Oom Paul, What's the Difference Between Liberals and Conservatives?

Copyright (c) 2008 by Kenny Felder

From the wonderful, forgotten cartoon 'Conchy' by James Childress

What are the real differences between "liberals" and "conservatives?"

I think there is something to be said for the classic idea the conservatives look back, respect tradition, and view change with suspicion; liberals are free-thinkers, look forward, and view the past with disdain. But that's too broad to mean much, and I don't think it gets at the heart of the difference in any case. So I'm going to avoid those terms, and offer some different perspectives.

The Two-Dimensional View

According to this view, there are really two political dimensions.

One overarching question is: "How much should the government interfere in economic matters?" Many different issues fall under that question, because there are many different types and levels of economic interference.

The theory being expressed here is that these issues, although not technically related to each other, fall on a spectrum. If you want to describe an individual's beliefs, you do not need to list his views on each of these issues separately. You can give him a test with five or ten questions, and then predict his responses to issues you didn't ask about, such as minimum wage laws and school lunches.

The other overarching question is: "How much should the government interfere in personal / moral matters?" Once again, many issues can be placed on an axis.

Once again, these many issues, which often do not appear related, all lie on a spectrum. You're unlikely to find too many people who want to legalize prostitution but illegalize buying liquor on Sunday morning.

So we can represent a person's political opinion by placing him somewhere on a 2-dimensional "Nolan chart," which looks something like this.

Nolan Chart

The "left-right" or "liberal-conservative" spectrum in American politics is diagonal on this chart. The Democratic Party wants the government to redistribute our wealth, but stay out of our bedroom. The Republican Party wants the government to allow the free market to do its work, but maintain community standards of decency.

But this one-dimensional view is an illusion: in reality, the two axes do not correlate with each other. Knowing someone's position on farm subsidies does not give you any ability to predict his position on medical marijuana use. When you hear someone describe himself as "a social liberal but an economic conservative," he isn't hedging: he's expressing a perfectly consistent set of viewpoints that simply does not fit into the American two-party system.

I first saw the Nolan Chart in a political science course in college, and I was blown away. To this day, it remains the most cogent explanation I have ever seen of "liberal" and "conservative," or of political opinions in general.

Nonetheless, it leaves out a lot. It predicts (correctly) that the Democrats will want to impose environmental legislation on businesses, and the Republicans will want controls on abortion. But I don't think it predicts that the Republicans are the ones who want to restrict immigration. And I don't think it tells you anything about which party started a couple of wars with Iraq. So the rest of this essay is my own ideas to add to the basic framework provided by the Nolan Chart.

Foreign Policy

Let's say there is a crisis in Berzerkistan. Is it the liberals who want to be the "world's policeman" and get heavily involved, and the conservatives who want to be "isolationist?" Or is it the other way around?

Neither of those two views is correct. Rather, the answer depends on the nature of the crisis, and the goal of the proposed intervention. It seems to me—and I've never heard anyone else say this, so don't take it for more than it's worth—that liberals ask what is best for the people of Berzerkistan, while conservatives ask what American interests are at stake.

Hence, Jimmy Carter used a country's human rights record as the litmus test for U.S. aid.

Ronald Reagan focused on which side of the cold war a country was on, and was cheerfully willing to support horrible dictators if they were on our side.

When Bill Clinton attacked Kosovo to stop ethnic cleansing, I don't think he ever once paused to ask if we had a dog in that race.

George W. Bush invaded Iraq for a host of reasons. He certainly discussed freeing the people of Iraq from the evil Saddam Hussein. But (to his credit) he never claimed that that was the sole, or even the primary, purpose: after all, plenty of other dictators are just as bad or worse. He wanted to stop the exporting of terrorism, which Saddam had been doing for years, but which had just recently become an issue of direct U.S. concern. He wanted to destroy weapons of mass destruction that might be used on anybody, any time. And he wanted to prevent the economic consequences of losing access to a large oil supply. If he talks to the mother of a slain veteran, he can look her in the eye and assure her that her son died protecting the United States.

My favorite question for teasing out someone's leanings is this. A big boat is going down in international waters. The U.S. has sent a rescue team, but they can't rescue everybody. Should they rescue the Americans first?

Who trusts the government?

Many conservatives are vehemently against gun control in any form. Of course they understand that machine guns and armor-piercing bullets are not necessary to hunt deer or protect your home from robbers. But they don't want the government to restrict those things, because at some basic level—and the founding fathers would certainly be sympathetic to this position—they want to be able to defend themselves against the U.S. government itself.

This doesn't mean that anyone can hold off the Marines from his bedroom windows. But it recognizes that, should a tyrant ever come to power, he would have a very difficult time controlling a well-armed public. Of course, the current president isn't that bad, but it could happen, and that's the point.

Liberals tend to regard this as absurd and paranoid. They may not love this or that administration, but the American government is still basically the good guys.

