Liberal and Conservative – Stuck in the Same Swamp?

Over time, multiple administrations, Democrat and Republican, presumptively liberal and conservative respectively, have brought our society into a generally unhappy place. Polls show that most Americans feel our current state is not good and that we’re headed in the wrong direction. Most also sense that we’re where we are because of things we did or didn’t do, not because of external forces.

According to economist and philosopher Thomas Sowell in his book “A Conflict of Visions,” an individual’s world view, if, say liberal, will nevertheless contain some elements of conservatism and vice versa. Our world views do spread over a spectrum from far conservative to far liberal. What an individual’s world view is, may be (but seldom actually is) a result of conscious, objective intellectual effort. Most often it is built up almost subconsciously from influences of family, school, mentors, peers, personal experiences and how our own particular human nature interprets and internalizes these influences. As a consequence I believe that most of us are, in effect, emotionally conservative or liberal or wherever we are in between.

“I know what I know
And what you say just ain’t so,
I can’t tell you why,
It just feels like a lie,
Argue with proofs and facts galore,
I know what I know just as before.”

Even so, conservatism and liberalism have intellectual roots and these roots shape the  responses to cultural and political issues.

Liberalism (or, more accurately, Progressivism).
In the late 1800’s American intellectuals adopted a particular interpretation of German Hegelian philosophers (I mention this as a historical point of origin, not because I could explain Hegelianism) to address contemporary issues:

  • A corrupt Civil Service
  • The negative effects of:
    • industrialization
    • lazziez-faire capitalism
    • robber barons & monopolies
  • Labor exploitation

Applying Darwinian evolution to societal issues, progressives thought that humanity had evolved since the founding of the nation and consequently the founders’ views and modes of thought no longer applied, contrasting their evolutionary view with what they saw as the founders’ outdated static Newtonian mechanistic view.

At any rate, the progressive’s solution was that a strong centralized administrative state authority is needed to manage the complexities of the new industrial age. Key threads of progressive thought are illustrated in the following quotes.

On Individual Rights. Frank Goodnow (“The American Conception of Liberty” 1916) (Also Politics and Administration,”  1900)

“In a word, man is regarded now … as primarily a member of society and secondarily as an individual. The rights which he possesses are, it is believed, conferred upon him, not by his Creator, but rather by the society to which he belongs. What they are is to be determined by the legislative authority in view of the needs of that society. Social expediency, rather than natural right, is thus to determine the sphere of individual freedom of action…”

On the Concept of the State. Woodrow Wilson (“What is Progress?” 1913)

“It proposes that all idea of a limitation of public authority by individual rights be put out of view, and that the State consider itself bound to stop only at what is unwise or futile in its universal superintendence alike of individual and of public interests. … no line can be drawn between private and public affairs which the State may not cross at will…”

About the Administrative State. Woodrow Wilson. (essay “What Can be Done for Constitutional Liberty”, Mar 21, 1881)

“An intelligent nation cannot be led or ruled save by thoroughly trained and completely-educated men. Only comprehensive information and entire mastery of principles and details can qualify for command.”

This notion is clarified by an later essay, “Government by Debate” written in 1882 where he contended that large parts of the national administration could be immunized from political control because the nature of the policies it made were matters of science as opposed to matters of political contention (from “Natural Rights Individualism and Progressivism in American Political Philosophy: Vol. 29, Part 2”, p 331, U. of Cambridge, 2012)

In short, government runs life for the good of all.

Conservatism or Classical Liberalism has a longer history

The most succinct distillation of classical liberal principles is in the Declaration of Independence:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness, That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, …”

The following amplify the nature of government and the purposes of the Constitution. In “The Federalist No. 51,”  James Madison wrote,

“If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself.”

Attributed to George Washington,

“Government … Like fire, it is a dangerous servant, and a fearful master.”

Abraham Lincoln wrote in a “Fragment on the Constitution and the Union 1861”, from The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln,” ed. Roy P. Basler, volume 4 (Rutgers University Press: New Brunswick, NJ, 1953), pp 168-169

“The assertion of that principle, [in the Declaration of Independence] … has proved an ‘apple of gold’ to us. The Union, and the Constitution, are the picture of silver, subsequently framed around it. The picture was made, not to conceal, or destroy the apple; but to adorn, and preserve it. The picture was made for the apple — not the apple for the picture. So let us act, that neither picture, or apple shall ever be blurred, or bruised or broken.”

