I don’t know whether I’m right about any of this. Let’s get that straight right off the bat. But here’s what I’ve been thinking about, and it may be too long to bother editing, so please forgive the typos and unclear language.
The more I read history, the more I see that people are similar throughout the ages. There just don’t seem to be that many different types of people, and there aren’t even that many different ways of looking at major issues. Lately, I’ve been thinking about liberal thought vs. conservative thought.
When the Depression hit the U.S., there were people who agreed with paying taxes in order to create welfare programs and food stamps and all sorts of extra jobs. And there were people who fought against those programs tooth and nail.
And the arguments from conservatives weren’t very different from some of those you hear today. “Why should my money go to pay for other people? I’m sorry they’re poor and broke, but what does that have to do with me? Maybe if they had made better decisions, gone (or stayed) in high school, or worked harder, they’d be better off. In any case, I worked hard for my money, and the government shouldn’t take it away. I’ll give to charities as I please, but I don’t want the government to decide how to spend my money.” And I bet they talked about “personal responsibility.”
When people started agitating for safer working conditions, there were people who fought against that, too. And their arguments surely included some that are familiar today.
“People don’t have to work at unsafe places if they don’t want to. They can quit and go work somewhere else. That’s their choice. No one is forcing them to take these unsafe jobs.” And “the market will sort it out, because the really unsafe places will lose money (as people die or get sick), so the businesses will start to be safer.” And “if we force businesses to pay these costs, then they’ll be less competitive on the world market; also, they’ll have to have fewer employees, thereby slowing down the economy.” And “forced safer work conditions is actually bad for regular folks, because businesses will not be able to afford to pay them. People will lose their jobs.”
When people started agitating to get kids out of coal mines, the reaction from conservative thought was similar. (Of course, many regular families wanted to keep their kids working as well, to help put food on the table.) In short, the more we restrict business, the worse it is for everyone.
The same goes for public schooling. “Why should I have to pay so that other people’s kids can get an education?” State colleges? Again, don’t tax me to pay for that stuff. Let me keep my money and I’ll pay for my own kids. Charities can cover the poor, and if I have my own money, I can decide which charities to support.”
Social Security. I get that it’s in trouble, but it never would have existed in any form if the conservatives of the day had been able to win the fight. Medicare. Same thing.
Seat Belts. “We shouldn’t force the auto industry to install seat belts. It costs more money, and therefore fewer people will be able to afford cars. This is bad for regular people. On the other hand, if people want cars with seat belts, then they can vote with their dollars to buy cars that have them. Cars without them won’t do as well, and the market will prevail. The government shouldn’t intervene.”
The minimum wage. Well, I don’t have to list the arguments against having a minimum wage, because they’re the same ones we hear against raising it.
Women’s suffrage. Do you think it was conservatives or progressives who fought to give the vote to women?
Civil Rights. “Why should states be forced to allow black people to eat in a diner, or ride in the front of a bus? States should be able to do what they want, as long as it’s not specifically stated in the Constitution that they can’t. And not only that, but blacks and whites just shouldn’t mix anyway.”
Democracy (including freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and the rest of the Bill of Rights).
So now for my commentary, which I’ll keep pretty short.
What I think is interesting about all the stuff above is that (excepting for certain Libertarian thinkers), most conservatives I run into are happy about the outcome of the stuff above. Mostly, they’re pleased with civil rights, seat belts in cars, public education, and even democracy.
Most conservatives would agree that safe working conditions is a good (maybe even essential) part of the American experience.
My friend Jen wouldn’t want to raise taxes to help the poor, yet she says that FDR is one of her favorite presidents because he helped so many people in the Depression. Somehow she can admire FDR for doing things that she would vilify a president today for doing.
Most conservatives wouldn’t vote to raise the minimum wage, but most wouldn’t vote to eliminate it either. But I bet they would have screamed bloody murder when the liberals and FDR made it law in 1938. I bet they would have argued that it was going to kill business and therefore hurt everyone.
In short, when I look back at liberal victories in the past and apply them to current debates, I feel that I’m on the right side of history.
At some point, for example, gays will have the right to marry. And there will be healthcare for everyone. Facts will be taught in school without people forcing myth as history and wishful thinking as biology.
Barring some kind of devastating event, like war, or nuclear accidents, these things are historically inevitable. And when my grandkids look at me with wonder that it was ever any other way, I’ll know which side I was on.