What It Means to Be a Liberal or a Conservative

Two days ago, University of Chicago law professor Geoffrey R. Stone listed ten principles that defined “What it means to be a liberal.” I’ll list the lead sentences of each below in italics (read the explanations for yourself at the link) with a brief response in regular font.

1. Liberals believe individuals should doubt their own truths and consider fairly and open-mindedly the truths of others. This is the basis of modernity; no problems here.

2. Liberals believe individuals should be tolerant and respectful of difference. This is too broad to be meaningful. Should we be tolerant and respectful of people’s rights of free expression? Sure. Do we have to actually respect the views themselves? No.

3. Liberals believe individuals have a right and a responsibility to participate in public debate. Absolutely, with due consideration for time, place, and manner.

4. Liberals believe “we the people” are the governors and not the subjects of government, and that government must treat each person with that in mind. Agreed, although this is more “libertarian” than “liberal” in the modern American usage. Indeed, conservatives are much more apt to believe this than liberals nowadays.

5. Liberals believe government must respect and affirmatively safeguard the liberty, equality and dignity of each individual. I believe in maximum liberty and equality under the law but disagree that government should try to impose equality of outcomes. I’m not sure “dignity” is the business of government one way or the other, although there are surely examples where I’m for it.

6. Liberals believe government has a fundamental responsibility to help those who are less fortunate. This would seem to vieolate principles 4 and 5.

7. Liberals believe government should never act on the basis of sectarian faith. Agreed, although perhaps not in application. Citizens in a democracy have the right to fight for their values, whether they are secular or sectarian in origin.

8. Liberals believe courts have a special responsibility to protect individual liberties. I believe courts have a special responsibility to follow the law, with the proviso that it must accord with the Constitution.

9. Liberals believe government must protect the safety and security of the people, for without such protection liberalism is impossible. Within reason, this is the fundamental purpose of government.

10. Liberals believe government must protect the safety and security of the people, without unnecessarily sacrificing constitutional values. I would strike “unnecessarily,” since I believe the government must abide by the Constitution, period, not just within its sense of what is necessary.

To the extent Stone’s list is illustrative of what liberals believe, then, I believe in many of liberalism’s core principles. I would observe, though, that liberals are damned redundant. This list could probably be condensed into three or four principles without sacrificing anything.

In response, Megan McArdle presents her own, somewhat snarky, ten pronged list describing “What does it mean to be a conservative?”

1. Conservatives believe that people should take responsibility for their actions.
2. Conservatives believe in equality of opportunity, not in equality of result. Conservatives do not want to punish people for the crime of being successful.
3. Conservatives believe in protecting the lives of the helpless, even when their lives inconvenience other people.
4. Conservatives believe that the government should treat everyone equally, regardless of their race or gender.
5. Conservatives believe that people should be allowed to express their faith, and their views on other controversial topics, even when those views make others uncomfortable.
6. Conservatives believe that each individual is unique and special, and cannot be treated simply as a member of a group. Individuals are only available individually.
7. Conservatives believe that well intentioned changes often have unintended consequences.
8. Conservatives believe that people respond to incentives.
9. Conservatives believe that America is a special nation, not perfect, but with a proud history. People who come to America should feel that that history is theirs, and celebrate their citizenship. They should not have loyalties to foreign powers.
10. Conservatives believe that victims of crime are more worthy of our concern than the criminals who prey on them.

I agree with all of these without much reservation with two exceptions, one minor and one major. With respect to #4, I believe there are instances where men and women should be treated differently, given that there actual differences between them. For example, it’s silly to pretend that childbearing has an equal impact on men and women. And I’m still not ready for uni-sex bathrooms.

As to #10, I agree with it at an individual level but disagree strongly at a societal level. I totally oppose the concept of “victims’ rights” as it applies to criminal trials, for instance. In cases where the state is seeking to take away the life, liberty, or property of an individual, the sole focus should be on the rights of that individual. Even after conviction, the ever-increasing trend of having victims’ families come scream, cry, and otherwise confront the perpetrator as part of the sentencing deliberations is an affront to the dignity of the system and the rights of the defendant to a reasoned weighing of the facts in evidence.

Finally, Steve Bainbridge recommends the poetry of Russell Kirk’s Ten Conservative Principles. Again, I’ll highlight just the lead sentences except in cases where his jargon requires clarification:

First, the conservative believes that there exists an enduring moral order. While I agree there are enduring principles, most morality is circumstantial. The sexual morality that made perfect sense in the days before birth control and when people married in their teens, for example, is absurd in our modern society.

Second, the conservative adheres to custom, convention, and continuity. I have a visceral attraction to many things Old School and agree that there should be some consideration given to that which is tried and true. Change for its own sake is seldom a good thing. Still, the mindset Burk describes here is antithetical to progress.

Third, conservatives believe in what may be called the principle of prescription. (… things established by immemorial usage…) This is awfully similar to the first two.

