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.

13 Responses to Liberals

  1. Kevin November 20, 2006 at 11:31 am #

    Conservatives are “standing athwart history, shouting stop!”, to borrow a famous phrase.

    You’re absolutely right that many conservatives are now happy with the outcomes of previous conservative / liberal conflicts. In fact, if you look closely, you’ll see that some of the “Conservatives” of today, were actually the “Liberals” of yesterday. Charlton Heston marched with MLK. Ronald Reagan was a union president in California. But there comes a point in every man’s evolution where he says, “whoa, that’s a little farther than what I had in mind”.

    Gay marriage is a good example. There’s a lot of disagreement on the subject within the conservative community, with many favoring gay marriage. Why would a conservative favor gay marriage? Perhaps because she thinks that the battle is lost, that homosexual unions are being recognized within the workplace anyway, so maybe we need to codify this to keep other types of unions from slipping in while the door is open. Perhaps he thinks that the institution of marriage will have a stabilizing influence on an otherwise promiscuous culture that has extended it’s influence outside of the homosexual community.

    These are conservative arguments, because they’re organized around the idea of holding society back from radical changes. The conservative intellectual (Burke, Hume, Buckley, Bartley, etc) do not believe that society should never change, but that change should be organic, with proper deliberation.

    It’s not entirely true that you can know you’re on the right side of history by standing with liberals. What is now recognized as “conservative” thought was actually a response to the radicalism of the French revolution, a point where the Liberalism of the American revolution seemed to go “off the rails”. I do not believe that Robespierre was on the “right side of history”.

    Similarly, you talk about recognizing that “communism” just doesn’t work, but resisting communism was a conservative impulse. Many liberals felt on first impulse that it was “almost beautiful, in its simplest terms”. The difference between a liberal and a conservative is that the liberal says “let’s toss what we’ve got over the rail, because this new things sounds great!”, where as the conservative says “whoa, hold on, I know what we’ve got isn’t perfect, but this new thing looks pretty scary to me”. Karl Marx, I do not believe, was on the right side of history.

    The ERA was a big liberal push, but conservatives thought it was unneccesary (given the Equal Protection clause, and the 14th Ammendment) and potentially dangerous (because it moved a great deal of power from the States to the Federal level, specifically the judicial branch). Very few people think the ERA is still needed. Which side of history was right?

    To bring the argument into the present, you mentioned healthcare for everyone. That sounds nice, in the abstract, but you’re aware of some of the problems that have been encountered in Canada and the UK when the government took over as the provider of healthcare. Conservatives don’t oppose “healthcare for everyone”, they oppose systems that attempt to “immanentize the eschaton”, rushing willy nilly into a utopian scheme that can, predictably, cause a great deal of damage to our society.

    On your point that “facts will be taught in school without people forcing myth as history and wishful thinking as biology”, I agree, but I’ll point out that this street goes both ways. Both sides of the political spectrum have recognized the propaganda value of having a direct pipe into the minds of children. So, we get schools trying to teach “intelligent design” (brief summary: we don’t know everything, therefore we can’t know everything, therefore it’s God), but we also get “Climate Change” being taught as if everything about it, and what to do about it, is well-understood fact.

    Phil said “People don’t cooperate in order to find the best solution for everyone. They argue, instead, for their way, and their way only.” This is the Kantian Dialectic, and it’s worked for as long as civilization has been around, growing in importance the more power has shifted from royalty to citizens. We asymptotically approach the truth though debate, argument, attempting to frustrate each others objectives. Democratic systems are complex systems, like most sufficiently large markets. The interchange, the arguments, the pushing and pulling. It’s all required. Conservatives would have us all living like colonial Williamsburg if it weren’t for the liberals dragging us forward. Liberals would have us living in state provided barracks, taking our Soma as we wait around for a reproductive license so could have a single child, to be raised by a government agency, if it weren’t for conservatives holding us back.

    It ain’t perfect, but it works.

