Posted by: thealienist | April 2, 2010

Pride Goeth Before a Fall (But Hopefully Not Mine)

As I was thinking about my empathy post, I was thinking about the Conservatives and Liberals and how there seems to be an industry of demonizing each side.  I was also thinking about how rarely I hear one side of the argument accurately state the opinions and values of the other side.  At about this point, I began to think that maybe I could do the job.  This was quickly followed by concerns about whether I had become completely prideful and narcissistic and whether I was setting myself up for flames from one side or the other.  Still, I have decided to give it a try and to hope that any comments that this post provokes shed more light than heat on the subject.

First, I should disclose that I am a Democrat.  I am socially liberal, but not the most socially liberal person that I know.  On the other hand, I am religiously conservative, though again not the most conservative person I know.  I have dearly loved friends who are conservative Republicans and more religiously liberal than me.  I hope that this does not lead any of my few readers to prejudge the rest of this post.


First, I would like to address what I think the conservatives might like the liberals to know about them.  Conservatives see themselves as standing for old, established wisdom.  This does not mean that they have no new ideas, but that their ideas are built on foundations that have stood the test of time and should not be discarded lightly.  I hear them say that they are for personal freedom and responsibility and the ability of people to enjoy the rewards of their labors.  As such, they believe that the advantages of good choices and hard work should not be hindered through excessive taxation or limiting the rewards available and that the distress associated with poor choices and lack of industriousness should serve to motivate people to make better choices and work harder.  They value personal freedom more than collective happiness.  On the world stage, they value strength and clear distinctions between allies and enemies.  They value sovereignty and independence more highly than they value peace (which is not to say that they do not value peace). 

Conservatives often rely on ancient sources of religious wisdom (often Judeo-Christian) that they see as having proven their worth over many centuries.  They tend to emphasize the individual moral teachings within this tradition more than the teachings concerning the individual’s care and responsibility for others, which they leave as a personal issue.  They also rely on the philosophies of capitalism and behaviorism in understanding the motives of others and the impact of their policies.  Their understanding of these spiritual and philosophical ideas fit well with their tendency to sharply distinguish between good vs evil and ally vs enemy.  Conservatives often see liberals as too eager to discard traditional wisdom and substitute novel, untested beliefs.  They worry that the liberals’ desire to lessen the distress of those who have behaved in bad/evil/less productive/ counterproductive ways will decrease their motivation to change their behaviors and ways of thinking and will prevent them from becoming more successful and taking advantage of the opportunities of capitalism.  This is often tied in with their spiritual beliefs that right behavior is rewarded not only monetarily and socially but spiritually as well.  Liberals often fail to see that what seems like a conservative’s heartless disregard for the poor or afflicted is seen by the conservative as promoting their motivation to improve their condition.  With regard to fiscal policy, there is probably not that much difference between conservatives and liberals except that the conservatives value money more highly than the liberals.  As  such, the conservatives see fewer national issues to spend money on and value personal spending above government spending.  Still, when their priorities are up for funding, we see that they are as willing to spend as any other person.


Liberals tend to see themselves as flexible and willing to consider new ideas.  They may mistrust old ideas or at least think that they can be improved over time.  This does not mean that they will not use old ideas but that they are willing to discard them if they are proven (to their satisfaction) not to work.  As such, the liberals value progress over time and often see conservatives as being reluctant to try new ideas and being too dedicated to ideas from the past.  Liberals tend to see society as being responsible for the care and support of individuals.  This is not to say that liberals do not value personal freedom or responsibility but that these are not the highest values in our society.  They are not against people enjoying the fruits of their labor and reaping the advantages of their hard work, but they see a responsibility to care for those who are not doing as well.  Conservatives also make efforts to care for the less fortunate but they value personal service.  Liberals also value personal service but fear that relying primarily on personal service will overlook many individuals who are not valued by the majority in our society.  As such, they promote governmental and societal efforts to help all of the poor, ill, and unfortunate (they seem less likely to ascribe problems to “evil,” though they do recognize it).  Liberals value collective well-being more than personal freedom.  On the world stage, they value negotiation, cooperation, peace more than they value national sovereignty and independence.

Liberals as a group rely on a bewildering array of religious and philosophical wisdom.  Each individual is considered free to accept and live by their own code of conduct and belief system, but each is also expected to be responsible to society as a whole.  This lack of an overarching religious and philosophical system tends to make liberals seem disorganized and can make it difficult to create consensus.  Social liberals who are Christians may base their beliefs on the same Judeo-Christian sources as the conservatives but tend to emphasize the sources that stress the care of and responsibility for the community to a greater degree than the moral teachings, which they leave as a personal issue.  While all of the liberals I know are capitalists, most are willing to reign in capitalism at least a little for the sake of providing a social “safety net” to protect individual citizens.  Conservatives often fail to see that the social safety net that the liberals value is a principled and moral stance to protect the individual freedom of all.  Liberals are less concerned that the safety net will result in a lack of motivation for people to improve their lot in life but are more concerned that inequities between groups of people will become magnified over time, trapping individuals in poverty, sickness, and crime.  With regard to fiscal policy, liberals value many national issues more than money.  Thus, liberals often find more priorities for funding from year to year.  This does not mean that liberals are not fiscally responsible, but it does mean that they will often be willing to ask for what they see are reasonable sacrifices for important social projects.


