Friday, December 15, 2006

On Liberalism and Conservatism

A good long time ago, I was surprised to find that my friend Kyle considers himself to be a conservative. This surprised me given that he's a Wiccan and that he holds a number of beliefs that would seem to fall under the traditional umbrella of liberal values, so I asked him why he considered himself a Conservative.

In his reply to me he caught me off-guard with a counter-question: "how do you understand those words, and why do you call yourself liberal?".

Like many seemingly simple questions, this one contained a lot of depth. At first, I thought that I'd be able to give a quick answer but, the more I thought about it, the more difficult I found it to actually answer that question. Indeed, I've been pondering the question since last March. I think that I've finally come up with something that works, at least for me.

Since it's usually a good idea to start with a dictionary (and always a bad idea to end with one) when trying to understand a concept, let's see what Webster's has to say:

Main Entry: lib·er·al·ism
Function: noun
1 : the quality or state of being liberal
2 a often capitalized : a movement in modern Protestantism emphasizing intellectual liberty and the spiritual and ethical content of Christianity b : a theory in economics emphasizing individual freedom from restraint and usually based on free competition, the self-regulating market, and the gold standard c : a political philosophy based on belief in progress, the essential goodness of the human race, and the autonomy of the individual and standing for the protection of political and civil liberties d capitalized : the principles and policies of a Liberal party

I think that it should be apparent that definition 1 is fairly useless and that 2a only applies to the realm of theology, which isn't under discussion. 2b is interesting mainly because it's a fairly close description of the economic theories that tend to be advanced by American conservatives. Parts of 2c seems to have potential, but, to me, it seems to miss the mark a bit, not least because the idea of individual autonomy and political and civil liberty is also embraced by many who call themselves conservative. I'm also not willing to assume that conservatives don't believe in the essential goodness of the human race, nor am I convinced that liberals are necessarily going to accept the premise. 2d seems to me to be circular: What's liberalism? It's what Liberal parties adhere to.

Main Entry: con·ser·va·tism
Function: noun
1 capitalized a : the principles and policies of a Conservative party b : the Conservative party
2 a : disposition in politics to preserve what is established b : a political philosophy based on tradition and social stability, stressing established institutions, and preferring gradual development to abrupt change
3 : the tendency to prefer an existing or traditional situation to change

The 1a definition of conservatism has the same issues as the 3d definition of liberalism: it seems circular. 1b is even worse. 2a seems to have potential but, again, it seems to miss the mark as well. 2b also seems to have potential but, like 2a, seems to lack something. 3 seems to recapitulate 2a and 2b, only extending them outside of the political realm.

It quickly became apparent to me that one of the biggest problems with discussing liberalism vs. conservatism is that the discussion often gets side-tracked into discussions of political positions, many of which don't have any necessary mapping to either side.

Let's take conservation as an example. In modern American politics, conservation (often referred to as environmentalism) is considered a liberal position and is, in fact, one of the central planks of the Democratic party (which is generally considered to be the major left-wing party in the American political landscape). Opposition to environmental regulation is typically associated with conservative politics and the Republican party in particular. However, the history of conservation does not make these obvious associations. Many conservation movements (especially German and Japanese sylvan stewardship) has strong conservative roots and, even in the United States, the National Parks system got its start under Lincoln and was expanded by more than a few conservative presidents (up to and including George W. Bush). It wasn't until the publication of Silent Spring and the subsequent association with anti-corporatism that environmentalism came to be thought of as a leftist movement.

I think that the conventional associations of many positions that are presumed to be on the left or the right also lack any necessary association with their assignments. I can, for instance, envision a world where the right to bear arms is championed as a liberal cause under the theory that, in its absence, society has no recourse to advance against repressive institutions. I can also imagine worlds where gay rights are considered a conservative stance, perhaps because they are enshrined in the dominant religion.

A second and more subtle problem is that there is a general perception that liberalism and conservatism are mutually exclusive. The two philosophies are considered to be antagonistic, holding opposite stances on all major issues. I found myself asking if this was necessarily so and coming to the conclusion that it was not. (More on this later.)

So how do I answer Kyle's question? With much thought I think that it is a question of core values. What is it that matters most to either side? Let's start with conservatism.

I think that the core value of conservatism is the preservation of the Good. A conservative looks at the world and sees that there are many institutions and traditions that are good and he is loath to change those things for fear that altering them, even with good intentions, could have the effect of replacing that which is good about them with something that is less desirable or even evil. This is a fear that finds empirical justification given the ample evidence that unintended consequences frequently subvert attempts to enhance a system and that, the more complex the system, the greater the chance that unintended consequences will crop up. Given that society is the most complex system of them all, efforts to make changes to it should be given the utmost contemplation and consideration before we move on to implementation. That said, conservatism doesn't require the preservation of all institutions. Few modern conservatives would argue, for instance, that ending slavery was wrong. Since slavery was a manifest evil, eradicating it was the correct and just course of action in spite of the upheavals that its eradication caused and despite the myriad consequences that stem from its elimination.
The core value of liberalism is harder to define. I think that liberalism predicates itself on a theory, which I would call the theory of the Just Society. What is the Just Society? The Just Society is the one all people are treated fairly, where all institutions support the common good and where all laws are just.