In short, the minimum necessary government to protect a civil society.

Many who see themselves as liberal or conservative, are not well acquainted with the roots of the worldview they have – which was certainly my case.

Summing up Classical Liberalism and Progressivism

Both views recognize the need for government. The focus of Progressive thought has been to design government to solve problems and manage affairs for the common good, whereas the focus of Classical Liberal thought was too design government to deal with human nature while leaving individuals free to manage their affairs.

Both views have inherent problems or challenges.

Problems with the Progressive view:

  1. Wilson’s description of rule by “thoroughly trained and completely-educated men” neglects the equally necessary requirements for disinterested wisdom and moral and ethical standards. Since Wilson’s day, no party or administration has effectively defined a means (or even tried to, really) to screen out all but those who are both technically and morally qualified and possess the requisite disinterested wisdom to be the largely independent (and unaccountable) administrators their vision calls for.
  2. The progressive vision for government necessarily includes espousing efficient command and control of complex systems such as housing, financial, health and other markets. But such a capability has never been successfully established. Rather, the consequences have tended to be corruption and cronyism (largely due to problem 1) and/or the creation of burdensome overhead costs that degrade efficiency and effectiveness. The 18th century economist Adam Smith asserted that complex social institutions (markets) can evolve without a directing intelligence. While this has been shown to be true historically – and in nature – the progressive alternative has yet to be.
  3. Power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely. We know it, we just like to forget it. A consequence of this truism is that progressivism is strongly attractive to the avaricious and power hungry for its legitimizing of concentrated power can provide a cloak of legitimacy to their ambitions. The progressive vision offers no mechanism to control this.

Problems with the Conservative view:

  1. When the founders designed our constitution with independent branches, it was in the hope that members of each branch would be sufficiently jealous of their own power to actively keep the other branches in check. Clearly it’s not foolproof. Politicians of both parties concede there has evolved a “Washington establishment” of corrupt, special interest oriented cronyism and regularly promise to “take it on.” Like the progressive view, the conservative view is faced with the problem of power corrupts.
  2. The conservative view imposes great responsibility on the people. The problem this presents is perhaps well expressed by John Adams in a letter to the Officers of the First Brigade of the Third Division of the Militia of Massachusetts Oct. 11, 1798.

“Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”

To the degree that the citizenry drift away from this quality and to not share a common moral framework, they will tend to:

  • Show less personal accountability
  • Exhibit more self-centeredness
  • Succumb to the temptations of unearned benefits
  • Allow exploitation of others
  • Erode the conventions of a civil society with a consequent inability to openly debate and discuss issues
  • Allow themselves to drift in ignorance (not just ourselves – we are allowing our educational system to institutionalize it). As to this last, survey data show that:

24% of 18-24 year old voters did not know where the candidate they voted for stood on issues they cared about
40% of 18-29 year olds don’t know who we gained independence from
70% of Americans know what the Constitution is but a much lower percentage can even rudimentarily describe it

Getting out of the Swamp

So here we are, each standing somewhere between two incompatible world views on proper governance both of which have problems in implementation that, if they are surmountable, the means are as yet unknown or at least unproven. And this begs a question – how well does our own particular world view represent reality? Where is the truth? Surely it is incumbent on us to try and answer that question before jumping to firm conclusions about particular issues.

An approach that works but is difficult because you have to push your feelings aside is to – like a lawyer – learn to argue the other side. Talk to people who lean opposite. Remove yourself so as to not compete to win an argument, but to understand both your view and the other’s. The really hard part is this: you have to be willing to have you views tested, and if they fail, be willing to modify them. But, by grasping the strengths and weaknesses of each view, truth can possibly emerge.

Thomas Jefferson and John Adams were close friends. Jefferson was an anti-federalist and Adams was a federalist. They became estranged over their clashing political views, but later renewed their correspondence and regained their friendship through trying to understand the others view.

This post was based on a talk given to the Bluff Point Community Center March 16, 2015
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