Saturday, January 22, 2011

Scope for dialogue between liberal conservatives and conservative liberals

The word 'ideology' has negative connotations, associated as it is with the polarization of political opinion and consequent breakdown of social cohesion. But arguably we all have an ideology of sorts - a value-system related to social and political matters - implicit if not explicit.

Genetic and environmental influences all play a role in predisposing one towards the left, right or other putative dimensions on the political scale. And there is not much one can do about that, other than to be aware that such influences are potent. One should definitely not take one's social and political views to be self-evident.

Without denying the very real differences between them, intelligent liberals and conservatives can agree on a number of important things - for example, the desirability of good manners, the need for long-term fiscal planning and the need for some kind of system to assist those who have been afflicted by acute misfortune or who simply cannot cope.

Extreme views are problematic. It seems to me that those who hanker for some kind of revolutionary (or reactionary) apocalypse are beyond the pale, probably harmless dreamers and schemers, but just possibly dangerous. For there are dark depths in all our minds and sometimes one senses primal resentments (and psychological problems) behind the words and actions of extremists, whether they be loners or members of extremist groups.

So much of the trouble in today's world is based on ethnic grievances, and the kind of group-think encouraged by many supposedly oppressed groups feeds these resentments and easily erupts into violence.

I identify as a conservative, but, like many conservatives, I also draw on the classical liberal tradition. Unfortunately, the word 'liberal' has been effectively hijacked by those with 'progressive' opinions, many of which have little to do with the freedom of the individual (a commitment to which lies behind classical liberalism) and much to do with the machinations of advocates for 'oppressed' groups.

From my point of view, there is something very powerful and positive about the old liberal notion of blind justice - treating everyone simply as a person rather than as a representative of a group or class. I know all the arguments about unconscious bias and structural inequities, but identifying as oppressed, identifying with a particular oppressed group, is, I think, in most cases counterproductive to the well-being of the individual or family in question. I have the strong sense that those from disadvantaged backgrounds etc. who refuse to dwell on these matters and just get on with their lives are giving themselves a far better chance of success and happiness. Advocacy for women and various ethnic groups has become an industry in the West, and just who this industry serves is a moot point.

Despite inevitable differences between conservatives and liberals, the old-fashioned liberalism espoused by many conservatives creates the potential for productive dialogue between these liberal conservatives and old-fashioned - or conservative - liberals.


  1. hey =) i like your blog! you can visit mine if you want at


  2. Thanks Jennifer, I'll certainly visit your site.

  3. I have some principles (and if you don't like them, I have others).

    1. Above all, do what is required by justice. This is the overriding principle. (Contra utilitarianism.)

    2. Wherever possible, devolve power. This is the basis of federalism, syndicalism, anarchism, liberalism, and democracy. The main argument against it is based on the theory of public goods, which is also a sound principle.

    3. Help those who can't help themselves. This is humanitarian paternalism. Contra Rawls, it is not a principle of justice. Children and families get help under this principle.

    4. Don't help those who can help themselves. This is anti-paternalism. It is also classical liberalism.

  4. Mark, well thought out and interesting. I think the mantle of Liberalism has been obscured, and now belongs to conservatives.

    Alan, regarding #3, it seems to me the greatest conflict between left and right is what it means to help those who can't help themselves.

    For example, is giving $5 to a homeless man by the road helping him for now, but hurting him in the long run? Does affirmative action give the impression of immediate help to minorities, while placing them at a longer-term disadvantage? Does extending unemployment benefits indefinitely lead to longer periods of unemployment?

    The pattern I see is that the left focuses on short term help, while conservatives look to the long term.

    I don't mean to compare the GOP to Jesus, but isn't teaching to fish better than offering a fish today?

  5. Regarding #3, the problem has two dimensions, I think. One, what should be given to whom, without creating dependency? Two, should giving be voluntary or required (that is, taxation-funded)?

    For me, #2 takes priority over #3, so voluntary aid should be preferred to government aid, with the latter kicking in only when the former falls short.

    But in practice a sensible system is very difficult to achieve.

    Many countries violate #1, I think, by requiring transfers from the less-well-off young to the well-off elderly, so fixing that problem is a higher priority than solving the problem of #3.

  6. Thanks THR. I suspect you are right about the mantle of liberalism. I have some problems, actually, reconciling the liberal elements in my thinking with other elements; and I'm not optimistic about making my views satisfactorily explicit (which may be no great loss to the world!!).

  7. Alan, what you say is intriguing. Just a couple of points. You accept humanitarian paternalism in 3 and reject paternalism in 4, so hp good, p bad? Is that it?

    Justice is an ideal - how does one get agreement on it? I tend to agree with you that welfare is an issue of humanitarianism not justice.

    And would you agree that anarchism/syndicalism is extreme and unworkable (except perhaps in small communities)?

  8. Yes, some paternalism is admirable and some is deplorable; it depends of whether the object is really in need of help.

    Justice is one heck of an idea, so I'll bypass that one right now. Agreement is needed, though, and, as you imply, it is hard to get.

    All forms of devolution risk being unworkable, because (I think) workability depends on public goods, especially security of life and liberty. Anarchists fear that state power can never be safely allowed, but in many places it works OK, though imperfectly, if subject to community resistance. In some places state power is the problem, not the solution.

  9. Just a further note to say that Heathen Republican's link to the topic of unemployment benefits is exactly on the mark. Helping people is very difficult to do, because helping too much is so often counter-productive, and what counts as too little or too much is deeply contestable.

  10. I'm surprised, really, how much we all seem to agree on here!

  11. "... treating everyone simply as a person rather than as a representative of a group or class"
    ---I think, this is the whole meaning of treating people equally (sorry i cannot find a antonym of 'discrimination'). I used to think (still believe) that simply pointing out the differences of ethnic groups is not discrimination, but treating each person "as a representative of a group or class" is.
    Elegant thought and analysis.

  12. I appreciate your comments, yun yi. I think Western legal systems used to reflect this non-discrimination ideal very well, and they were respected. But with the proliferation of various new 'rights' and positive discrimination in favor of certain groups, people don't respect the law so much as they used to.