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Why we are liberal or conservative

By Robert S. Sargent, Jr.
web posted October 18, 2010

We have conservative teachers who say, essentially, "We have to use force; meet force with force."  On the other extreme you have this liberal math teacher who says, "Students are essentially good; all you need is love."  Peter Biskind, author of Seeing is Believing, talking about the 1950s movie, The Blackboard Jungle

When I heard Mr. Biskind say that on a television show, I, at first, thought it was ridiculous.  What the heck does "meeting force with force" have to do with being a conservative?  After thinking about it, I realized it actually does have to do with why each of us has chosen one philosophy or the other.

We like to think that we know what a conservative is, what a liberal is, but who are they?  You might say that the answer to why we are one or the other is easy:  We are influenced by our parents.  We are influenced by our peers when we go off to school.  And sometimes, through our reading, or interacting, we might actually change what we think.  I agree that these are influences, but, I submit that there is a deeper more fundamental idea that makes us who we are in this arena:  Do we believe in Original Sin?

There is a long history of controversy in the Christian Church and among philosophers over the idea of original sin.  I don't propose to dwell on these controversies, or on the history of this idea in the church.  Unlike theologians and philosophers who have written many books about this idea, I will give a simple, very simple description of what I mean by original sin:  we are all born with innate tendencies to be bad. First, I will deal with those who don't believe in original sin, rather, believe that we are born innately good. 

Probably the most famous of those who propounded the idea of the innate goodness of man was Jean-Jacques Rousseau  the Enlightenment, eighteenth century thinker.  One of his many writings was Discourse on the Origin of Inequality, written in 1754. As the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy says:  "Ultimately, the work is based on the idea that by nature, humans are essentially peaceful, content, and equal."

Rousseau argues that if people are basically good, if their instincts are good, then if they go bad, it's because they are corrupted by society. Today's Rousseauians explain this idea in today's society:  racism explains why an unrepresentative number of black people are in our prisons.  A bad upbringing explains why so-and-so became a serial killer.  A society that employs a free-market economy influences people to become greedy and selfish.  Private property ownership encourages conflict with other men, and the abuse of pristine land.  Basically, good people turned bad are victims, not evil. 

Now how does someone who believes that people are good, deal with criminals or, these victims?  Yes, you put them away to protect others while they are criminals, but you have programs to get them back to their "good" natures and bring them back into society.  Since they are basically good, you never punish them too severely, you use reason, example, psychology.  As Biskind said, "All you need is love."

We can extend this liberal way of seeing the basic goodness of man to foreign policy.  We don't waterboard our enemies, we give them rights so they can understand by example.  And if men are basically good, so are countries.  Take the "Axis of Evil." First of all, to a Rousseauian, they are not "evil," so instead of confrontation, one talks to them.  President Obama has insisted that diplomacy, reasoning, will bring about better solutions than confrontation. 

Carried a step further, the all-men-are-basically-good concept has led to the liberal idea of multiculturism:  if we are all basically good, who are we to say that one culture is "better" than another? therefore it's none of our business to push our western values on other sovereign countries.

So how do you shape things so that society stops corrupting people?  You can't look to society because society is already corrupt.  You look to government and government becomes the tool of reform.  We have seen government's efforts to eliminate racial discrimination; government can provide families with money through welfare programs to provide children better upbringing; government can regulate and sometimes take over private enterprises to discourage corruption in the market place; government, through zoning commissions can make people respect property.  To carry this last idea to extremes, Rousseau believed that private property itself was one of the main corrupters, and in all socialist utopias that I know of, property is held in common. 

In The Perfectibility of Man, John Passmore wrote "With the abolition of private property, according to Marx, man can at last find himself as a social being, no longer in necessary conflict with his fellow-men."  The idea that man can be perfected goes hand in hand with the idea that man has good, innate tendencies.  From Rousseau through Marx through the socialist utopians to today's modern American liberals, the idea that man can be improved or reformed through government legislation is central to liberal thought.  Passmore further wrote that Claude Adrian Helvetius, a contemporary of Rousseau, "…is the founding father of modern governmentalism.  The governmentalists see in government – and more particularly, in legislation – the principle agent of perfection."  It's the process "…by which a state modifies the behavior of its citizens, in order to make them conform to higher moral standards."   

The preceding shows how the belief in the innate goodness of man leads to liberal solutions.

What about those who believe in original sin?