Fourth, conservatives are guided by their principle of prudence. . . . Any public measure ought to be judged by its probable long-run consequences, not merely by temporary advantage or popularity. Agreed.

Fifth, conservatives pay attention to the principle of variety. . . . For the preservation of a healthy diversity in any civilization, there must survive orders and classes, differences in material condition, and many sorts of inequality. I agree that economic inequality will be the likely result of something good–competition. I disagree that this inequality is, in and of itself, a good thing, let alone something we should try to create systemically.

Sixth, conservatives are chastened by their principle of imperfectability. His explanation is confusing, frankly. My take on it, though, is that we ought resist the impulse that “There oughta be a law” to remedy every minor social nuisance. To that extent, I agree.

Seventh, conservatives are persuaded that freedom and property are closely linked. Agreed.

Eighth, conservatives uphold voluntary community, quite as they oppose involuntary collectivism.
Quite so.

Ninth, the conservative perceives the need for prudent restraints upon power and upon human passions. Agreed.

Tenth, the thinking conservative understands that permanence and change must be recognized and reconciled in a vigorous society. I tend to prefer evolutionary to revolutionary change and agree that progress in one area often leads to retrogression in another. Generally, however, I find the tradeoff quite worthwhile.

FILED UNDER: General, , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Anderson says:

    Conservatives believe that people should take responsibility for their actions.

    So Bush, Cheney, and Rumsfeld are liberals? THAT explains why this country’s been going to hell these past 5 years …

  2. Phil Davis says:

    1. Conservatives believe that people should take responsibility for their actions.

    Unless, of course, you are a conservative politician, in which case you blame Clinton.


    2. Conservatives believe in equality of opportunity, not in equality of result. Conservatives do not want to punish people for the crime of being successful.

    As long as you define success as money, money and mo’ money. People whose pursuit of happiness does not serve the needs of the rich and powerful cannot be deemed successful.


    3. Conservatives believe in protecting the lives of the helpless, even when their lives inconvenience other people.

    Total bull.

    4. Conservatives believe that the government should treat everyone equally, regardless of their race or gender.

    And if centuries of adverse treatment should put anyone at a disadvantage… to bad. Not my problem.

    5. Conservatives believe that people should be allowed to express their faith, and their views on other controversial topics, even when those views make others uncomfortable.

    If anyone disagrees with what conservatives express, they are Christian bashers who are under the control of the Devil and they are going to hell to burn forever. Yippeeeee!!!!!!

    6. Conservatives believe that each individual is unique and special, and cannot be treated simply as a member of a group. Individuals are only available individually.

    You got it, Macaca.

    7. Conservatives believe that well intentioned changes often have unintended consequences.

    Therefore, only ill intentioned changes will be tolerated.

    8. Conservatives believe that people respond to incentives.

    Greed is good!

    9. Conservatives believe that America is a special nation, not perfect, but with a proud history. People who come to America should feel that that history is theirs, and celebrate their citizenship. They should not have loyalties to foreign powers.

    And all other nations are frogs and wogs and ungrateful freeloaders.

    10. Conservatives believe that victims of crime are more worthy of our concern than the criminals who prey on them.

    No argument from me on that one. However, due process is a good start in actually deciding who the criminals really are.

  3. legion says:

    Well, working from the base word itself, I always felt ‘conservative’ meant one who was resistant to changing the status quo. Which meant a ‘liberal’ was more apt to try a completely new system. Both of these philosophies have their place, and each can cause catastrophic damage when applied without thought.

  4. Steven Plunk says:

    Both liberal and conservative politicians compromise these principals and ideas every day.

    Rather than look at what they each say it is far better to look at what they do.

  5. madmatt says:

    Ok then name me a real conservative!

  6. Steve Verdon says:

    So Bush, Cheney, and Rumsfeld are liberals? THAT explains why this country’s been going to hell these past 5 years …

    Hey! I’ve beem arguing that for awhile now. 😉

  7. Hmm…, does Professor Stone consider his list to be a “living” list?

    And why do so many commentors take any post to be a forum for the regurgitation of whatever talking points happen to be floating in their consciousness at the moment?

  8. Anderson says:

    Ambrose Bierce may’ve said it best:

    “A conservative is one enamored of existing evils, while a liberal wishes to replace them with others.”

  9. If we realy want to get into name calling, er, I mean, labeling, it is probably more accurate to make the major divide these days between conservatives and progressives, with libertarians are liberals being relatively small splinter groups. My primary concern with much of what constitutes the official Democrat Party these days has more to do with their adoption of progressive memes and strategies more so than their classical liberal beliefs.

    Actually, I’d say the primary divide is between conservatives and illiberal utopian statists, but I was trying to be nice above.

  10. madmatt says:

    still waiting for a conservative name…living please!

  11. Tano says:

    I sympathize with the effort here. I’ve often thought it useful to conversation to understand and agree on the meaning of basic words, so I’ve played the game of “what does liberal and conservative really mean”. But it is really frustrating, given that part of the meaning is relative to the underlying political landscape which is dynamic. And people use the terms in countless ways, so there is no real common understanding.

