Four Words That Distinguish Liberals from Conservatives

No, “I think I’m pregnant” is a universal constant. The four words are “It can be better.” Recently, maha and I have written some posts about conservatism. I’ve also finished reading Joe Bageant’s Deer Hunting with Jesus which is an excellent natural history of Southern conservatives (note: I grew up about 60 miles from Bageant’s hometown of Winchester). I’ll have more to say about the book, but one part that crystallized something for me was this (italics mine):

Being a southerner, I have hated in my lifetime. I can remember schoolyard discussions of supposed “nigger knifing” of white boys at night and such. And like most people over fifty, it shows in my face, because by that age we have the faces we deserve. Likewise I have seen hate in others and know it when I see it. And I am seeing more of it now than ever before in my lifetime, which is saying something considering that I grew up down here during the Jim Crow era. Fanned and nurtured by neoconservative elements, the hate is every bit equal to the kind I saw in my people during those violent years. Irrational. Deeply rooted. Based on inchoate fears.
The fear is particularly prevalent in the middle and upper-middle classes here, the very ones most openly vehement about being against using the words nigger and fuck. They are what passes for educated people in a place like Winchester. You can smell their fear. Fear of losing advantages and money. Fear there won’t be enough time to grab and stash enough geet to keep themselves and their offspring in Chardonnay and farting through silk for the next fifty years. So they keep the lie machinery and the smoke generators cranking full blast as long as possible, hoping to elect another one of their own kind to the White House–Democratic or Republican, it doesn’t matter so long as they keep the scam going. The Laurita Barrs speak in knowing, authoritative tones, and the inwardly fearful house painter and single-mom forklift driver listen and nod. Why take a chance on voting for a party that would let homos be scout masters?

That is what Buckley was in reality defending when he talked about “standing athwart history” and yelling “stop.” To put it another way, it could be summed up in a single phrase, “It could be worse.” Never mind that all you have in front of you is thirty years of backbreaking work to pay of the overpricing, zero-down mortgage on your double-wide. Even if you’re well-off, there is a fear that it could all collapse, that everything could vanish you could slide down a notch or three (and have to do that backbreaking work that you currently employ others to do for you). As Shakes put it recently:

We see workers who would rather see other people denied a benefit they don’t have than see as many benefits extended to as many people as possible.
….Because it’s just oh-so-easy to say that people deserve what they get once “I got mine.” And once “I got mine,” then it becomes all about protecting “me and mine”–and oh what an extraordinary capacity the Social Darwinists have for suffering all manner of indignity being imposed upon others to preserve themselves.

So why should one “take a chance on voting for a party that would let homos be scout masters” or that would ‘give’ healthcare to the ‘undeserving?
Because it can be better.
That little phrase is why conservatives went into full slime mode over Michael Moore’s movie Sicko. Because it attacked the oppressive cult of American Exceptionalism–and, yes, it is oppressive, because the first step towards improving anything is recognizing that you might not actually be the best.
We should be able to have a healthcare system as good as France or Denmark.
We should be able to provide for the elderly and the infirm.
We should have an economy that doesn’t have usury as a major ‘industry.’
When we ask those questions, we stumble across the next phrase:

We can do it better.

Not only does that piss off the “the government is the problem, not the solution” conservatives, but it also is a daggerstrike to the heart of the theopolitical conservatives. Because another way of phrasing “We can do it better” is “Why wait for Jesus? Build a better world, here and now.” That is not only a threat to the economic conservatives, but also the theological ones–there’s a reason they make such good bedfellows: they are united in their pessimism.
That’s what makes liberals different from conservatives–a belief that “It can be better.”
Related post: Oliver Willis has some similar thoughts.

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18 Responses to Four Words That Distinguish Liberals from Conservatives

  1. agnostic says:

    That’s basically Thomas Sowell’s distinction between the constrained and unconstrained visions, but I’d take exception with the word “better” — theocrats would say “it could be better” by having a theocracy. Others might say things “could be better” by making gay sex illegal, etc.
    But Sowell’s distinction doesn’t have that “better” built in so much. He’s saying it’s more a belief in the infinite — or at least very high degree of — malleability of human nature that distinguishes the two camps.
    So sure, in some ways life can be made more pleasant, but look at how many social and political experiments have either failed in harmless ways (hippie communes), or brought about Reign of Terror-ish practices, or debased those they pretended to liberate (women who bought into “free love”), and you can see why it’s worth remaining skeptical about large-scale social experiments in general — even if it might not seem so bad in particular cases, like with European-style health care.

