The last few weeks I’ve been trying to pinpoint the difference between liberals and conservatives in the United States and kept coming back to the idea of free will. I want to get at the fundamentals of where we differ, not superficial policy debates, not fiscal arguments, but basic fundamentals of how we see the world. And the first thing that stood out to me is how we see equal opportunity. How do we view our ability to succeed in this world as compared to someone of a different race, gender, socioeconomic status, etc? While conservatives, for the most part, believe that we can ‘pull ourselves up by the bootstraps’ and believe in equal opportunity to the top, liberals fundamentally disagree. Liberals believe that we are staggered from the gun and some people are given a head start. What we are disagreeing on, fundamentally, is the impact of free will and politics.
When I thought about this I realized that much of policy decision from conservatives with respect to free will and politics made sense in that light. It is a mentality (admitting my liberal bias here) that views the world in our own light, with our own experiences, without much attempt at empathy to understand the other side. It is why conservatives are predominantly majority or dominant members; they’re white, uneducated, male, working class people. While the minorities see the world from a different view.
When I was applying to med school I had to establish a stance on Affirmative Action. I was a white male applying to med school and with my exact credentials, a black male would’ve been competitive at the top med schools. But I was fighting for breadcrumbs in the applicant pool. At first glance it seems unjustifiably terrible to base acceptance decisions on race, gender, ethnicity, or anything that a person is born with and has no control over. I thought they should base the policy on tangibly unequal things like family income. But to the school, it didn’t matter whether a dark skinned dude was coming from a private school in Long Island or from a decrepit public school serving mostly government housing projects. Superficially it seems racist. But then I thought about my life. I’ve never known racism. I’ve never known sexism. I’ve never really had much of any fundamental challenge in my life besides mentally ill family members which seems unanimous no matter where you come from. But after talking to my dark skinned friends, it seemed to me that no matter what your upbringing, you were aware of the racism all around you.
I realized that my darker skinned applicants with slightly worse numbers weren’t any less qualified than me. The fact of it is that simply growing up dark skinned or growing up female in STEM fields makes things harder. It doesn’t matter your socioeconomic background, you can’t live in a vacuum and ignore all the bigotry in this country. But for me, the bigotry distresses me, and makes me furious, but since it isn’t pointed at me, I can’t say it shakes me to my core like people who are directly the brunt of it.
I realized that we don’t get equal opportunity. If I am starting a 100 meter dash against a kid who grew up in government housing with a single parent I am at the 50 meter line before the gun even goes off.
Free will is fictional
But it wasn’t just personal experience that opened my eyes. I studied free will and realized that it’s a fictional idea. I am simply a billiard ball in this world, influenced by my nature and nurture. Any inspiration I have to pursue medicine or motivation to race triathlons, work hard, and crush long trails is not due to my own free will. It was instilled in me by my parents, my teachers, my friends, my neighbors, and other community leaders. I deserve no credit for what I do in this world or blame for that matter. In that perspective, someone my age who ends up in prison chose to be there. It was an unfortunate combination of biology and environment, not free will. There is no shame or pride in what we do in this life, but if we accept humility and acknowledge this reality, it helps us understand that we should help each other rather than attempt to hoard wealth and shame. When we realize the association that the assumption of free will and politics share, it creates a more compassionate system and foundation rather than the competition than defines conservatism.
When looking at policy decisions, it’s easy to see how this fundamental disagreement over free will changes how we see the world. Liberals are willing to pay higher taxes to provide equal access to food, housing, healthcare, and education. Conservatives often are not. Liberals view policies that tax the extremely wealthy, the extremely privileged, and make things a little harder for those people, while transferring that benefit to those who had things a little harder from the gun. Liberals are for estate taxes, which help redistribute accumulated wealth to those who are in need of it rather than those at the top. Conservatives view the extremely wealthy as hard workers rather than those who were born with a huge advantage.
I am in med school largely because of my privileged background, not because of my own free will. I didn’t have to fight against racial, gender, or socioeconomic obstacles to get here, and hearing stories from my friends who did helps me realize that we need policies to balance things out, to make it easier for my less privileged counterpart who is equally qualified but the numbers might not show it, to be able to compete with me.