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Liberal vs. Conservative: The Fundamentals

Most of the debate among liberals and conservatives in the United States is over specific issues, but very little attention is given to the underlying ideals and principles behind these ideologies. We state our case to support or oppose this or that, and we argue with people who disagree, but we almost never bring the argument down to the underlying political attitudes behind our opinions. As such we often misunderstand or mischaracterize each others’ positions, and the result is deep political polarization and a virtual inability to find common ground with one another. I think that a discussion about the fundamental differences between liberalism and conservatism is well worth having.

First of all, we often seem to forget that the labels ‘conservative’ and ‘liberal’ are more properly attached to opinions than to people. I have many liberal opinions and a few conservative opinions as well. I’m comfortable calling myself a ‘liberal’ because most of my opinions are liberal, but we should always keep in mind that a person’s identity goes far beyond his or her political views, and most people have elements of both.

Second of all, we have to recognize that neither ideology is correct or incorrect, and that these aren’t so much ideologies at all but merely attitudes. There is no logical argument that liberalism is right and conservatism is wrong or vice-versa. They are just different ways of looking at things, and it’s purely subjective as to which way is superior.

So let’s look at what lies behind these attitudes. Forgive me if I mischaracterize something or leave something out. I was once more conservative and now I’m more liberal so I feel I have a good grasp of both points of view, but I’m going to be making broad generalizations and as such I’ll probably say some things about conservatism that not all conservatives agree with and some things about liberals that not all liberals believe. These are just the things I see as basic to both viewpoints.

I believe that the core of conservatism is the principle of personal responsibility. I’ll do my thing and you do yours, and we should both accept the consequences. If I work hard and earn a decent living, I shouldn’t have to give anything to you. It’s not the government’s job to make sure everyone is taken care of—it’s everyone’s job to take care of themselves and the government should just stay out of it. In a capitalist society there are bound to be winners and losers and if you wind up a loser it’s your own fault. You’re free to try again and if you do it right, you might win this time. But the winners don’t owe anything to the losers. The rich don’t owe anything to the poor. Everyone has the potential to get rich, so the rich are perfectly entitled to reap the rewards that they’ve earned. If people are suffering, the rich can help of their own free will by contributing to charities they believe in, but they should not have their money taken from them and distributed to those that the government decides should have it.

This is a perfectly reasonable point of view and I think many liberals would agree with a good deal of it. It only really runs into problems when taken to the extreme—a point I’ll get to later.

As for liberalism, the core principle is social justice. We should all be free to do our own thing, but there ought to be some outside authority to make sure we’re operating on a level playing-field. If you have more, you ought to be willing to share what you have with the less fortunate. I may work very hard but that’s no guarantee I’ll earn a decent living, so there’s nothing wrong with the government stepping in to help out. There’s nothing wrong with reaping the rewards of success, but people shouldn’t be punished so harshly for failure. The rich were able to get rich because they are operating in a society that allowed them to do so, in which case they do owe that society something and if they aren’t willing to give a little back of their own free will, society has a right to take some. We can’t count on the good-nature of the rich to alleviate peoples’ suffering, as most of them seem primarily motivated by greed and won’t share any of their wealth unless they’re forced to. Ideally, the government is of the people and by the people, so it’s the people who determine how to distribute the wealth of a society in a fair and equitable way.

I’m willing to bet that most conservatives would agree with a few of these premises, and a few might even agree with the underlying principle.

Because my views are closer to the liberal position I’ll offer what I see as the strongest objections to liberalism first, knowing that there are probably stronger arguments out there. Conservative readers should feel free to offer theirs.

In my mind, a conservative simply doesn’t accept the premise that working hard doesn’t guarantee a decent living. If you’re not earning enough to support yourself and your family, you’re just not working hard enough. Find a job that pays better or quit complaining. Maybe we need to take care of people with true mental disabilities, but you don’t need to be a genius to get a decent job and if you’re capable of getting one there’s no reason the rest of us should take care of you.