But an interesting switch happens when you look at foreign policy.

Conservatives want to make America dominant on the world stage. If all Americans pull together, work hard, and achieve our potential, we will reign as the sole economic and military superpower. Other nations will ally with us, work with us, buy from us, and sell to us, but they won't ever be able to compete with us. We rule.

Liberals don't actually want our country to be quite that successful. If the U.S. ever became too powerful without international challenge, it could become tyrannical and imperialistic, exploiting weaker nations without fear or conscience. Of course, the current government isn't that bad, but it could happen, and that's the point. Conservatives tend to regard this as absurd and paranoid. We're America; we're the good guys.

It's difficult to explain why the two sides have completely opposite views in these two cases. Both sides remember Hitler's rise to power—not through a revolution like those in France or Russia, but through the Democratic institutions themselves. Both sides are aware that it could happen here, but it isn't likely to. So, is it likely enough that we should constantly guard ourselves against the possibility of a despotic U.S. government? It seems to me that neither side is consistent on this question.

Good guys and bad guys

After I categorized all the issues listed above, I wound up deciding that the core difference lies in the way that the two sides see good and evil. This may be oversimplifying both positions a lot, but I don't think it's terribly unfair to either, and it explains a tremendous amount:

Conservatives divide actions and people into "good" and "evil" as absolutes; liberals view these distinctions as culturally relative or circumstantial.

These are personality preferences more than absolute philosophical positions. Any sophisticated liberal will concede that there is a tremendous genetic component to personality, and that we must run society on the basis of personal responsibility. Any sophisticated conservative understands that good nutrition, emotional security, and education are essential to raising secure and contributing people. Nonetheless, this personality difference can be quite stark.

The song "There but for fortune" by Phil Ochs expresses the liberal viewpoint very clearly, I think.

Show me a prison, show me a jail,
Show me a prisoner whose face has gone pale
And I'll show you a young man with so many reasons why
And there but for fortune, may go you or I.

Show me the alley, show me the train,
Show me a hobo who sleeps out in the rain,
And I'll show you a young man with so many reasons why
There but for fortune, may go you or go I.

Show me the whiskey stains on the floor,
Show me the drunken man as he stumbles out the door,
And I'll show you a young man with so many reasons why
There but for fortune, may go you or go I.

Show me the country where bombs had to fall,
Show me the ruins of buildings once so tall,
And I'll show you a young land with so many reasons why
There but for fortune, go you or go I.

C.S. Lewis is a wonderful spokesman for the conservative view. Here are a few sample quotes.
"Whenever you find a man who says he doesn't believe in a real Right and Wrong, you will find the same man going back on this a moment later."

"This year, or this month, or, more likely, this very day, we have failed to practise ourselves the kind of behaviour we expect from other people."

"Human beings, all over the earth, have this curious idea that they ought to behave in a certain way, and can't really get rid of it."

"Now is our chance to choose the right side. God is holding back to give us that chance. It won't last forever. We must take it or leave it."

"Disobedience to conscience is voluntary."

"A great many of those who 'debunk' traditional...values have in the background values of their own which they believe to be immune from the debunking process."

You get the idea in the Phil Ochs song? Poor countries, poor people, even criminals and drunkards—they are just like you, except that they got a bad break. You need to sympathize with them because it could have been you, or it may some day be you.

The conservative, on the other hand, frames things in terms of personal responsibility. If you make wise and honorable choices, you end up in a good situation; if you make short-sighted or immature choices, you end up in a bad situation. Therefore, your situation now gives us a good glimpse into the kinds of choices you have made so far.

Look how this one distinction explains so many others.

Where does Kenny stand?

I've tried to outline the differences above with as little bias as possible. But in all fairness, I think I should end by stating my own positions. What I find as I go from category to category is that I tend to favor the liberals in terms of the overall philosophy, but I wind up with the conservatives on many of the details.

I think the government should ensure that every adult who is willing to work has decent living conditions. I think the government should ensure that every child gets enough food, shelter, medicine, and education to have a shot at growing up healthy with a good job. This places me more to the left than to the right, in the sense that I want to throw huge pots of money at programs such as micro-lending and job retraining, and I am willing to levy heavy taxes on the rich to do so.

In addition, I am more and more convinced that strict environmental legislation is essential. If there are millions of planets with intelligent life, a fair percentage of them probably self-destruct in their post-industrial phase, and there's no reason to suppose we won't be one of them. Liberal again.

On the other hand, I don't want to guarantee anything beyond a good job and a decent living, and that can make me extremely conservative at times. For instance, I don't think the government should require restaurants to offer non-smoking sections or even handicapped access, because I don't consider "going to a restaurant" a fundamental right that the government should be securing for anyone.

Social / Moral
It's absurd to say that "the government should not be in the position of legislating morality." All legislation is fundamentally moral. When we outlaw rape, we (the majority) impose our morality on the minority of citizens who think it's perfectly fine to rape.