I hope that these brief sketches of conservatives and liberals (almost caricatures of each) are not inflammatory to either side.  My point is not to paint either side in “black-or-white” but to say that each side is very  much like the other except that they weigh their values differently.  Both conservatives and liberals value personal freedom, but the conservatives value it more.  Both conservatives and liberals value the social well-being of the community, but liberals value it more.  Both conservatives and liberals value safety from attack, but conservatives value it more (i.e. are willing to sacrifice more to obtain it).  These (and other) differences in the weight of our values will lead to differences in policy and behavior between liberals and conservatives.  We should not mistake these concrete differences for absolute differences in values between liberals and conservatives.  Of course this is written by a liberal and will close with a liberal wish… I hope that we can one day focus on our common values and see each other as reasonable people — each wanting what is good both for our society at large and the individuals that comprise it.


  1. Thank you for taking the time to write such excellent blog posts. I learn something every time I read one. This is a terrific coffee shop or French salon to explore such ideas.

    In that vein, I have mulled over this particular for ten days. May I add something from a conservative? I can only speak for myself. I do not know a single family unit who holds a monolithic view. There is no doubt that an entire movement cannot.

    I believe people are generally good. The world is home to all of us and I happen to live in the best country. That does not mean that I think other countries are inadequate or should become copies. I don’t. It means that I have traveled to other countries and value their societies but I prefer the States.

    I believe that people closest to the situation can handle most matters best — poverty, food distribution, schools, and law enforcement. This cannot be applied to every situation, such as interstate commerce, highways, or the military. People who are personally involved have a higher stake and interest level in a positive outcome. Even national programs, Meals on Wheels for example, depend on local volunteers to deliver the food and aid.

    I think communities want what is best for their neighborhoods, towns, and regions. To make them prosper at the expense of others is wrong. Sure, there is always greed and ignorance but that seems to be a human condition rather than a political one. I have stood at a monument thanking the people of a village for their contributions to feeding the Russian populace. The truth is the government came into the then East German village and took all the wheat, domestic animals, and food stores. The village was left with nothing. There was no time to produce another crop. The villagers, who did not starve, left. Now all that stands there are the monument and a ghost village.

    New versus old ideas, I felt a bit set up on this one. I do believe that history, both recent and ancient, can provide a viable road map to what works. It is not the only way. New maps can be drawn as new ways are found but while technology changes almost daily, people not so much.

    I am not sure that the “us against them, friend or enemy” model adequately describes my worldview. I do not believe that governments are the same as the people that are governed. I also believe that each soul and, therefore, each man, is of equal value. I do not say the same for societies. Countries that oppress their people are not as worthy as the countries that don’t. People who differ from my spiritual, political, or national views can come to those conclusions with the same information, deliberation, and fervor as I have. Since I know that there are knee-jerk conservatives, I also know that there are those who are equally thoughtless on other sides.

    I do not value personal freedom over collective happiness. I do not see how the two are intrinsically linked in our society. Personal freedom is relative. My son, who has always been legally bound to wear a seatbelt, is about as happy and safe as my father, who chose to wear one as soon as they were installed in cars, was. The time that my children volunteer is much more meaningful to them than the mandatory community service hours of their high school.

    If personal freedom is relative so are religious labels. When I lived in a mid-sized town in Alabama, I was considered to be a renegade liberal. I moved 300 miles east to a city and I am a knee jerk conservative. My views were exactly the same. The only difference was my location.

    The value of money changes from person to person. I chose to stay home when our children were younger to provide them (and a good portion of the neighborhood, it seemed) with a fun and safe place to be. I would choose to stay home now and volunteer if college tuition were not as steep as it is. There are several studies, including this one from The American ( that show that conservatives tend to donate more of everything — time, blood, money — to both religious and secular charities. It’s not that I don’t want to share (if taxed contributions are actually sharing), it is that I want to help and be invested in people and events.

    Thanks for listening.


    • Thank you for your insights. I agree that the characterizations I created were broadly stereotypes of both sides. I also agree that how liberal or conservative one is considered depends greatly on who one is being compared to. And I agree with the idea that personal freedom and collective happiness are not always linked, but when they are opposed to one another, the conservatives tend to value personal freedom more highly. In other words, they are more likely to sacrifice happiness (even their own) to maintain higher levels of personal freedom. An example of this is the Second Amendment argument that is becoming more prominent. The Liberals tend to believe that regulating handguns will make society happier by limiting the number of people getting shot. The conservatives tend to argue not only that the liberal idea won’t work but that more people should carry guns as a way to make people think twice about misusing guns. The Liberals believe that this will simply result in more people getting shot (and thus reduce the happiness of the community at large) while the Conservatives believe that any risk of increased deaths due to guns is outweighed by the assertion of the right of individuals to protect their life and property with firearms. Both sides can be argued effectively, but they are based on different primary values.

      With regard to giving and sharing, I do not say that one side is necessarily better than the other but that the conservatives tend to believe more in personal sharing while liberals have a greater trust of governmental action. The biggest difference in giving seems not to be related to conservatism or liberalism at all — it is religiosity.

      Finally, one last thing I see differently than you. I do not believe that people are generally good. I believe that people left to their own devices will find ways to advance themselves at the expense of others. It is because of this belief that I highly value the role of religion and good government in teaching, monitoring, guiding, and punishing the individual behavior. (Now who wants to debate what constitutes true religion and good government?)

      Thanks again for your comment.


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