  2. Brian X says:

    agnostic:
    The thing to remember here is “nothing ventured, nothing gained”. We already know pure laissez-faire capitalism doesn’t work, because the pioneers get buried by the people who figure out how to game the system. We know pure communism doesn’t work for much the same reason. The Far Left often makes the mistake of failing to learn from past errors and sticking too close to dogma, but liberal does not equal loony left for all of us.

  3. natural cynic says:

    When Cheney, Wolfowitz, Ledeen and their gang looked at Iraq in 2002, I think that they also thought that “Hmmm, it could be better”.

  4. We should be able to have a healthcare system as good as France or Denmark.
    Cancer Survival Rates Improving Across Europe, But Still Lagging Behind United States

    One of the reports compares the statistics from Europe with those from the United States and shows that for most solid tumors, survival rates were significantly higher in US patients than in European patients. This analysis, headed by Arduino Verdecchia, PhD, from the National Center for Epidemiology, Health Surveillance, and Promotion, in Rome, Italy, was based on the most recent data available. It involved about 6.7 million patients from 21 countries, who were diagnosed with cancer between 2000 and 2002.
    The age-adjusted 5-year survival rates for all cancers combined was 47.3% for men and 55.8% for women, which is significantly lower than the estimates of 66.3% for men and 62.9% for women from the US Surveillance, Epidemiology, and End Results (SEER) program (P
    Denmark, it turns out, is even worse than most of Europe.

  5. Follow-up: In fact, the comparative numbers for Europe and the US are staggering. Five year relative survival rates for cancers diagnosed in the US 1996-2003 are 65.4% for men and 66.3% for women, according to SEER.
    In France, for cancer diagnosed 1995-1999, the 5 year survival rates were 44%; in Denmark, 33%. If you allow for an (optimistic) 5% improvement for the period 1999-2003, these numbers are still around 45% and 34% over the whole 1996-2003 interval. In the US, you have about double the chances a Dane has of surviving cancer for 5 years, and about 50% higher chances than a French person has.
    Of course, it’s always a little more complicated: the US tests more, and may have more false positives. But nothing I’ve read changes the conclusion that you are more likely to survive cancer for 5 years in the US than in the best-performing European country.
    Still, give Hillary a chance, and we can change all that. And Edwards, hey, he’ll figure out how to sue all our oncologists out of business.

  6. cuchulkhan says:

    Agnostic is right. The fundamental difference between liberals and conservatives is in their vision of human nature, liberals have a rather unconstrained vision of humanity, conservatives believe humans are limited and selfish. I think evolutionary biology supports the conservative view of human nature more than the liberal one.
    Steven Pinker sums it up in this article:
    http://pinker.wjh.harvard.edu/articles/media/2006_09_30_thenewrepublic.html
    “The standard contemporary analysis sees the political right as having a tragic vision in which human nature is permanently afflicted by limitations of knowledge, wisdom, and virtue, and the political left as having a utopian vision in which human nature is naturally innocent, but corrupted by defective social institutions and perfectible by reformed ones. The right therefore has an affinity for market economies, because people will always be more motivated to work for themselves and their families than for something called “society,” and because no planner has the wisdom, information, and disinterest to run an economy from the top down. A tough defense and criminal justice system are needed because people will eternally be tempted to take what they want by force, so only the prospect of sure punishment makes conquest and crime unprofitable. And since we are always teetering on the brink of barbarism, social traditions in a functioning society should be respected as time-tested workarounds for the shortcomings of an unchanging human nature, as applicable today as when they developed, even if no one can explain their rationale.
    The left, by contrast, is more likely to embrace George Bernard Shaw’s (and later Robert Kennedy’s) credo, “Some people see things as they are and ask ‘why?’, I dream things that never were and ask ‘why not?’” Psychological limitations are artifacts that come from our social arrangements, which should be scrutinized, morally judged, and constantly improved. Economies, social systems, and international relations should be consciously designed to bring about desirable outcomes.”