    For instance, most libertarians consider themselves conservative, even though libertarianism is essentially an unreformed version of classical liberalism. Maybe that makes sense in view of the fact that liberalism has become so established in the West that its unreformed version is the new traditionalism. But how this perspective can interface with traditional conservatism is still a bit of a head scratch.

    Perhaps the current fracturing of the Republican coalition indicates that such an interface is deeply problematical.

    By my version of the definitions, libertarianism is better considered to be right-wing liberalism, since it espouses pure liberal principles including, and especially in the economic domain, leading to a full throated defense of the interests of the economically successful.

    Modern “liberalism” (by common usage) is more of a leftist liberalism – also espousing basic liberal values, but having incorporated the lessons learned regarding how pure market forces can lead to monstrous results for the average person, and especially for the least talented.

    Conservatism seems to me, by definition, to look to traditional solutions rather than experimenting with new ones – and thus is at odds with much of what we all consider to be the spirit of America – innovation, ambition, searching out new fronteirs etc. There are left wing and right wing versions of conservatism (traditional society was at least a bit paternalistic, and hence less callous toward the poor than are liberal rightwingers), but the right, to the extent that it defends the status quo, finds a more natural home with conservatives.

  12. Dave Schuler says:

    Liberals believe government must protect the safety and security of the people, for without such protection liberalism is impossible.

    I think there’s a critical piece missing from this statement: safety from what? Smoking? foies gras? Our own improvidence?

    In my view the role of government is to protect us from enemies foreign and domestic in that order. Not ourselves.

  13. Steve Verdon says:

    Modern “liberalism” (by common usage) is more of a leftist liberalism – also espousing basic liberal values, but having incorporated the lessons learned regarding how pure market forces can lead to monstrous results for the average person, and especially for the least talented.

    I disagree with this, as many libertarians such as Arnold Kling, Tyler Cowen (admittedly I don’t know if he would use the term libertarian to describe himself), and probably N. Gregory Mankiw, can give you extremely detailed explanations of how the market can fail.

    As for the monsterous part, I think that is an interesting choice of words considering that some of the most monsterous outcomes in history tend to be at the hands of government…the entity many “modern liberals” like to promote.

  14. Dave Schuler says:

    And in answer to several commenters above: no, Bush is not a conservative. Never has been just as Clinton has never been a liberal.

  15. Tano says:

    “some of the most monsterous outcomes in history tend to be at the hands of government…the entity many “modern liberals” like to promote”

    Thats a bit of an overgeneralization. The entity that modern liberals “like to promote” is DEMOCRATIC government, a form of government which has tended to be markedly less monstrous than those forms of government that were in the hands of oligarchs, plutocrats, and other wealthy powerful ruling elites.

  16. Steve Verdon says:

    Thats a bit of an overgeneralization. The entity that modern liberals “like to promote” is DEMOCRATIC government, a form of government which has tended to be markedly less monstrous than those forms of government that were in the hands of oligarchs, plutocrats, and other wealthy powerful ruling elites.

    Oh okay then, you want somewhat less monsterous government. I stand corrected.

  17. Tano says:

    Steve,

    I think the probability of monstrousness in government rises not with the scope of government, but with the narrowness of the power distribution. Which is why I think that increasing democratic control is a better way to avoid tyranny than focusing on narrowing government.

    At any given time the scope of government can be, of course, broadened somewhat or narrowed, but the workable range is determined by the interconnectedness of the underlying society. With a concentrated population (physically and /or in terms of economic interactions) you will have a broader government scope, as the affairs of society will need to be adjudicated and regulated. Too much government will, I agree, be oppressive and resisted – especially in a democratic system. Too little government will lead to decision-making, on matters that affect the public at large, being in the hands of unaccountable private elites.

    With any given structure to a society, there are going to have to be decisions made, and they will be made by someone. Either the people through their democracy, or by whomever has the (usually economic) clout.

    Thats why I do not discount the danger of an oppressively broad government, but am even more concerned with the rise of powerful, unaccountable elites who make decisions for their own interest that affect us all. And your free market, government-minimalism is a high road to such an outcome.

    Minimal government is the ideal, were it not for the fact that we are constantly bumping up against each other. What will be the power relations when those bumps happen – rule by the strongest, the richest, the smartest, or a negotiation between equals?

  18. Tano says:

    Append one more line to the above.

    Democratic government is the medium through which negotiations amongst equals takes place.

  19. Bandit says:

    ‘For instance, most libertarians consider themselves conservative’

    Uhhhh…no. Libertarians consider themselves libertarians. The basic tenet and overriding point of libertarianism is protecting and expanding individual freeedom and a big part of that is limiting the scope of government control. That may intersect with conservative ideals but certainly not with current practice of the GOP. Anywhere GOP practices and libertarian principle intersect is thru coincidence and not design. You should really refrain from trying to talk about libertarianism unless you have some idea of what you’re talking about.