I often consider the ways in which conservatives and liberals think about what they see in the world. They do reflect two rather dramatically different ways of seeing the world, at least in general. Someone has said that a conservative is a person who has been run over by reality. I like that. The hard core facts of human nature, human wars, and human institutions and how they change, all tend to make conservatives want to preserve and care for the future by not radically altering the present. Change is welcome but we must have a carefully thought out prospect for true success.
The problem with this philosophy is that conservatives can become reactionary and oppose progress when it is needed. They can develop a complete aversion to change and this, in the end, is not good. Movements for American civil rights, to cite one important example in my lifetime, required a more progressive vision of how things could be truly different or real change would not have come. So conservatives will always need a big dose of this reality to balance their tendencies to conserve the past against seeking a better future.
Liberals, on the other hand, often seem to think that reality is what they want it to be. The facts do not get in the way of the solutions and philosophical assumptions. This temptation is to ignore, or even rework, the facts and then you can pursue an agenda based upon unproven and untested theses or radical visions of social engineering that have proven bankrupt in the past. It thus becomes easy for liberals to promote change and progress by making up facts as they go along or by treating facts as useful for the reality they envision and desire.
The second generation of the 1960s Civil Rights movement reflects much of this kind of liberal thinking in my view. By this approach we are locked into an ideology about race and change that is not working. The facts will simply not be allowed to confuse us.
Let me give two further examples.
First, consider the present energy crisis. Liberals say that we must find new sources of energy. I think they are right on target. But they refuse to allow us to pursue new drilling because of an oil spill that happened in 1969 off the coast of Santa Barbara, California. This spill so impacted the debate, and then other issues arose to deeply impact it even further, that now liberals see environmental issues in very black and white terms. For liberals this is an either/or proposition. For me it is a both/and equation. I want to protect the environment and create new sources of energy. But drilling within America, both onshore and offshore, is both desirable economically and necessary for national security.
It interests me that the same people who attacked President Bush for going into Iraq for their oil will now do nothing to help make America less dependent on foreign oil. To me the nonsense of this is so apparent but maybe I am missing something.
And have you noticed that since the public debate began about new drilling the per-barrel price of oil has dropped. There seems to be two reasons for this: (1) The futures markets look at what they think might happen. (2) The decrease in energy use lowers the price and there has been some decrease in use this summer, which is a good thing.
Another clear contradiction, at least to my mind, can be seen in another related illustration. Liberals argue that the oil companies with leases on western lands they are not presently drilling on should lose these leases. At the same time they say that we should not drill elsewhere. The simple fact is that oil companies will drill anywhere there is the prospect for real profit. They do not drill on these leased lands because the cost vs. profit equation does not justify it.
I inherited some family land in Arkansas last year. We have had an oil lease on this land for decades but they do not drill on our farm. The lease is worth less than a few hundreds dollars a year, hardly worth my time. The reason they do not drill is very simple. They would have to go much deeper, at much greater cost, to find oil and they have determined, so far at least, that it is not profitable to drill deeper. Now I would be excited if this changed but I doubt that it will. Why? The profitability factor has to change.
When liberals talk about cost and profit they generally do not understand how the market actually works. I wonder if such people have ever run a business of any sort and if they understand how and why people make economic choices the way they do. And the Christian Left has so demonized capitalism that you would think it is the Great Satan. I asked a prominent critic of our economy, a person on the "evangelical left," about this once. I said: "What economic system best offers hope to people in Africa and Latin America?" He said, "Some kind of free market system." I was stunned since his public statements sounded like socialism time and time again. I concluded, very simply, that many people are just badly confused and ill-taught about this subject. Christian ministers are not immune to this poor thinking.
Second, liberals say that we should protect the environment. I agree. However, many of them want to protect it for all the wrong reasons. Still, I agree with their basic argument. For many liberals environmental issues have become a dogma of faith. (Yesterday, I saw a shop in my town called: “Its Our Earth.” No Christian should ever conceive of such a pagan notion.)
So how should we approach this issue? With care and a real determination to conserve while at the same time we pursue new approaches that are tested and can be found to be both environmentally wise and good for the economy. Why must these two ends be radically separated? As a Christian I am deeply concerned about God’s command to care for the earth and to take stewardship over it. And as a Christian I also care about preserving the economy so that real people are not devastated by radical changes that will undermine our future and national sovereignty.
As an American I am grateful for people like President Theodore Roosevelt who made a huge difference in preserving national lands and treasures. But this does not mean we should settle for the now worthless Kyoto protocols. As a conservative I think Kyoto was a disaster. But I do not see Kyoto as the only way that we can protect our earth. Why must we make this treaty the only way to pursue the solution?