  2. Phil November 20, 2006 at 11:58 am #

    In some politics class I took years back I remember the professor defining “convervatives” as people who want to keep things the same. I objected back then, thinking that I was a conservative, and that many of the things that were going on at the time I wanted to change.

    But I understand better now. There is always a push and a pull. One person wants to go fast, and the other wants to slow down. And so there’s conflict and stonewalling. Often, if that “go fast” person will stop pushing so hard, the “slow down” person will want to speed up a bit.

    That’s generally not how things go, though. People don’t cooperate in order to find the best solution for everyone. They argue, instead, for their way, and their way only. And when they lose, they only begrudgingly admit when they’re happy with the results.

    I’d almost argue for compromise in all situations. “Might as well get it over with.” But come on… sometimes the best solution really is to do nothing. So I guess maybe the push and pull thing is OK.


  3. weeklyrob November 20, 2006 at 2:24 pm #

    And you know, I don’t want to say that the conservatives are all greedy or racist or something. I know for sure that a lot of them simply believe that their way is the best for the country and people.

    I think that their arguments are compelling in a lot of cases. But I just think that they must be wrong, because history tells me so. This is similar to Communism, which sounds almost beautiful to me when expressed in its simplist terms (from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs). But it just doesn’t work.

    And I’m willing to wait for history to catch up on some things. In fact, that’s kind of what I’m saying with this post. It may not be today, or this decade, but sooner or later it’ll happen.

  4. weeklyrob November 21, 2006 at 2:23 pm #

    I finally got Kevin to give a comment, and as expected, it’s well-thought out.


    I know that I’m standing on the right side of history on those items that I mentioned, not because I’m standing with liberals, but just because I think that theLiiberal stance on those items will end up being considered the right stance to have taken. I don’t have to think that Robespierre was right to believe that I’m right.

    While we’re on Robespierre, he was not the thinker of the French Revolution. He was himself a dictator, in fact. Just because he espoused rights for man doesn’t mean that he was a truly Liberal thinker. Tom Paine didn’t think so.

    My stance isn’t affected one bit by liars and thieves who pretended to believe the same kinds of things while they murdered anyone who threatened their power.

    The same goes for the people supporting monsters in the USSR and deluding themselves that they were helping mankind or the true left. Self-delusion isn’t a liberal thing, though in that case, it was mostly liberals who were self-deluded.

    As far as healthcare, I think that many conservatives DO oppose healthcare for everyone. They don’t ever want the government spending their money on people they don’t know. At least, that’s what I get from several conservatives that I talk to. Maybe we’re using the term differently. But to present it as a dichotomy of “willy nilly” liberals vs. clear-thinking conservatives is unfair.

    As far as facts in school, I was mixing stuff up a little too much. Ploitical conservatism doesn’t call for religious schooling, and it was my own annoyance that allowed me to muddle them. To draw a parallel with the self-deluded liberal, the fact that this is mostly perpetrated by conservatives shouldn’t make all conservatives guilty by association.

  5. Will November 21, 2006 at 4:32 pm #

    Perhaps I’m one of the libertarians that don’t hold that all of these acheivments were for the best, perhaps not. I think perhaps, that I think they would have inevitably come about by less destructive methods in time anyway. I’ll address a some of your examples and points first.

    Public Schooling: I don’t know if this has even been all that controversial. I suspect this is largely because it’s been handled as a local issue. Only as larger political entities have become more involved in recent decades has the issue of public schooling become politically controversial. All that said, it’s not at all clear that private education wouldn’t either step in or be available to most children if public weren’t at all available.

    Social Security & Medicare: I think it probably would be a better thing if they never had existed. They create an inaccurate and unhealthy attitude in our citizens. Further, if you’ve ever met anyone who subsisted on SS or who relied on Medicate for medicine, it’s quite clear they do a shoddy job of that too.

    Seat Belts: While it sounds foolish to say that certain people who now can’t, could afford cars if they didn’t have seat belts the point obviously has at least theoretical value. While seat belts probably don’t cost enough to generally make a difference, one has to assume that added costs in production must be reflected in added costs to consumers. Enough mandated added costs will price cars out of reach of some consumers. Further, I would imagine that this is a situation where eventually all cars would have had seat belts anyway.

