Some Recent Thoughts on Liberals and Conservatives

Two books I’ve recently encountered (The Captive Mind and To the Finland Station) have got me thinking about the roots of liberalism. I don’t really have thoughts on the roots of conservatism (I wish I did), but I want to write some conclusions I’m arriving at with regard to American conservatism. In this thread, I want to jot these thoughts down, and use this space as a way of working out these ideas.

2 thoughts on “Some Recent Thoughts on Liberals and Conservatives

  1. Rough notes:

    The Enlightenment results in reason and science triumphing over and supplanting religion. Generally speaking, the liberals are those that embrace this triumph–that is, they reject Christianity and with high confidence in reason, mathematics and science, they take on the challenge of constructing social, political and economic systems that will build a good society. In the 19th century, creating a system that would rectify inhumane treatment of industrial workers seemed like the major challenge that prevented a good society. For many (all?) liberals , socialism was the answer.

    I also get the sense that for liberals, humane treatment of human beings, as well as respecting civil liberties of individuals, drove many or most liberals–and that this was a key feature of a good society–versus conservatives who may focus on stability, order, and security.

    Again, socialism seemed to be a key way of achieving this….Actually, socialism is not a distinguishing feature of liberalism so much as the underlying premise–namely, that systems, institutions, or processes (created by humans–versus directed and inspired by God and the Church) could and would be the means of solving critical social problems. To this day, I think this is key belief for most liberals and progressives.

    On the other hand, conservatives differ from liberals because they don’t have the same level of faith in those systems, etc.–at least in theory. Indeed, to this last point, I tend to think this belief is merely a rationalization conservatives use to disguise the real motives–namely, to protect the money of the affluent. That is, even if one could prove that these systems could effectively improve society, conservatives would still oppose them because they don’t want to pay for them.

    In 2021 America, I also think conservatives will attack institutions like the government (or even socialism) because they associate it with liberals/progressive/Democrats. And opposition and antipathy towards these groups–wanting to see them lose–seems to be a driving force for conservatives.

    More later.

  2. Thoughts on Liberty

    Liberty and equality seem to be at the heart of liberalism, but what do either mean? I touched on equality, although not explicitly, in the previous post, and I will return to that subject later, but I want to address liberty. For most of my life, its meaning has always been vague and fuzzy for me. I feel like I’ve only recently developed a better grasp of the term.

    Liberty refers specifically to the freedom of the individual–to basically do whatever he or she wants…as long as these actions don’t deprive or infringe on the freedom of other individuals. “Individual” is a key word here. We can talk about liberty in terms of groups and large societies, but liberty, in either, seems to come down to individuals in either being free.

    But free from what? “Freedom” is another term that I couldn’t really grasp–specifically, in the context of justifying military action–i.e., “We’re fighting for your freedom.” The expression makes sense in the context of WWII, and maybe the height of the Cold War. If the Axis powers won the war or Communist countries far outnumbered liberal democracies, the freedom of American citizens definitely could have been in peril.

    However, in the post-Cold War world, because the existing (authoritarian) countries didn’t seem to pose a real threat to (taking over) the U.S., this rationale seemed less clear and persuasive (although that’s changed in recent years).

    I’m getting a little off topic here, so let me swing back to the question, “freedom from what?” My answer: freedom from government or a ruler. More specifically, individuals have areas where they control with little or no interference or infringement by a government or a ruler.

    Along with government and a political ruler, I also think many liberals, and civil libertarians, would include social institutions and even the larger society. That is, the individual–his or her happiness and freedom to live life–comes before institutions and society. The individual is more important than the group.

    But the individual, to the liberal or libertarian, is not only more important than a group or society, but at it’s core, I think liberalism places the individual above God or a higher power. Putting more faith and trust in reason, science, technology, and human knowledge and understanding, than in God is one expression of this relationship. My sense is that this relationship started in the Enlightenment and just continued today–at least among liberals and libertarians.

    What’s the difference between liberals and libertarians?

    This is a tangent, but this question came to mind. Off the top of my head, the primary difference seems to be their attitude towards social institutions and governments. Liberals seem to believe that both are important tools to create a more equal and just society–viewing both as vital instruments against oppression from the wealthy and powerful. Libertarians, on the other hand,view social institutions and government as greater threats than the wealthy and powerful. Indeed, I think they believe government poses the greatest threat to the individual, which is not an unreasonable position. Additionally, libertarians seem to think that the lack of inequality and social injustice are a function of either the failure of individuals or interference of government or social institutions.) Or maybe they believe that inequality and injustice is inevitable, and very little can be done about it. To empower government as a way to rectify this would not only be futile, but also increase the threat against the individual.

    Interestingly, while individuals have a central position for liberals, liberals are not indifferent to society–just the opposite really. Liberals want to solve serious social problems, the want to create a fairer and humane society, and they have faith in their ability and tools to do so.

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