Saturday, September 27, 2008

Liberal? or Conservative?

I'm definitely not an expert on what the term liberal means but a number of people on Wikipedia have come up with these general definitions of liberalism, which I've modified slightly to fit my own view -
Liberalism is a broad array of related ideas and theories of government that consider individual liberty to be the most important political goal.

Economic liberalism supports balancing free markets and free trade with social justice for all people as the best route to peace and prosperity.

Cultural liberalism focuses on the rights of individuals pertaining to conscience and lifestyle, including such issues as sexual freedom, gender identification, religious freedom, cognitive freedom, and protection from government intrusion into private life.

Different forms of liberalism may propose very different policies, but they are generally united by their support for a number of principles, including extensive freedom of thought and speech, appropriate limitations on the power of governments so as not to infringe on individual liberty, the rule of law, the free exchange of ideas, free press, private property, free markets, and a transparent system of government.

All liberals – as well as some adherents of other political ideologies – support some variant of the form of government known as liberal democracy, with open and fair elections, where all citizens have equal rights by law.
I believe that all advances in society come from people who we would consider liberal in that they are willing to abandon current systems if necessary, or at least be willing to change and build on what has come before.

The success and depth of liberal thought is why we have liberal arts education and why there are so many important writings by liberal theorists over the last two thousand years.

If that's liberalism then what is a conservatism?

The Wikipedia article for Conservatism includes this quote -
"To put conservatism in a bottle with a label is like trying to liquify the atmosphere … The difficulty arises from the nature of the thing. For conservatism is less a political doctrine than a habit of mind, a mode of feeling, a way of living."
A conservative point of view considers the status quo desirable or may want to return to what is perceived as better times in the past and therefore has no way to expand on an existing belief system in search of a better way, which leads to dogmatism, fundamentalism, fear of change and a diminished sense of humor.

I believe a conservative/traditional point of view works when we are talking about philosophical, religious and ethical principles which are stable, but fails as a mindset for political ideas which have to adapt and evolve to keep pace with change - in society, the economy, local and global environments.

Given that conservatism is less a political doctrine than a habit of mind, a mode of feeling, a way of living that strives to keep things the way they are or return to the past - it's understandable why it fails as the basis for a political party and why it is that many people have very little idea of what it means when they define themselves or others as politically conservative.

It also explains the conservative method of attacking anything new or different while offering little or nothing in the way of novel ways of thinking that offer a better alternative.

In the interest of fairness I don't want to dismiss conservatism, as I've said I believe it has a place in religion, ethics, as well as in defining cultural, family and societal values. If we want to learn about the basis of what we consider conservatism today - Ayn Rand may be a place to start.

Ayn Rand's writing forms the intellectual basis for political/economic conservatism in the 20th century with her proposition that Capitalism - full, pure, uncontrolled, unregulated laissez-faire capitalism—with a separation of state and economics, is the only social system that fully recognizes the right of the individual.

I haven't seen many (any) politicians who hold to this belief. As we all know, or are re-learning, the free market can be very cruel...and I'm not sure most people really have the stomach for the kind of social upheaval unregulated free market capitalism can wreak. Not to say our great experiment with Democratic Capitalism has not in many ways been a tremendous success...and in other ways failed us - which I have faith, the liberal thinkers will continue to correct.

I could never finish her book Atlas Shrugged but Ayn Rand wrote some interesting things to think about - here's a couple of links - one for an article she wrote for the Reader's Digest in 1944 and the other for a speech she gave to West Point grads in the 1974.

The Only Path To Tomorrow - by Ayn Rand

Philosophy: Who Needs It? - by Ayn Rand