Liberals & Conservatives & Change - Island of Sanity

Island of Sanity



Liberals & Conservatives

Liberals & Conservatives & Change


It is conventional to say that liberals favor change, while conservatives oppose change.

A little thought will show that this is a pretty useless criteria for classifying political positions. By it's very nature, it is highly transitory.

Suppose that today there is some group of people who oppose the present government's policies. So they favor change. By this definition, then, they are "liberals". The people who like the policies of the present government don't want change. They are "conservatives".

Suppose the liberals then win big in the next election. They take over all the major organs of government. Presumably they will then change all the laws to what they want. So at that point, this group now likes the existing laws. They want things to stay the same. The group that was formerly in power wants change -- back to what it was before. So the former liberals are now conservatives and the former conservatives are now liberals.

If the two groups battle back and forth, with sometimes this group taking power and sometimes that group, the definitions of "liberal" and "conservative" will switch back and forth constantly, potentially with every election. Well, in real life you can't change all the laws overnight, it takes time, so the definitions probably wouldn't really switch every election. But they would switch over time.

To a large extent, that is what has happened in the United States. Liberals have largely succeeded in implementing their desired policies, so now it is liberals who want to keep things as they are and conservatives who want change. Liberals want to keep social security just like it is. Conservatives want to privatize it. Liberals want to keep the present tax system, with much higher rates on higher incomes and all sorts of tax breaks for behavior that the government wants to encourage. Conservatives want a flat tax or a national sales tax. Liberals want to keep current abortion laws, which have very few restrictions on abortion. Conservatives want to change the law, to outlaw or restrict abortion. Etc.

Sometimes liberals reply to a point like this by saying that the only "change" conservatives want is to go back to the way things used to be. The only change they want is to undo change. Liberals are for the future; conservatives are for the past.

But the things that we argue about are debates that have gone on for centuries.

  • The ancient Spartans, circa 650 BC, didn't just tolerate homosexuality but celebrated it as the highest form of love.
  • Plato's Republic, written about 380 BC, describes his idea of an ideal society. It included strict government regulation of business and community responsibility for raising children, i.e. socialism. If anything, it is free market economics that is a new idea: it was first clearly described by Adam Smith in 1776.
  • The ancient Romans had welfare programs to provide for the poor. The biggest was called the "corn dole" and involved the government giving free food to the poor: their version of food stamps.
  • Abortion was practiced in ancient times. The Hippocratic Oath, written about 500 BC, was an ancient code of medical ethics. One of the terms is that the doctor swears that he will not perform abortions. So the practice was clearly known back then, and the fact that it is specifically prohibited in an oath implies that it was controversial back then. Abortion was generally legal in the United States until the 1880s, when a group of physicians campaigned against it. So in the U.S., at least, opposition to abortion is newer than supporting it.

Et cetera. One could go through many issues like this. It is often difficult to say whether conservative ideas or liberal ideas are newer. Both go back thousands of years.

It is certainly not the case that liberals are for technological progress and conservatives are against it. Conservatives want nuclear power; liberals generally oppose it. As I write this, a hot topic is fracking, a new technology for mining oil. Conservatives are for it; liberals are against it.

The only technology of recent years that I can think of that conservatives oppose is embryonic stem cell research. The reason conservatives oppose it has nothing to do with opposing change per se, but rather that it involves killing innocent unborn children. Of course liberals would say that they don't oppose fracking out of blind opposition to change, but because they fear it will harm the environment. Fair enough. So maybe neither side opposes technological change because they fear change, but for reasons specific to that technology.

When it comes to economic institutions, conservatives routinely say that if a company is going bankrupt, too bad, it should be allowed to fail. Liberals say that the government should step in to prop up failing companies to preserve jobs and economic stability. That is, conservatives want a dynamic economy where companies rise and fall as the market dictates. Liberals want a static economy where established companies are protected. Liberals are afraid of economic change. Conservatives embrace it as the engine of progress.

Of course there are laws and policies and social ideas that liberals don't like and want to change. If you want to challenge my assertion that liberals want to keep things the same by pointing out such examples, okay, fine. I suppose you could say that everybody wants change. There are very few people who believe that the laws and policies as they exist today are absolutely perfect, and that any change would therefore inevitably be bad because it would be a deviation from this perfection. Everybody else wants change. I'd argue that conservatives want more change and more dramatic change, while liberals idea of change is mostly more of the same, but admittedly that involves value judgements.

But clearly there are plenty of areas where conservatives want change, often very fundamental change. It is not that liberals want change and conservatives don't want change. At the very least both want change, just of different kinds and in different directions.

© 2014 by Jay Johansen


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