Probably the most famous of those who propounded the idea of original sin was St. Augustine.  Written in AD 397 - 398, his The Confessions of St. Augustine argued that we are all basically sinners, it's part of our genes, and that, on this earth, man's perfection is beyond our reach.  This idea has come down to us through the church and philosophers, but you don't have to be religious or a profound thinker to form an opinion on this issue.  Having children, and being around them, is probably enough.

If you believe that people really have innately bad tendencies, then you definitely don't believe they are victims.  They are evil simply because that may be their nature, or they have not learned, or been taught to be civilized.  So your tendencies are to punish evil, to punish criminals, to be more severe than a liberal would be.  You will likely believe what Thomas Hobbes argued when he wrote that governments should make punishment of crimes so severe that it acts as a deterrent.

In foreign policy, "Axis of Evil" becomes an easy phrase to believe in for a conservative.  North Korea, Iran, these are not basically good people, or at least their leaders who have gone astray; these are honestly bad people, period.  A conservative, then is much more likely to want, as Biskind said, to "meet force with force," than talk to them.  How can you reason with a person who's evil?

So how does a conservative deal with all these evil people and criminals around him?  You teach them to be good.  And you start with little babies right away, through the family.  When the selfish things don't share with their brother, you teach them that sharing is a good thing.  When they interrupt you, you teach them to be polite, that it's not "all about you."  When they hit their little sister, you teach them that picking on someone smaller than you is cowardly.  When they lie to you, you teach them the virtue of telling the truth.  All these things, if you are an Augustinian, must be taught.  They don't come naturally.  And when some folks don't learn, when they break the law, you council a much harsher punishment than the Rousseauian.

It turns out there are lots of things that come out of this basic belief that explains, not only personal tendencies (are you a liberal or a conservative?), but certain traits that we assign to the two groups.  For example, it explains why liberals are said to be "soft" on crime, and conservatives "hard."  Same with foreign policy:  liberals are much more associated with bumper stickers like "peace not war," and argue that diplomacy gets better results than the conservative tendency to confrontation.  "Individual responsibility" is associated with conservatives, because being "victims" does not fit in with the concept of original sin.  If you commit a crime, it's your fault, not society's.  Family values, long associated with the conservative side of the Republican Party, is an integral part of original sin thought. Conservatives seem to be more associated with patriotism than liberals.  If you believe in original sin, you will believe that some people are "better" than others, and some countries are "better" than others.  If you ask a conservative, "is our country 'better' than some other country that doesn't practice democracy, or stones some women to death?" he will probably answer "yes," whereas a liberal, or someone who is a multiculturalist, might say, "Who are we to judge?"  

To give an example of how this helps explain the different reactions of the two philosophies, we need only look at the tragedy of November 5, (09) when Maj. Malik Hasan, an army psychiatrist, killed thirteen and wounded dozens of other soldiers at Ft. Hood.  The liberal N.Y. Times wrote an article on 11/8 titled Painful Stories Take a Toll on Military Therapists.  In the article they wrote that "…hanging over it all, for psychiatrists in today's military, is the prospect of their own deployment… (and) Dr. Hasan was reportedly facing his deployment – a prospect that scares even trained fighters…If it turns out that Major Hasan did in fact break partly under the stress of the job and impending deployment, many veterans would not be surprised." 

Two days later, David Brooks who leans conservative, wrote in the same paper about the media coverage of Major Hasan:  "A shroud of political correctness settled over the conversation.  Hasan was portrayed as a victim (my emphasis) of society…(This) absolved Hasan…of his responsibility.  It denied the possibility of evil."

The liberal reaction is to find an outside reason for Hasan's actions (the stress of imminent deployment).  It has to be "outside" because he, like all of us, is basically a good person.  The conservative reaction is that Hasan is simply an evil person on an evil mission.

In the discussion above, we can see how the Rousseauian relies on a strong government to reform society's tendency to corrupt our basically good nature.  At the same time, we can also see how the idea of original sin leads to a belief in a limited government.  In the Federalist No. 51, James Madison, in defending the various checks on the powers of the different federal departments that were given in the Constitution, wrote:  "If men were angels, no government would be necessary.  If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controuls (sic) on government would be necessary."  Yes, government is necessary because men, who are not angels, must be controlled.  But, because they are not angels, government must be formed that will not allow them to abuse their powers.

So, I submit that there is a straight line from the belief in original sin to the belief in conservative ideas and from the belief in original innocence to the belief in liberal ideas.

The preceding is from a much larger essay titled "Liberals and Conservatives and What to do about it."  This may be obtained for free by emailing the author. ESR

Robert S. Sargent, Jr. is a senior writer for Enter Stage Right and can be reached at rssjr@citcom.net.

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