    Minumum Wage: I think some of those arguments you mention have validity. We’ll never really know because we’ve had a minimum wage for so long. Once again though increased costs of production have to be felt somewhere: fewer employees, higher costs, less expansion, something.

    Civil Rights: There are broad political reasons that put what is typically thought of as the conservative party (though I would argue they are not conservative) on the side of the Southern “liberals” of the supposed liberal party. However, you state, “States should be able to do what they want, as long as it’s not specifically stated in the Constitution that they can’t.” It’s quite clear that the Constitution does not allow certain types of discrimination most especially by governments. It guarantees due process and equal protection under the law. That said, I think it’s also contrary to America’s interest and contrary to the goal of a pluralistic society to make it illegal to property owners to excersize tasteless and pointless discrimination in their property or enterprises. If pluralism works, and a multi cultural society is in fact more robust then those individuals and businesses should disappear over time as a result of their unoptimal decisions. Instead we bury those decision beneath law in effect allowing those who hold these beliefs to do so withouth repercussion.

    Basically, to address the main thrust of your discussion, I don’t think that just because one accepts the results of a policy as worthwhile on must, for consistency, support the means to that result. In most of the examples that you cite, I believe that if the Consitution had been strictly adhered to, these issues would have resolved themselves over time. As they did so by virtue of the ingenuity and free spirit of man we would be unecumbered with the governmental baggage that even today threatens our most fundamental freedoms and the intellectual integrity of our citizenry.

    When I look back through history I see a series of problems that mankind has overcome. I see the solutions we have chosen to address those problems, often from a variety of solutions that were likely to solve the immediate problem itself. I think liberal ideology has frequently colored the choices that have led to less freedom for Americans.

    One further note:
    “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.”

    Gay marriage: While this has been framed as a liberal vs. conservative issue it really is not. The closest it comes is in the acceptance of the citizenry to allow the government to sanction its love matches with is essentially a liberal attitude. Accepting that that is a reasonable government function then allowing gays to marry would technically be considered a conservative standpoint resulting in less government intervention in who loves who and who is haveing sex with who.

    Healthcare for all: While laudable, I just don’t see how it’s possible. It’s a case specific of communism. Health care cannot be given to all and a high level of quality and efficiency. Give aways without responsibility are like that. Further health care costs. Health care costs a lot. Health care will continue to get more advanced and more expensive for the forseeable future. As sad as it is we don’t have a right to the most modern advances in medicine. One earns that right by ones ability to recompense those who make the advances and practice them. Changine that structure will change the very ability to make the advances in the first place. Now get government regulation out of the medical insurance industry, remove the FDAs illegal power to bar citizens from access to life saving medicines, and allow states to create their own health care policies for their citizens rich and poor, and you might begin to see some new ideas and refined approaches to delivering health care to all.

  6. JB November 21, 2006 at 6:38 pm #

    Seems to me like:

    a. Many conservatives are doing what Kevin says, without actually realizing it. When their mouths seem to be saying “I don’t want to help poor people” they are realizing the instinct to slow down the progressive urge in society. If only their mouths weren’t saying things that I find offensive, I’d probably be able to live with the dichotomy between liberals like me and conservatives like them. But my gay friends can’t get married, and that pisses me off.

    b. Sometimes, even though laws exist that cover a situation, you have to enact ANOTHER law that does the same thing but really REALLY does it. So, for example even though gun control could be achieved in large part by enforcing the laws that are already on the books, my friend Amy still gets robbed at gunpoint outside her apartment.

    c. My list contains emotion, and I don’t think that should be left out of a discussion– at least the recognition that these issues engender a LOT of emotion in people, and that will often override rational thought.

  7. Kevin November 21, 2006 at 7:24 pm #


    I don’t mean to tag you with the sins of communism & Robespierre, Rob. In fact, my intention is to dispute the whole way of thinking. You said you looked back at history and saw liberal versus conservative, and, by applying the same template to modern arguments, you feel that you’ll be on the right side of history. My point is that there is no template, there’s a dialectic, a sliding scale, and it moves back and forth (mostly forth) depending on context and history.

