealt with, everything would be rosy.  Populist leaders voice these oversimplifications and gain votes by so doing, but oversimplifications do not lead to long term solutions to the unhappiness, since managing the concerns of any country, let alone one as large and varied as the U. S., is quite complicated, and no government policies can please everyone.  Populists should learn about and grapple with this complexity, since by doing this they could bring a new emphasis on taking care of all segments of the population (instead of, for instance, allowing jobs to be moved overseas in the name of “globalism” until a whole class of citizens are actually underprivileged due to losing their jobs and seeing their employing industries disappear (which is a major factor in the latest populist upwelling that elected Donald Trump).  The difficulty for populist leaders is that the problems at issue need complex and long-term solutions, while their base of voters wants to believe that solution is simple and can be done overnight.

The current administration’s “make America great again” slogan is an example of this oversimplification, as it promises that everyone will be happy and have good jobs again.  This is to be accomplished by “stimulating” the economy (using tax breaks for citizens and business and removing onerous “regulations”) to get everyone to address business in ever more creative and energetic ways, as if increased economic activity would equal greater wealth for everyone.  The stock market may have gone up in the last two years, but does that really equal greater long-term wealth?–only if you sell your stock now, as is always true in the stock market.  And, how many people in our neighborhoods of the disadvantaged actually own stocks?

All of our current political philosophies can only promise happiness as long as the economy is sufficiently growing (in order to maintain the same standard of living for an ever growing population) and have no ideas about how to live happily without such growth.  Such growth can only continue through the exploitation of new resources, the discovery of totally new power sources, or ever more efficient ways to do what we currently do, and surely at some points some or all of these three will run up against stone walls.  (The world is running out of resources (perhaps slowly); no new power sources are on the horizon; and there are ultimately limits to how efficient we can be.)  Another approach to maintaining our lifestyle, of course, would be reducing the rate of population growth.

“Making America great again” is a conservative goal (taking us back to the past), and the party in charge (G.O.P.) is forever against redistribution of wealth and forever against unions having power, which means that the unhappy workers who started this particular populistic upwelling can only benefit if their employers employ them once again and pay them more (which the government cannot or is unwilling to control).  Token examples of giving workers more have appeared in the form of bonuses, and the administration points to miniscule rises in average pay as if the problem of the populist base were being solved, but if human beings run true to form, workers are never likely to benefit seriously from the largesse of employers (despite the pay increases due to increased competition for workers to hire during a time of low unemployment).  In this business-oriented scenario, workers continue to get only the “crumbs that fall from the table of the wealthy,” although this may in fact be better than having the problems of a government-controlled and planned economy!

Manufacturing Jobs are supposedly being brought back to this country with no concern about the lowered standard of living that this implies for the total population—both the newly employed and the rest of us.  Global trade benefits every country (through each country doing what it does best, presumably at a lower cost to all other countries), but not every segment of every country benefits.  If American manufacturing, which “went out of business” because it could not produce products at a lower cost than other countries, is to come back and produce products at the same cost as it did before (even with lower taxes), then to support (protect) those industries with tariffs or other government props will cost the rest of our citizens more to continue to live at the same standard of living (since they will be paying now for this product at the U.S. price instead of the lower world price).  This of course is not being explained to the citizens, and the rosy but untrue assumption is being presented that Americans can do anything they turn their hands to, like manufacturing things more cheaply than they were doing before those jobs left for overseas.

There is nothing “wrong” with populism, and it has the virtue of identifying things that really should be fixed in the country.  The unhappy result, though, is likely to be disappointment and disillusionment on the part of citizens, since there are very few populist leaders who are honest with their followers.  In hoodwinking the citizens about the economic facts, current populist leaders are leading us toward loss of hope for workers, since their economic scenario is unlikely to actually work as well as promised.


To discuss socialism, all parties need a uniform definition.  Classically, socialism is defined as the state of affairs when the central government plans and has ultimate control over the economy and also owns the means of production in the economy.  Russia and China are the only countries that have actually done this (and later abandoned it).  (Communism is classically defined as when the workers own and control the production units in the economy, and no country has ever tried this.)  “Socialism” is used by some conservatives to label anything that government does for the bulk of citizens that the detractors wish it would not do (such as providing healthcare for all).  This labeling as socialism counts on the public’s fear of communism bleeding over into a fear of socialism (another of those European revolutionary ideas that simply must be dangerous).  Some conservatives also label any country as “socialistic” that has extensive national programs for “free” healthcare, education, elder care, etc.

According to the way that detractors use the word socialism, the armed forces of the United States could be seen as a socialistic development, since the government plans and manages the armed forces for all the states, instead of each state having its own army or allowing the market to develop various forms of mercenary forces for profit.  Probably no one would actually agree that the armed forces illustrate socialism, but this simply exposes the false definition being employed by detractors.  We might do best to avoid the word socialism entirely and to simply consider, for any program proposal, (1) whether we want to have the program apply to all citizens and (2) whether government or private sector will do a better job of managing such a program.  (We could call them “all-citizen” programs, rather than socialistic.)

Detractors criticize government welfare-type programs, such as healthcare, by claiming that the government will always create a tangle of rules and methods which will be inefficient and which could be avoided by giving the job to the private sector.  The opposite view claims that giving human services-type programs to the private sector results in heartless profit emphases that humiliate recipients and fail to deliver the caring services that are best for recipients.  There is a reasonable concern in both these views.  The private sector will always drain off a certain amount of money in “profit,” which is an added expense for the program, and capitalists will always value profit more than worker or consumer welfare.  In many instances we have seen that private sector programs cut services below what was intended in their contract, for the sake of profit (or shareholder benefit, if you prefer).  While the public sector might value worker and consumer welfare over profit, it is also true that the government tends to be excessive in regulations, although Medicare’s ability to deliver healthcare at a lower cost than the private sector suggests that even regulations don’t necessarily prevent a government program from being both effective and efficient.

The first question in regard to any large program is whether we want to have it at all, as an “all-citizen” program.  With healthcare, the question is not whether to have healthcare but whether to have a single healthcare program for all citizens or to have a healthcare market where citizens will buy healthcare individually according to what they can pay.  (Having a private sector market for healthcare but then subsidizing all who cannot afford the best care so that they get the best care would nullify the claim that private sector programs can do the job better.)

If it were determined, by policy or vote, to have a single program for healthcare (or any other major need), then it would seem, that the choice between public and private sectors for human services programs depends on (1) which one can deliver the service at a lower cost and (2) which one can impact recipients more positively, taking into account not only numbers of services delivered but also recipients’ feelings about the services.  Regulations then become either a help or a hindrance that would show up in both costs and recipients’ feelings.


It has been argued here that taking universal human emotional needs into account in lawmaking would improve the ability of liberals and conservatives to cooperate in crafting the best laws possible and that using language to describe reality instead of using it as a tool to get one’s way would also improve our political process.  No human system will ever be perfect, but we can do better than we have been doing recently!