Furthermore, I think the whole debate about global warming is fraught with assumptions and questions that need much more careful reflection about real solutions than most liberals are willing to consider. They often seem much more interested in creating panic than it offering workable approaches. (Have you noticed how many conservatives are now talking about the environment?) For radical liberals this issue of global warming has become a virtual mantra of religious faith. If we buy into their apocalypticism on faith and jump into the crusade to save planet earth then they will be pleased. If we do not sign on then we are “flat-earth” people of the worst sort, especially if we are Christians.
So I think we need to gain a perspective by which we can judge what reality is and is not. And this perspective should not be determined by state-sponsored agencies and bureaucrats. I believe the less the state controls in our day-to-day lives the better for us all. This makes me a conservative but it does not mean that I am heartless, dull or reactionary.
While liberals are concerned, generally speaking, about outcomes conservatives are much more concerned to protect personal freedoms. Unequal outcomes make liberals want to alter the social situation so that this will not happen. Conservat
ives want to support the fre
edom of opportunity and thus not try to manage the outcomes. This is why a liberal view of government wants to expand the role of the federal government so that wealth and opportunity are spread around more evenly. Conservatives believe this all leads to the loss of freedom and thus the violation of human conscience and personal responsibility.
The perspective we need, as conservatives, encourages the government to be the government and no more. But we also need people to care for people. These two do not easily line up. Government cannot replace people. In fact, more government often destroys the human element and stops people from taking initiative in serving others. It is still people within local communities who do charity the best. And the best government is always local government. This is where you live and this is where most solutions should be found. The government that is of the people and by the people is the best, not the government that is vast, huge and bureaucratic. I moved back and forth about some of this thinking over four plus decades of my life. I was a conservative as a teen and then moved left of center, slightly. But then I watched, read and thought much more over the course of many years. The fact is this: Reality has mugged me at this point in my life and forced me to be a conservative. I am reluctant at times to say so but now you can at least understand why.
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John what I like about your writing in general is that you often really give the other side the benefit of the doubt and try to read them at their best. This post does not do that.
You accuse all liberals of not understanding economics and all conservatives of understanding it. There are many examples that contradict this.
I understand your issue with the environment and oil drilling. I even agree with much of it. But a significant part of the conservative world wants to ignore science and say that we should burn as much oil as we can. So conservatives are not all right on this issue either. (By the way your comment about “Its Our Earth” doesn’t make sense to me. I thought God charged us with caring for the earth. Why is it pagan to claim responsibility?)
Basically I continue to be liberal, not because I think that we have all the right answers (many liberals have many wrong answers), but because I have hope that things could be better if we continued to work for them to be better. I see it as part of my Christian responsibility to bring about as much good in the world as possible. Not because I believe I can save the world, but because I believe that God has commanded us to work for the good of the world in His name. Therefore we must have hope and we must continue to work. I know that we will continue to have different opinions about how to achieve good, but I also know that you really want to see good achieved. So I will continue to read you and learn from your thoughts. I just hope you will continue to give our ideas the benefit of the doubt as well.
This is really interesting… I like to think I’m neither liberal nor conservative, but I suppose I had not conceived of those categories as philosophies (rather I tend to view them as a system of ideals). This is probably why I cannot seem to get behind any one political party or candidate. Good food for thought.
I really appreciate your post on this subject. Although I don’t always agree with the titles “liberal” or “conservative,” politically and ideologically speaking, I could never subscribe to what liberals stand for—it would go against most everything I believe as a Christian. When it comes to issues such as the environment, or gay marriage, or abortion, my conscience would not allow me to buy in to the liberal agenda. And when it comes to economic matters, the preamble to the Constitution says it’s well: “promote the general Welfare.” Government has a duty to help businesses to grow and become profitable; because when that happens, everyone benefits.
“Conservatives want to support the freedom of opportunity and thus not try to manage the outcomes.”
–this is true only if the outcome benefits their personal interests.
Your description of liberals, which is pretty dead on, also describes the far right/libertarian fringes, in dealing with the theoretical, ingoring reality and lying in many cases about facts(such as Iraq, Islamic History, national security etc.). Both the Liberals and fringes are disconnected from reality.
further, Libertarians are radical Individualist and do not beleive in the other end of the equation of Liberty…Community Liberties. Which is an area Liberals should be able to better articulate than Conservatives in theory, and needs to be explained…..i.e. “don’t have the freedom to scream fire in a crowded theater, that infringes on others rights”. Just as you don’t have the Freedom to hijack airplanes with box cutters and turn the airplane into a Missle for 72 virgins. The Govt. has a responsibility to prevent this, and secure the Liberty of the Community which by extension secures Individual Liberties that we still have. Libertarians do not understand this, or reality.
Andrew McCarthy’s book, “Willful Blindness” is a must read
Perhaps G.K. Chesterton could set us straight this election: “The whole modern world has divided itself into Conservatives and Progressives. The business of Progressives is to go on making mistakes. The business of the Conservatives is to prevent the mistakes from being corrected.”