Liberal, Conservative. Two sides of the same coin.
In his op ed piece in today’s Washington Post George Will would make the case that the basis of today’s dominant political argument lies in the tension existing between the poles (and goals) of freedom and equality — conservatives being more allied with freedom, liberals with equality, or at least equality of opportunity if not outcomes.
Would that this were so! That a genuine and mature difference of political opinion animated the conflict between those on either side, left or right, of the center.
What is more probably the case is this: Those who have most to gain by being allowed greater independence and greater freedom of action will be on the right. Those who have most to gain by a greater dependence on government actions and programs for their own livelihood and security will be on the left.
In other words for most people the ages old and still fascinating argument between freedom and equality is now, and perhaps always was, only “livelihood deep.” The lottery winner who may very well have been a passionate government employee the day before will the day after become a passionate promoter of the free market. The fallen owner of a failed business, or the president of a savings and loan association, undone by his own policy of sub-prime loans, will both become zealous takers of government bailouts.
It may very well be true as Will says that the most powerful group of liberals are the public employees, those whose livelihood comes directly from the government. Accordingly, if we follow this same reasoning, the most powerful single group of conservatives would be those most removed from government entitlements, in particular entrepreneurs and the owners of small businesses.
But from saying that it’s a far cry to saying that the ones are passionate supporters of equality and the others of freedom. The arguments that thinkers like George Will make, for freedom on the one side and equality on the other, are not what drives the union members nor the business owners to support respectively, say, the liberal and conservative candidates. Again, their being on the side of one or the other follows much more from whence comes their livelihood.
Reason, that is, reasonable arguments on one side or the other, has never been what drives most men, although thinkers (and I too) would like this to be so. That it’s not so is not a secret. Not a generation has passed by that one writer or another has not bewailed the fact that most men’s actions do not spring from a well considered and well reasoned analysis of the situation.
Al Gore’s recent book, Assault on Reason, reveals the superficiality of his own thinking when he writes as if he had made an important discovery, this being the superficiality and unreasonableness of our leaders in Washington. Would that Al were right and that these times were exceptional and that we had only to return to a prior time or golden age in our history when our leaders’ actions and words were based on a well reasoned and persuasive analysis of the situation.
George Will himself, of course, is on the side of freedom. He is one of those who does not look to government for the solution. However, I think he overstates the case, in this case, his case against liberals. “Liberalism,” he says, “increasingly seeks to deliver equality in the form of equal dependence of more and more people for more and more things on government.”
The duality that Will highlights, that of freedom vs. equality, conservative vs. liberal, is neat and memorable, and continues to lend itself to endless although mostly sophomoric discussion. But a kinder and gentler view of the difference between liberal and conservative thought, and a more believable and just view of liberalism than that of Will, would be the following.
First of all freedom and equality concerns are not what most separates liberals and conservatives (assuming that true liberals and true conservatives do in fact exist). Liberals that I have known, Arthur Schlesinger and John Kenneth Galbraith, for example, would defend freedom no less than equality, and conservatives, William Buckley and George Will himself, would certainly place themselves very much in the camp of equality in regard to many current issues.
What separates these men is far more subtle than George Will’s freedom/equality tension or opposition. What separates them is the degree to which they would restrain, the one, freedom, and the degree to which they would promote the other, equality.
This is a difference of degree only. And in many situations they would probably find themselves defending the same position, such as the civil rights of Blacks and other minorities (making more government necessary), and school choice programs represented by magnet and charter schools (bringing about more freedom).
George Will makes liberals, who in his estimation are mostly looking for government solutions, thereby less admirable, than conservatives who, according to Will, look much more to individuals and individual initiatives for solutions. This is an unfair oversimplification and distortion of what is in fact a fully legitimate opposition between group and individual responsibilities. Both are necessary. Liberal and conservative positions are like all true oppositions two sides of the same coin. That which forces most of us to be in the center.Explore posts in the same categories: Political Science