iSoul In the beginning is reality

Conservatives and liberals

The terms “conservative” and “liberal” are used in a variety of contexts but what is the distinction? They have come down to us through 19th century politics, but that turns out not to help much since many conservatives today would consider themselves as “classical liberals”. One can use alternate terms such as traditionalist and progressive, but they have various associations of their own.

I would say that the basic distinction is this: conservatives are most concerned with saving something – souls or money or traditions – and liberals are most concerned with spending something – lives or money or resources. That is, conservatives focus on what is worth keeping and liberals focus on what is worth spending.

Religious conservatives want to save souls, to promote what it is that brings salvation, to keep people from being or becoming infidels or unbelievers. Religious liberals want to spend their lives helping people, making the world a better place, doing something that needs to be done.

Economic conservatives want to save money, to buy only necessities, to keep money safe for future needs. Economic liberals want to spend money, to give to the poor, to use money to improve the world now. In the past, this has meant that conservatives had more money than liberals but that is not necessarily true today. Contemporary culture is a spendthrift culture, where most people do not save money either because they have more than enough already or because they live for the present.

Environmental conservatives are “preservationists,” those who value nature for its own sake and want to save it from development. Environmental liberals are “conservationists,” those who want to spend natural resources optimally for the sake of humanity. This is the inverse of what political conservatives and liberals want to do regarding the environment.

Political conservatives want to keep traditions that have worked for generations, to maintain the solvency of governing institutions, to preserve culture and society. Political liberals want to spend resources on improving society, to change what is wrong with society, to remake everything in light of their vision for the world.

In short, conservatives see the glass as half-full, and liberals see it as half-empty. Liberals see what the have-nots need, and conservatives see what the haves could lose. In the past conservatives were considered more pessimistic – seeing what could go wrong – whereas liberals were more optimistic – seeing what could work for the better. But today liberals are almost paranoid about the future – warning of disaster if society doesn’t change radically – whereas many conservatives are content to stay the course with only modest changes.

I have written before, here, about an inversion that can take place between conservatives and liberals. If liberals succeed at changing society enough, then conservatives may long to change things back to where they were before, whereas liberals want to keep their gains. Then liberals will resist change and conservatives will promote a return to what was lost. So conservatives become liberals and liberals become conservatives.

We save in order to have something to spend, and we spend in order to have something to save. The wise counselor advocates balance between these two movements. That is the centrist approach.

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