    Neo-Conservatives were once famously described as “liberals who got mugged by reality”. I would go further. Conservatives are liberals who woke up with a hangover. People are liberal until they’re not liberal anymore. Sometimes they change, and sometimes the context around them changes.

    Take for instance, animal rights. You say (and I agree) that we shouldn’t be unnecessarily cruel to animals during the farming process. Okay, let’s write a law. We debate as to what exactly is unnecessary, but in the end we find common ground between enough of us, and we get it all worked out. Now it’s a law, and you see it as a liberal achievement, because you advanced the cause of animal rights.

    Two weeks later, the debate has changed. I (a conservative) have conceded the point that some animal rights should be acknowledged, and now some of your liberal friends want more. Now they want to ban the consumption of meat altogether. “Whoa”, you think to yourself, “that’s farther than I wanted to go.” Guess what? Now you’re a conservative, in this context.

    The same goes for the minimum wage. Liberals want to raise the minimum wage because you can’t reasonably raise a family on minimum wage. A conservative argues “well, it shouldn’t be comfortable, it should be insufficient, you should feel the need to get out and do more than the minimum. Besides, won’t raising the minimum wage cause unintended consequences, like raising unemployment?” But, okay, let’s do it. But why stop at $7.00 or $8.00? Heck, we’re worried about people being comfortable on minimum wage, why don’t we make it high enough that the can afford a reliable car? And we want to protect the environment, so let’s make it high enough that they can afford a nice, new hybrid. Let’s say $25.00? How about $30.00? Are you still in favor? Do you think those unintended consequences might come into the picture now?

    We all draw lines. Some of us draw them in different places than others, based on complicated factors like personal history, faith, and just our general personality. In a complex, democratic environment like ours, that line is going to move back and forth constantly, seeking equilibrium. One day, one issue, you’re conservative. Another day, another issue, you’re liberal. We all have both impulses, some to extreme.

  8. weeklyrob November 22, 2006 at 12:48 pm #

    I can see that I wasn’t really clear in what I said, because both Will and Kevin summed it up differently from how I meant it.

    Part of me just wants to quote what I already said. I’ll give in to that part:

    “I know that I’m standing on the right side of history on those items that I mentioned, not because I’m standing with liberals, but just because I think that the Liberal stance on those items will end up being considered the right stance to have taken.”

    That about sums it up. Give it 50 years and get back to me. I bet that on 90% of what I think is important (my position on that sliding scale), your grandkids will agree with me.

  9. BruceS November 24, 2006 at 11:06 am #

    You, rob, must have known I couldn’t resist responding to this one. As a conservative, I can mostly say “what he said”, about Will’s post.
    To me, the fundamental credo of conservatism can be summed up as “government should be legal, limited, and local.”
    Firstly, it should follow the highest law, the Constitution, and evenly enforce laws on the books. The federal government has no legal right to most of what it does. For instance, the War on Drugs is inherently wrong. The convoluted reasoning used to justify federal laws regarding recreational drugs is unacceptable. There is no need for more gun laws. I bet JB’s friend was robbed because existing laws weren’t being enforced. Let’s examine which existing laws are illegal, and get rid of them, then enforce the legal laws. Also, if the criminal had a reasonable expectation that JB’s friend would be armed, would that have changed the situation? I’ve personally backed down someone who appeared to have an interest against my interest by reaching into my jacket.
    Secondly, government should be limited. Most often, when there’s a problem, the solution is not more government. When government really provides the best solution, great. Otherwise, let the market work. For instance, while I abhor abortion, I see no valid reason for the government to get involved.
    Third, government should always be as local as is practical. If something can reasonably be handled at the state (funny word, that, and misused in the U.S.) instead of the federal level, do it. If it makes sense to do it at the county, city, township, etc. level, do it there. I can’t think of a good example of this at the moment, but I’m sure others can.
    As for gay marriage—what possible business is it of government at any level to control this? Government should involve itself to the extent of enforcing contracts that are part of the process, and that’s about it. Any consenting adults should be able to declare their love and commitment in some religious or civil ceremony, and establish the contracts for mutual support etc. in a simple legal process. Nobody else should be concerned about the sex (or number) of consenting adults involved.