Nonetheless, I don't see any reason why the government should tell people that they cannot have gay sex in their own bedrooms, smoke marijuana, or sell sexual services. I also oppose censorship in almost all cases. Once again, my overall position sounds crazy liberal: even the liberals' liberals don't want to legalize prostitution or pot.

But there are other sides. It is always liberals who insist that women fighting in the military, climbing the corporate ladder, or even playing sports are doing what they should be, and women who stay at home to take care of their children are copping out. And it is the liberals who, in the name of keeping the government out of the morality business, want to excise all hints of religion from the public sphere and especially from the schools. I think stay-at-home motherhood is the best way to raise a child, and therefore one of the most important roles in healthy human life, and the way to protect both women and children is to support it instead of marginalizing it. I think we need more open and free religious expression, not less, and we can move a long way in that direction before we have to worry about the kind of "faith test" that the founding fathers wanted to avoid. And by the way, if you really want to hear me sound like a social conservative, get me started on political correctness.

Foreign policy
Totally with the libs on this one, sorry. An American life is worth no more, and no less, than any other life.

Of course, liberals have been guilty of all kinds of stupidity over the years. There was a time when it was fashionable for liberals to idolize left-wing dictatorships—even as ugly as Stalinist Russia—because they used left-wing rhetoric. When I say I am "totally with the libs" I don't mean that they have always been correct.

But if we're deciding what to do about Berzerkistan, I want to ask two fundamental questions. The first is moral: how do they treat their own people and other countries? The second is strategic: what impact can we actually have with economic sanctions or military intervention? (I don't want to go in guns-a-blazing without a good exit strategy, a non-partisan mistake that both sides have been guilty of.)

"Do we have a dog in this race?" is the wrong question. Above all, we should not be supporting evil dictatorships simply because they are on our side. Conservatives have shown themselves all too willing to do this throughout the 20th century, and I find it morally inexcusable.

So that's what I think.


From: Ian Oglesby
November 3, 2014

I've been perusing some of your essays recently and (unsurprisingly) liked this one. In particular, I like that you only used the words "Republican" and "Democrat" a few times each. I got a degree in political science and worked on campaigns, and became frustrated by the ease with which people exchange "liberal" for "Democrat" and "conservative" for "Republican." I do not fit nicely into a particular box and I doubt many people would either if they really looked at each issue individually; nor do I think my options are equitably represented on a 2-dimensional chart. Sure, would probably be able to guess my general tendencies after a few specific questions, but I bet that would cease to (or to a lesser extend) be the case if we had a multi-polar party system.

This is the problem I have with Big Tent political parties: When a party candidate runs for office, the position I believe in is tethered to other positions I do not care about or, worse, vehemently disagree with. A candidate who wants to revise tenure and invest in charter schools is also likely to raise classroom sizes and cut teacher pay. A candidate who supports marriage equality is a lot more likely to raise the minimum wage to $10.10.

I noticed that your essay was published in 2008 and, with tomorrow being election day in 2014, I wonder if the blanket election advertisements would be any different if we had more candidates to choose from. Would they be forced to actually articulate how they different from each other at debates? Would vicious attack ads be worth the time and money when more need to know what a candidate stands for?

From: Kenny Felder
November 3, 2014

One of the most remarkable classes I took at UNC was a political science class. The professor focused on the way that votes are translated into representation, and how that affects the parties. In Italy, which is one extreme, if your party gets 3% of the votes then they get 3% representation. That leads to a huge proliferation of parties. In the US and England, at the other extreme, we have a "winner takes all" system (called by the British "first past the post")—there is absolutely no prize for second place. This leads to a two-party system. Hence the ascendance of the Republican party in 1860 necessarily heralds the death of the Whig party. This system was set up deliberately to create that effect. If you want more parties, you need to change the electoral system.

From: Ian Oglesby
November 3, 2014

Yes! That was the plan. Britain is an interesting example because they have a parliamentary system, too—the most interesting example to me is Israel, which has had over 200 different parties in the Knesset in the past 50 years. Because the president is elected independent of the legislature, we the the phenomenon of divided government. The Founders' goal—to prevent drastic changes from happening quickly—worked a little too well. The US does not need the executive and legislative branches to form a coalition to get stuff done; instead, they focus on why the other guy is preventing everything. However, a few states have opted to divvy their electoral votes proportionally among the presidential candidates. Imagine how the electoral landscape would shift if California, Texas, and New York gave electoral votes proportionally.

I often hear people trumpet American Democracy as one of the best and finest government systems in the world. So, I ask them this: "Why is it that, in every country that we conquer/invade/assist and help draft a constitution, the US has not advocated for a system such as ours?" Is it that it only works because we are amazing? Or that no one else could handle its awesomeness?

I kind of like the French semi-presidential system: a parliamentary system where parties form coalitions and elect prime ministers and a directly-elected president.

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