Sticks and stones may break your bones, but labels like “liberal” and “conservative” will drive you crazy.
In the tempestuous political world we live in, no two words evoke more passion and emotion than do “liberal” and “conservative.” Maybe the reason for this is that no two words in the political lexicon are so misunderstood and ill-defined. Despite the passion of their feelings, most of those who classify themselves as either liberal or conservative have a difficult time enunciating a clear meaning of the terms. (Some who are defensive about being tagged as a liberal substitute the code word “progressive.”)
Using a single word – liberal or conservative – to define the concepts behind them is like trying to use one word to describe the attributes of beauty. Just as the idea of “beauty” means different things to different people, so too do the terms “liberal” and “conservative” mean different things to different people. If a single word is used to define a concept or philosophy in the political world it is done with the assumption that all issues are clear and can be quantified as either “red” or “blue.” This may be effective for the simplistic concepts of an election campaign, but the real world is a world of shades and nuance and boxing in concepts with a single word is not effective when it comes to leadership and governing.
A Rose by Any Other Name . . .?
For all the spitting of political venom that is prevalent it politics today, it may be hard to believe that there is actually little difference in the core beliefs and objectives of liberals and conservatives. Both desire for people to be assured of individual freedoms, equal opportunity and equality in society. What triggers such an emotional debate between liberals and conservatives is not the end objective, but in how the objective is achieved.
For example, the liberal believes that the purpose of government is to actively assure that the individual has equal opportunity and equality with others. The conservative believes that virtually any action of government that impacts the lives of individuals, no matter how well-intended, is an impediment to individual rights.
This is not a new debate. In fact, it was the core issue during the formation of the American government. Thomas Jefferson and James Madison were the “conservatives” who viewed the formation of a strong, central government as a threat to individual liberties. Alexander Hamilton and others, with the tacit support of none other than George Washington, played the role of “liberals” when they argued that a failure to form a strong central government was a threat to individual liberties. Go figure! In a letter to Hamilton, Washington railed against, “narrow-minded politicians under the influence of local issues who would selfishly block a strong and energetic government under the guise of protecting the individual.” Sound familiar to today’s debate?
In an example as to why debates between liberals and conservatives are not so simple or clear cut, Hamilton favored a strong central government “to protect the rights of individuals” because he did not trust in the ability of individuals to make the decisions for themselves. Hamilton and other Federalists of the day believed that unrestrained or unregulated individual rights would lead to anarchy and indeed the loss of individual rights. Jefferson actually shared Hamilton’s views on individuals, but felt that a little anarchy was a good way to keep government under control. As Jefferson famously said, “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.”
To see how silly and confusing the extremes of liberal and conservative philosophy can degenerate, one only has to look to the light bulbs in your home. No one would ever suggest that George Bush or the Republicans in Congress were liberals. Yet, in 2007 they crafted, and President Bush signed, the “Light Bulb Freedom Act of 2007.” The law mandated standards of higher efficiency for light bulbs. These were standards that incandescent bulbs – little changed since invented by Thomas Edison in 1879 – could not achieve. As a result, individuals would be forced to buy the newly invented “curly fluorescent light bulbs.” Bush and the Republicans pushed the law as a way to save nearly $6 billion a year in energy costs by 2015. Now this law has become a cause célèbre for Tea Partiers and Republicans in Congress.
Forgetting (or ignoring) that it was Bush and other Republicans who championed the “light bulb law,” these groups now cite the legislation as a classic example of liberals overreaching efforts to encroach on individual liberties by having the government stick its nose where it does not belong. For them, forcing individuals to buy “ugly curly little light bulbs” is akin to regulating the activities of business and forcing people to purchase health insurance. Do you see how silly this debate can get? (Of note, a GOP bill to repeal the “light bulb law” failed last week in Congress by a vote of 233-193.)
This is just another example of the problems and confusion that can result when one attempts to define and live by a rigid, dogmatic definitions of liberal and conservative. As we witness and suffer from today, this attitude pushes people to extremes, inflames passion, inhibits compromise and creates stagnation in government. The real problem is that extremists on either side do not ascribe good intentions to the other side and this makes compromise virtually impossible. (This attitude is exemplified in someone like Michele Bachmann who proudly proclaims that, “under no conditions will I vote to increase the debt limit.”) The end result is that the objective sought by both liberals and conservatives – individual protections and liberty – is put at risk.
There are a plethora of examples of the dogmatic extremism on both sides that leads to a threat to individual liberty. Conservatives on the extreme see the very nature of government as an intrusive evil threat to the individual. They like to point out the inefficient and unprofitable nature of government, as if the nature of government is to make a profit. The extremes of the conservative philosophy reject any suggestion that the real purpose of government should be to perform the services and offer the protections wanted or needed by individuals that assures their individual liberty. The conservatives view virtually any regulation of business as an abrogation of liberty and nothing short of “cruel and unusual” punishment. (As if the constitution gave corporations the same rights as individuals.) And, we all know what happened when certain key regulations on banks and investment firms were repealed.
On the other side of the coin, the liberals on the extreme believe the nature of government is to guarantee that no one is in need and to solve the problems of all. This leads to a belief that government knows what is best for the individual and to the conviction that government can and should do all for everyone. The liberals of the extreme do not credit individuals with the ability to make decisions in their own best interests and seek regulations that go beyond monitoring and setting guidelines of business activity and to regulators who believe they “know best” what products and services the consumer should buy.
As the success of American government has proved, the way to resolve our problems and protect our principles of individual liberties is to move toward the center and not push for the extremes. To continue this path of cooperation, we don’t need the extremes of liberalism or conservatism; we need leaders with the practical approach of dyed-in- the-wool pragmatists.
If the extremists at the Constitutional Convention of 1787 had prevailed, the objective of forming a workable new government would have failed. America would have never achieved its potential and individual freedoms would, in all likelihood, have been lost in a world of anarchy and tyranny. Fortunately the pragmatists prevailed. Neither extreme – Federalist or Republican – was entirely satisfied with the way the objective was achieved, but they were happy that it was achieved. And, that is the essence of pragmatism. Today we could use a little less of the rigid liberal and conservative talking points and a lot more pragmatic willingness to focus on what it is we all seek to achieve.
And the Moral of the Story …
In his acceptance speech for the 1964 Republican nomination for president, conservative Senator Barry Goldwater argued that, “Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice.” Such simplicity was an effective mantra to rally the emotion and support of the true extreme believers, but it was wrong. With all due respect, when the objective to be achieved, i.e. individual liberty and equality is agreed to by all, and the only debate is as to how the objective is best achieved, then extremism on either side is no virtue. Only when that light bulb goes on in the thoughts and actions of our leaders will our future continue to be bright.