Liberal or Conservative

In even beginning to talk about promoting economic, social, and national ideals, especially in the modern American political landscape, the terms “liberal” and “conservative” almost immediately come to mind for most people. The question: “does so-and-so in the political scene or such-and-such a site or publication ‘lean to the left’ or ‘lean to the right?'” is very often the beginning, and, sadly, is all too often the end of many conversations on the subject of politics.

But these simplistic terms are obsolete.

The words “right” and “left” are just about as archaic and, in effect, as irrelevant in today’s political realm as are the long forgotten chairs to the right and left of the president of the French National Assembly of over two hundred years ago which precipitated their use. The fact that so many of us use such simplistic terms to define our ideals and positions is a sad commentary on the shallowness that we often allow to overcome our thoughts.

It’s a natural human trait to want to simplify complex situations and break issues down into categories for resolution. Such simplification often helps us solve our problems. But we make a mistake when we lump almost everything in our political world under one of two opposing terms. The practice is polarizing and divisive and does nothing to help us actually understand many of our most important issues or create real solutions to our biggest problems.

Fundamental and complex questions like: “How does Economics really work?” or “What faculties of human nature are glossed over too superficially either by Carl Marx on ‘the left’ or by Ayn Rand on ‘the right’?” or even “What was the real, lasting and long-term effect of that most recent war or item of foreign policy?” may be tedious. But to understand these things and actually accomplish something constructive regarding them in the real world requires more thought than a mere snap-judgment to throw them into the “liberal” or “conservative” camp and either vigorously support them or bash them into the ground with our emotions.

What do the terms “liberal” and “conservative” even mean anyway?

The dictionary definitions seem clear on the surface:

“Conservative” means holding to traditional attitudes and values, cautious about change, and inclined to preserve existing conditions and institutions. And it ought to be easy to understand why this could be seen by a great many people as a very good thing in America.  Our “traditional values,” supported by our Constitution, the most basic law of our land, include significant freedoms and opportunities. And under the label of “liberalism,” according to the dictionary definition, so-called “progressives” seem to promote the same thing: “favorable to concepts of the maximum individual freedom possible, especially as guaranteed by law and secured by governmental protection of civil liberties.”

But these simplistic definitions do not do justice to the complexities of reality in today’s world. For just a few examples:

On the economic front, “conservatives” say that they want to limit the size of government and federal spending. But “conservatives” generally also favor a strong military, which is by far the overwhelming majority of the “discretionary spending” of the federal government. So maybe they want to reduce what is currently in the category of “non-discretionary” spending. But very few of them are willing to promote the cutting of Social Security or Medicare or Medicaid for their large base of retired or elderly constituents, even though these together make up by far the largest part of this category.

What about social issues? How does “conservatism” and the promotion of small, weak, limited government reconcile with the stereotypical desire “on the right” to legislate various human behaviors and limit certain freedoms such as “gay rights”? And how pervasive are these desires “on the right” anyway? Can we really equate “the right” with the “fundamentalist” Christianity that is so popular in certain sectors?

Do arguments on the subjects of such things as the Second Amendment right to bear arms, racism, women’s equality, gay rights, and abortion even belong on the same discussion board together let alone permanently affixed to the name-tags of everyone in predetermined binary categories based on the simplistic labels of “right” and “left?”

And how about that term “liberal?” Classic liberalism is fundamentally founded on the principle of individual human rights. But this is a foundation that is claimed both by “the right” and “the left.” Socialism is labeled as “liberal” but doesn’t it necessitate a relatively larger and potentially oppressive government? What happens when you give government certain powers to promote one group’s economic “rights” potentially in favor of others?

None of these are simple issues. They all have multiple facets, affect different people in different ways, and have potential solutions along a continuum of choices.

Multiple False Dichotomies

In terms of political labels, on a continuum from Left to Right, Communism and Socialism are drawn on the left, while Capitalism is traditionally accompanied by Fascism and Nazism on the right, but just a bit farther out in the extreme in the same direction.

Astute observers often try to correct an obvious false dichotomy by saying that the real continuum of systems with these names is in degrees of government control. Their revised graphic looks more like this:

Totalitarian Control                                                                                  Complete Freedom
Communism         Socialism                                                           Capitalism         Anarchy

But all dichotomies are false to some degree, just as all simple graphics are too simplistic to truly represent what they claim to depict. The realities of the world do not fit neatly on a one dimensional continuum. And even on such a linear graphic, the true functionality of the various systems is more complex than the simple set of labels can show.

For example, although some people who promote the ideal of capitalism claim their natural right to be totally free of government interference, they apparently do not realize that capitalism cannot possibly work without a government. And when, in the extreme case, they complain that the evil of taxation allows the government to force them to fork over their hard earned money “at the point of a gun,” they do not take into account the benefits that they and a capitalistic system derive from the basic level of civilization that is enabled by those whose salaries are paid by their required participation in the funding of public services. At a very minimum, such things as enforced arbitration of contractual disputes and creation and enforcement of laws for the public good are absolutely fundamental to a capitalistic system and require some form of taxation to pay the salaries of the public servants.

There is no absolute and objective limit that can be defined by simple absolutist principles. Once you realize that the system requires some form and some amount of public taxation and spending, it then a matter of ongoing public discussion and debate over the diverse range of possible services that should be supported and how much to spend.

Our Stance

We ought to be just as wary of those who brazenly advocate “liberalism” and “progressivism” as those who cling staunchly to “conservatism.” Because one of the greatest lessons of the last century has been that those who lead the charge of “progress” do not always end up in a place that is best for those for whom they claim to advocate. Some of the worst totalitarian regimes in history have been installed by those who have claimed to be working for the sake of “the people.” And likewise, until we reach a state where there is universal agreement that everything is perfect, to promote the “conservation” of the status quo usually means to advocate for one faction of powerful interests against others.

While these pages will actively, and perhaps even aggressively, promote certain philosophies and ideals, it must be recognized that such activism cannot be neatly categorized merely as “militant liberalism” or “reactionary conservatism.” Each and every issue must be delved into and considered on its own merits.

For those who need a sound-bite sized label for efforts and ideals in the political realm, it has been suggested that perhaps we should coin our own term. Maybe what we want to do here could be described by such a term as vigilant rationalism. Because, in place of the emotional side-taking so pervasive in the political realm, it is rational consideration, based firmly in compassion and appreciation for life in the world around us, and bolstered by the strength and courage to stand up for our efforts to accomplish something constructive that we most wish to promote on these pages.

Or here’s another radical idea: How about if we just drop trite labels and look at each issue as if the issue itself, and the people affected by it, were what actually matter.