Furthermore, if you take liberalism to its extreme you wind up with fascism or some form of communism. If you want to start handing over power to a central government to distribute it as it sees fit, you risk putting too much power into too few hands. Furthermore, you stifle the growth of a society by eliminating the incentive to work hard. If everyone is entitled to a decent living whether they work hard or not, then obviously not many people are going to work very hard. That’s the whole idea of a ‘nanny-state’ that conservatives are always railing against, as for those who consider themselves hard-workers who’ve earned every penny they have, the fact that so many people are getting theirs for free is infuriating.

I have to confess to experiencing some of that outrage myself. I currently live in Germany, where anyone unemployed goes on “Hartz-4” and lives off the government. It’s not much money but it’s enough to live on comfortably and completely waste your life doing nothing productive at all. When I walk by these kids on the street who are perfectly capable of working but are instead sitting outside drinking beer all day and asking for change from passersby, I get really mad. Of course I’m not going to give you any money! I worked for my money—and not only that but I’m already giving you money through the taxes they take from me! I bought that beer you’re drinking! As a non-citizen it’s even worse because if I lost my job I wouldn’t be eligible for Hartz-4, so I’m paying into a social safety-net that isn’t available to me.

So there are legitimate objections to liberalism, and liberals would do well to acknowledge them often, as many conservatives believe we actually want a nanny-state and would be perfectly happy if our nation’s wealth were distributed evenly to everyone regardless of how much they contribute to the society that takes care of them. This is not what most of us believe, and we should be clear about it.

Now, I believe that conservatism is more objectionable. I’m a huge fan of the principle of personal responsibility, but I also think that we have a larger responsibility to each other. A wealthy person doesn’t earn their money in a vacuum—they are able to accumulate wealth due to the structure of the society they live in, and as such they should give something back. The CEO of a large corporation doesn’t run the company all by his or herself—there are thousands of people doing the work at the ground level. If the company is successful, why shouldn’t they benefit from the success as well? I understand that the higher you are on the decision-making chain the greater your share of responsibility for the company’s success, so it’s reasonable to pay yourself more, but not thousands of times more than the lowest employees. If all your lowest-level employees quit, you’d have nothing, so they ought to be fairly compensated for their contribution.

If everyone were good and compassionate with a strong sense of fairness, we wouldn’t need any outside authority to step in and make things more equitable, but the fact is that greed drives the system. When pushed to its extreme, conservatism leads to fascism the same as liberalism, only with the power consolidated in the hands of major corporations as opposed to a central government. Given the choice I’d rather the balance of power be tipped towards the government, as at least in theory the government is of the people whereas corporations exist solely for profit. Would you rather have a nanny-state in which the government provides enough money to live on for all, or a corporate-driven state in which everyone earns as little as the corporations can get away with paying them? A state in which unemployed people can survive quite comfortably, or a state in which unemployed people are simply screwed with nowhere to turn? One violates one’s sense of fairness, but the other violates one’s sense of basic human decency.

So if I’m going to err, I’ll err on the side of liberalism. One can accuse liberals of being too compassionate for others, but I’d rather be guilty of that than of being too inconsiderate of others, which is the accusation made against conservatives and often justifiably so. When you get to the heart of the matter, conservatives care more about themselves than they do about others, which is why I find they’re usually less willing to compromise or consider other points of view. Not caring about whether others can earn a living goes hand in hand with not caring what others think, which is why you tend to find much more hate and vitriol in conservative media and on the conservative websites.

Finally, it should be acknowledged that everyone’s opinions change over time, and it does seem to be the case that generally speaking the older people are the more conservative they get. This is quite understandable, as older people have already played the game and found that it can be won. Therefore, young people can play and win too if they do it right, so they should stop complaining.

But older people in America today should recognize that the game isn’t what it used to be, and that the odds are far more stacked against you today than they were before. Sure, intelligent people can probably still make a good living if they try hard enough, but they’ll have to work harder and earn less of a reward. Liberals have every right to highlight the areas where the system is rigged and the game is unfair, and shouldn’t be branded as socialists just for demanding a little more equity.

We should all recognize the virtues of the opposing political attitude and the weaknesses of our own. Some of our differences may be irreconcilable, but I think we can meet each other half-way on most issues. I believe that America is not nearly as polarized as it seems on the surface—we just spend so much time talking at each other and not enough time talking to each other. So let’s talk.

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