    That’s enough for now.

    ten of twelve, and ready to move on

  10. weeklyrob November 25, 2006 at 4:29 pm #


    You say that you bet that JB’s friend wouldn’t have been robbed if existing laws were enforced. I’m not sure exactly what your point is.

    In one sense, obviously the law isn’t being enforced whenever any crime happens. In another sense, some laws are widely under-enforced as a political or executive decision. If that’s what you mean, then you’re just repeating exactly what JB already said, though his way to fix the problem may be different from yours.

    As far as the rest of what you’ve said, I’m prepared to change wording here. I’m talking about people who self-identify as conservative, and fought or fight against the things I was talking about. I don’t really care whether Burke or Hume or Oscar the Grouch would have agreed that they’re acting in a conservative way. They say they are.

  11. BruceS November 25, 2006 at 4:48 pm #

    JB seems to be saying we should add more laws to cover those that are simply not being enforced—“ANOTHER law that does the same thing but REALLY does it.” That’s a common liberal position, and I oppose it. Don’t add a new law, just enforce the current one. If you aren’t going to enforce it, eliminate it. Adding a new law does no good if there’s no will to enforce the current one. There’s a very good chance that the assailant was a felon who had no right to keep and bear arms, but very little attempt is made to prevent them from doing so.

    I support some of what you mentioned, though not all. I oppose minimum wage laws, as they set an artificial standard and push many jobs offshore. I oppose Social Security as a combination of the worst “investment” available and the largest Ponzi scheme in history. I believe that social programs would work better if run strictly at a local to State level, and the Feds stayed out. I support the right of property (even business) owners to determine who they employ, serve, and buy from. Public services, property, etc. should be equally available to all, regardless of race, creed, etc. Democracy, like fire, is useful and good in the right place and with the right controls. Our Founding Fathers were rightly concerned about and opposed to an excess. Seat belts, and similar controls, push the boundary. I want manufacturers to be made to produce reasonably safe products, as long as the field is level. OTOH, I don’t want faceless, mindless bureaucrats deciding what is safe enough. These are the guys who prevented automakers from using variable-strength airbags. I don’t know what the best answer is here. Until recently, FDR was one of my least favorite Presidents. Ultra-liberal right-wingers have managed to present better contenders for the role.

    As for environmental controls, safe workplace laws, child labor laws, safe food and drug laws, public education standards, these all (to me) are things best handled at the Federal level, to provide consistency and some small separation from the hazards of the “good ole boy” system.

    Of course, women shouldn’t be allowed to vote—they don’t have souls!

  12. Jeffrey December 1, 2006 at 11:31 pm #

    I’ll wade into this to a small degree.

    I think one problem with the current national political environment, and to a lesser degree this blog post and response, is the extreme blurring of the words “liberal” and “conservative. Bruce, Will, and Kevin are, to my mind, doing a much better job of presenting truly classical conservative arguments the today’s GOP.

    I find it incredible that today’s GOP can simultaneously argue against gov’t on the one hand, like not raising the minimum wage, or that we should do nothing about global warming, while simultaneously claiming gov’t should be involved in who gets married or in actively suppressing scientists’ views. That’s a blending of many different attitudes, not all of them classically conservative.

    On the Dems’ side, you’ve also got people who want to restrict gov’t (let gay people marry) and increase gov’t (more gun laws).

    To the extent that “real” liberalism means “government is a force for good” then the right wing religious folks are just as liberal as I am. I want to use gov’t, for example, to force environmental cleanup. They want to use it to force their view of creation, abortion, and marriage on others. We strongly disagree with each other, but it’s not a classically liberal vs. classically conservative disagreement.

    And Rob, I agree with you that in 50 years much of what today’s left wants will be in place.

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