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This blog grows out of my conviction that every aspect of our lives is sacred and is to be nurtured and celebrated as a good gift of God. Most of the posts will be the sorts of things you would expect from a historian and worldview teacher, but some are likely to be a bit surprising. Since God created all things good, including all aspects of human life, everything is interesting and important from the perspective of a biblical worldview. Everything under the Sun and under Heaven is thus fair game here. I hope you find it interesting and enjoyable.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Conservatives and Progressives


As I see it, the conflict in American politics between political and economic conservatives and progressives boils down to the fact that each starts with different assumptions about human nature and human relations. 

Before getting into the different assumptions, however, two comments should be made up front. First, progressives today used to be known as liberals. I am personally grateful for this change in terminology because as a European historian, I have to explain to my students constantly that in Europe, a liberal is very much like an American conservative: someone who emphasizes personal liberty as expressed in free market economics. This idea is conservative in America because America was founded as a "liberal" country  (as opposed to the conservative monarchists), and so for us it’s the traditional view. The change in term to "progressive" makes this explanation a bit easier.

Second, as an American conservative, this is my best effort at explaining the fundamental assumptions in progressivism based on my observations of their words, their policies, and their practice. If I got it wrong, I would welcome comments. With that said, let's start with conservatives.

For conservatives, economic and personal liberty is at the center of politics. The essential idea here is that people have a right to choose who they want to represent them via elections, and whose businesses and products they want to buy via commerce. The purpose of government is to provide a secure environment where everyone can compete on a level playing field, with the results determined by the market.

This means that conservatives tend to put a lot of focus on the top end of the market, since they believe that all things being equal, the successful earned their way there by providing better goods and services at cheaper prices, thereby creating wealth. This is why they oppose excessive government regulation, subsidies, protectionism, etc.: these distort the market and thus prevent it from operating properly.

Although conservatives emphasize creating an environment that rewards efficiency and innovation, contrary to stereotypes this does not mean that they ignore the poor. They believe that the most effective means for helping them is not through government action, especially at the federal level. Rather, they believe that intermediate agencies (i.e. charitable and service organizations) are better equipped to help people in need than the federal government is.

The reason is simple: intermediate agencies are much closer to those in need and can provide more personalized assistance than a one-size-fits-all federal program can. They also require less bureaucratic oversight and thus are far more efficient than government programs. There are other reasons for supporting the role of intermediate agencies beyond just efficiency, but this will do for now. If you’re interested, I discuss this in my poverty series, particularly in Politics and Government 1.

As an aside, one effect of this attitude toward those in need is that conservatives tend to give more to charity than progressives: they see this as a personal responsibility, rather than part of the role of government. If you don’t believe me, check out the amount of charitable giving of Democratic vs. Republican presidential candidates. It’s an eye-opener.

Progressive politics, formerly known as liberalism, operates from a different set of base line assumptions and priorities. If the focus of conservatives is on promoting market competition and letting those who can outperform the others rise to the top, the focus of progressives is on those who do not succeed, who lack money, power, or prestige, who for any reason are seen as losing out in the current system, whether the poor, racial minorities, LGBT (despite the homosexual community having higher average income than the country as a whole), etc.

The emphasis on the “have nots” leads to two consequences. First, progressive politics is often built on outrage and passion. It’s no accident that most major demonstrations over the past several decades were in support of progressive causes. The Tea Party was such a shock in part because it was an expression of conservative outrage, which didn’t fit the pattern. Second, progressives tend to believe that the current system is broken, and someone needs to step in to redress the wrongs. In practice, that “someone” is nearly always the federal government.

A second assumption that is de facto built into progressive thought is that the world operates as a zero sum game: if someone is getting rich, it must be because someone else is getting poor. Thus disparities of wealth are major problems, and to solve the problem of poverty, wealth has to be redistributed from rich to poor, again by government action.

The reliance on governmental solutions has an important side effect. Progressives often rely on courts or regulations put into place by bureaucrats to promote their agenda rather than advancing it through legislation. Ultimately, I would argue this is an inevitability. Progressivism leads to a technocratic approach to government because its policies require a professional bureaucratic class to run them. Rather than trusting businesses or the market to make appropriate decisions, the progressive puts faith in government as more responsive to the needs of the powerless.

There’s obviously a lot more that could be said about the topic, but for a brief introduction this will do. I do have a few appeals to make, though.

To my conservative friends, please keep in mind that however much we may disagree with the premises, progressives are well-intentioned people trying to deal with real problems. You may disagree with their solutions, but that doesn’t mean you should see them as ill-intentioned or bad people.

To my progressive friends, conservatives care about the same problems you do, but they disagree with you about how to fix them. They aren’t corporate dupes or brainwashed or bigots. They have different starting points than you do and so come to different solutions.

To both, keep in mind that Republican does not necessarily mean conservative, nor Democrat progressive. This isn’t about party—many conservatives, for example, argue that a lot of Republicans are de facto progressives. And watch the stereotypes: Wall Street gives more money to Democrats and President Obama than it does to Republicans, for example, so by that measure the Democrats are the party of Wall Street, not the Republicans. These kinds of things are distractions from the real issues, which involve political and economic philosophy and the solutions to specific problems that grow from them. It would be nice to have an adult conversation about those as part of the political campaign, without caricature, vilification, or stereotyping. 

But I’m not holding my breath.