  7. andrew says:

    Liberal society at work:
    “One in five homes in Britain rely entirely on benefits”
    http://www.dailymail.co.uk/pages/live/articles/news/news.html?in_article_id=478548&in_page_id=1770

  8. Joshua says:

    Human nature is a red herring.
    Liberal politics is emphatically NOT about creating some kind of New Soviet Man by altering human nature.
    The “it” in “it can be better” isn’t people, it’s government. Or society in general, but government happens to be the handiest lever for changing society. We can have better health care, we can have fairer employment practices, we can make any number of things better so that people will have the freedom to live their lives without worrying whether they’ll lose their job tomorrow or having to decide between feeding the kids or getting that dreadfully persistent cough checked out. It’s believing that we can create a world where anybody can get a college education, not just those who can absorb the massive tuition debts or are lucky enough to qualify for a scholarship.
    What liberalism is opposed to isn’t the idea that human nature is fixed, but rather the idea that “it’s just human nature” is somehow an excuse for giving up.

  9. cuchulkhan says:

    “anybody can get a college education”
    Another area where liberals run afoul of human nature, in this case individual differences in intelligence as measured by IQ tests. This results in utopian schemes like the ‘No Child Left Behind Act’, where all the children are to be above average (yes it was introduced by Bush, but it’s pure liberalism)
    http://www.opinionjournal.com/extra/?id=110009535

  10. Dan S. says:

    Great. More darwinian conservatism. Should I laugh or cry?

  11. maha says:

    Well, it allowed women to have babies without a husband, and it allowed men to have sex with and impregnate women without having to work or pay any price,
    Like that hasn’t been going on since the beginning of the species.

  12. agnostic says:

    Re: Wolfowitz, etc. — that’s right, neoconservatives do belong to the unconstrained or Utopian vision, hence all their fighting with the paleoconservatives, who are more in the mold of Burke.
    Joshuah — no, you’re still arguing that human nature is unconstrained. By saying that all we have to do is change government, and thus get a better society, you’re assuming that humans are silly putty that can be molded to fit whatever we make for them. And that’s not true.
    I agree that acknowledging the constraints that unalterable (at least in the short-term) human nature places on us isn’t an excuse for giving up — but to make things better, you have to have the right understanding of human nature. If people favor kin over strangers, that will foil governmental policy that pretends that doesn’t exist, for instance.

  13. Mike says:

    Both liberals and conservatives want things to be better. However, what those things are differ. Stereotypically, liberals want to maximize societal harmony and equality while conservatives want to maximize individual liberty and freedom. For example guns. Liberals tend to think that it would be better if guns were more heavily regulated or banned (maximize societal benefits) while conservatives tend to think that it would be better if guns were not banned and not so heavily regulated (maximize individual liberty and freedom).
    Both conservatives and liberals want things to be better. Your whole premise is skewed by what you think of being better and ignoring how conservatives want to make things better.

  14. Kaleberg says:

    Liberals are concerned with issues of harm and care, fairness and reciprocity. Conservatives are concerned with issues of authority and respect, purity and sanctity. So, a liberal, like Maimonides, would say that we need should take care of the undeserving poor because otherwise they would starve, and we might find ourselves in their shoes one day. A conservative would argue that the undeserving poor should be humiliated and punished so that they learn respect and don’t soil the rest of us.
    There was an article on this in Science back in May and I did a post on it at Daily Kos – http://www.dailykos.com/storyonly/2007/5/31/12489/5019

  15. Kaleberg says:

    Liberals are concerned with issues of harm and care, fairness and reciprocity. Conservatives are concerned with issues of authority and respect, purity and sanctity. So, a liberal, like Maimonides, would say that we need should take care of the undeserving poor because otherwise they would starve, and we might find ourselves in their shoes one day. A conservative would argue that the undeserving poor should be humiliated and punished so that they learn respect and don’t soil the rest of us.
    There was an article on this in Science back in May and I did a post on it at Daily Kos – The Morality Gap.

  16. Graculus says:

    Stereotypically, liberals want to maximize societal harmony and equality while conservatives want to maximize individual liberty and freedom.
    Wait.. WHAT?
    That’s arse backwards.

  17. Mr. Gunn says:

    I’ve got the most succinct summary: Liberals are optimists, conservatives are pessimists.

  18. sex shop says:

    the constraints that unalterable (at least in the short-term) human nature places on us isn’t an excuse for giving up — but to make things better, you have to have the right understanding of human nature

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