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Liberalism vs. Conservativism

It comes down to mentality, not policy.

by James Leroy Wilson
July 15, 2004

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I can understand how galling it is for libertarians and paleo-conservatives to hear Democrats talk about the “extreme right-wing” Bush Administration. But I’m finally beginning to have peace with it. I just keep in mind that the line that divides “Left and Right” keeps shifting ever-leftward, and has ever since the night of Ronald Reagan’s election in 1980, if not Barry Goldwater‘s defeat in 1964. Examples include George W. Bush’s campaigning on an expanded federal role in education, and his signing into law the McCain-Feingold Campaign Finance Reform Act. Opposition to these things were once considered inviolable conservative principles. But so-called conservatives are lining up to support Bush again.

Because the line between Left and Right keeps moving leftward, I will grant some accuracy to the Democratic charge of “right-wing Republicanism.” Bush may be far to the left of paleo-conservatives and libertarians, but he is still to the right of John Kerry and most Democrats. There are three important ideological differences: environmental regulations, tax cuts, and the federal judiciary. At least rhetorically, these issues make the Bush Administration more conservative and to the right of the Democrats. From the paleo point of view, Bush is correctly perceived as a neo-conservative Leftist; from the Democrat point of view, Bush is also correctly seen as a right-winger.

I’m not suggesting relativism, only the accuracy of perspective. From my about-once-a-year experience of going bowling, I think that someone who averages a score of 170 is a very good bowler and I’d be correct. From the perspective of the touring pros of the PBA, a score of 170 would be disastrous, and they’d also be correct.

I wouldn’t call the President a conservative, but there are obviously some conservative ideas remaining in his administration that Democrats see as significant. Let me emphasize that I loathe the Administration and will never support it. But in terms of thinking, if not in policy, there is some conservatism there. Not nearly enough, but some.

Let’s face it, nearly everyone is a “liberal” to some degree and a “conservative” to some degree. To distinguish one from the other can not be reduced to party affiliation. Some paleo-conservatives and libertarians were seriously contemplating the only viable, though inconsistent, anti-war Democratic Presidential candidate - Howard Dean - who is by no means a conservative. This temptation was the result of policy priorities, not of any loyalty to the Democratic Party or Dean’s domestic socialist agenda Two people can agree on the same policy, such as opposition to the War on Iraq, for entirely difference reasons. But even then, the difference can not be reduced to policy outcomes either. Liberals can strongly disagree with each other about virtually anything, and so can conservatives.

The difference between liberalism and conservatism can not be reduced to anything in particular, but are rather attributed to habits of heart and mind. They are dispositions, or orientations. Liberalism - and I’m including much of classical liberalism and a strong element of modern libertarianism here - begins with the moral status and rights of the individual. It goes like this:

1. The pre-supposition of the inherent equality of all individual human beings;
2. The discerning of the equal rights of all human beings, based on our individual moral understandings, desires, and ideals;
3. A democratic State in which the “General Will,” the common ideals of the people, is expressed.
4. Faith in the progress of democracy and the evolution of our moral beliefs and dispositions.

Conservatism operates from practically the exact opposite orientation:

1. Faith in eternal, unchanging truths. (As John the Evangelist began his Gospel: “In the Beginning was the Word (Greek: logos), and the Logos was with God, and the Logos was God.”)
2. The application of eternal Truth to laws that govern human affairs;
3. The establishment of property rights is the foundation of civil order and makes liberty possible;
4. Because truth is unchanging, and with it, the Law, the State is not an expression of the “General Will” or the reflection of human evolution. The State is limited - constrained - to the Law that governs human affairs.
In other words, right is right and wrong is wrong, regardless of what a democracy says about it.

Politically, this creates a fundamental difference in motivation and action. Liberals, who think in terms individual rights, tend to view property as a means to society’s ends. Civil rights laws against discrimination and minimum wage laws are good examples. Our property rights are diminished the more we are compelled to associate with people we don’t want to associate with on our very own property. Ultimately, the Income Tax, which can confiscate all of our earnings if that’s what Congress and the President wants, is the ultimate weapon of the liberal who sees the State as the means for achieving liberal ends.

The federal government operates with a liberal mentality. What is the War on Drugs, or the War on Obesity? Expressions of the liberal idea of “rights,” namely - everyone has the right to be healthy. Individual liberty and personal responsibility are subordinate to Democracy’s guaranteeing us of our “rights.” Since a free-market and property rights can not guarantee desired liberal social outcomes, the State steps in to promise to provide those guarantees. Liberty is whatever remains once the State is finished with us. But to modern liberalism, there is no principled restraint on the State. Property rights set limits on the State, but to liberals property rights are subordinate, a means only.

The liberal/conservative split applies to other areas of life as well. This manifests itself in several intellectual inconsistencies. Liberalism is ultimately political and religious Darwinianism. Humans evolve, and therefore their concepts of truth evolve as well. Postmodernism - the philosophy that truth and meaning are relative, is the ultimate outcome of liberalism. In religion, views of gender roles and sexuality, which remained fairly constant through most of Christian history, have undergone significant changes since liberalism became prevalent.

I am not suggesting that everything liberalism has proposed has been wrong, or that conservatives have a monopoly on truth. But the conservative is superior. We do indeed know that the world is governed by eternal laws. The laws of mathematics are a case in point. By conservative I don’t mean automatic deference to tradition or authority. But free inquiry should be based on a commitment to searching for ultimate truth. Social change should come about not by the progression of liberal values, but from recognizing errors and injustices and bringing society closer to universal principles.

It comes down to the rule of Democracy, or the rule of Law.

Comments (2)

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Mike from Santa Ana CA writes:
July 15, 2004
I notice that you've stated the conservative case in religious terms. That's part of it, but not the whole thing. (And you might check a good Greek dictionary for the meaning of logos. It's one of those words with a host of meanings.)

In other words, right is right and wrong is wrong, regardless of what a democracy says about it.

Absolutely. In pre-colonial Massachussetts, for example, everyone believed that witches should be put on trial. That was wrong, even though everyone believed it, and their system followed it.

A gifted orator can move a country in any direction. Remember Nazi Germany and Facist Italy in the 30s.

The will of the people has to be tempered by the judgement of wise leaders. In a utopian state, everybody will be wise. Until then, neither the minorty nor the majority can be allowed to subjugate the other.

It comes down to the rule of Democracy, or the rule of Law.

Do you really think that Democracy and Law are incompatible?

Postmodernism - the philosophy that truth and meaning are relative, is the ultimate outcome of liberalism.

That idea alone is enough to taint liberalism. Postmodernism is the most intellectually bankrupt philosophy ever to emerge.

Truth and meaning are not relative.

Go read Plato.

Mike from Santa Ana writes:
July 15, 2004
I do think you've made a good case that the labels liberal and conservative are unsatisfactory.

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