The Just Society does not exist. Instead, it's a sort of ideal. It is a frankly Utopian vision. Indeed, one of the most frequent criticisms of liberalism is that it's unrealistic. Sure, it's nice to imagine a perfect world but, in the meanwhile, we have to get our heads out of the clouds and deal with the real world. Although the concept of the Just Society is Utopian, it does not follow that liberalism is necessarily Utopian. One can concede that the Just Society can never be truly obtained while never the less asserting that any changes that move us closer to the ideal should be encouraged.

From the theory of the Just Society, I think we can describe the core value of liberalism as progress towards the Just Society. If I were to give liberalism a bumper sticker motto, it would be, "If the world could be a better place then it should be a better place."

(If anyone would like to suggest a non-pejorative conservative motto, please feel free to do so.)

I think that the advantage of these definitions is that they are descriptive while, never the less, allowing for a great deal of flexibility in practice. What exactly is the Just Society? Is it a society where all wealth is redistributed? Some may say yes while others would certainly say no. What is the Good? Is racial segregation a good thing? Many thought it was and now many don't.

Although it may be tempting to try to come up with core definitions which aren't open to dispute, neither liberals nor conservatives are monolithic which tell me that the core values of either philosophy must be subject to interpretive disputation, which is precisely what we find in the real world. Two liberals can agree that moving towards a just society is necessary without having to agree to what that society is or how to reach it. A pair of conservatives can have a dispute over what, exactly, is good and deserving of preservation while still holding the preservation of the Good as a central value.

Even if a majority of liberals subscribe to a given viewpoint, it doesn't follow that that viewpoint must be adopted by all liberals or rejected by all conservatives, which is why I think that efforts to catalog a person's position by their stance on various issues often leads to seeming paradoxes (such as the existence of conservative Wiccans). The apparent paradoxes are artifacts of perception that have no bearing on the reality. Even though most conservatives aren't Wiccans (and are, indeed, fairly hostile to Wiccans), if a person, who happens to be a Wiccan, accepts the core value of preserving the Good then that person has every right and cause to call themselves a conservatives. The same can be said of liberals who oppose abortion (and so forth and so on).

If we do accept these definitions we find an interesting thing happens: it becomes apparent that neither philosophy is necessarily antagonistic towards the other. One who values social progress can concede that there are institutions that should be preserved. The Just Society could (and almost certainly world) encompass many values that we currently hold. Likewise, one who desires the preservation of the Good can admit that there are institutions that should be overturned and that it's even possible, and desirable, to replace a current Good with an even greater Good (although we shall want to approach the proposition with caution).

These definitions suggest a shift in our perception of the relationship between liberalism and conservatism. Instead of viewing them as naturally antagonistic we, instead, can see them as part of a larger process; a sort of social dialectic, in fact. There is a kind of practical antagonism given that liberal philosophies will inevitably call for the overthrow of institutions that conservatives are wary of discarding, but this antagonism describes a conflict of plans as opposed to a fundamentally ideological conflict. To be sure, the ideologies tend to generate conflict but they don't require conflict.

One can imagine society as being a bit like a car. Conservatism acts as a social brake while liberalism is a kind of accelerator. Just as with a car doesn't move at all if you only hold down the brake, and just as it is apt to spin out of control and crash if you only press the accelerator, the Vehicle of Society needs to have both elements to move forward at a prudent rate. Of course this is an inexact analogy. In the real Vehicle of Society, you have millions of people stomping down as hard as possible on both pedals while simultaneously trying to jerk the steering wheel to one side or another. (It also has the curious feature that if you press down on the brake hard enough, it can actually go backwards, and the same is true of the accelerator!)

Be that as it may, there is no fundamental reason that liberals and conservatives have that requires them to be in conflict over any given goal. Every so often we should expect that the interests of the two groups should align. More importantly, we should find mutual value is trying to find those cases of alignment. Liberals should be willing to admit that all progress is not good progress and conservatives should be willing to concede that not all that is preserved is worth preserving.

This leads to Kyle's question: why do I call myself a liberal?

Truthfully, I'm tempted to toss aside the label altogether. Even though I still value the theory of the Just Society and sincerely want us to move towards, I also concede that preserving the Good is not only laudable but critical. It would be simple to say that I am neither. I would also be disingenuous.

Although I can see both sides, the truth is that I tend to come down on the side of progress far more often than I come down on the side of preservation. I sincerely believe that more institutions ought to be either overturned or improved than preserved and that efforts to preserve social institutions seem to disproportionately favor the perpetuation of injustices. At the same time, I can be glad that there are people like Kyle who stand on the other side of the fence checking my desire to gun the engine. I believe that we are both a necessary part of the whole and even if I get frustrated by the specific rate and nature of my culture's progress (to say nothing of the occasional regress) I have confidence that, in the long run, society does move forward, inching its way towards that infinitely distant utopia that I dream of.

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