Saturday, February 15, 2014


Casual observers are often confused by the distinctions between the ideological parties known as conservatives and liberals. What makes a conservative a conservative and a liberal a liberal, they wonder.

There are numerous differences which tend to manifest themselves, roughly, in three policy domains: foreign, social, and fiscal. Conservatives tend to gravitate toward the Republican Party, although not all Republicans are conservatives, and liberals tend to populate the Democrat Party though there are some Democrats, not many, to be sure, who are not liberal.

Put simply - it's more complicated than can be explicated in a short post - the differences include the following:

On foreign policy liberals tend to be interventionists and conservatives tend to be isolationists. Liberals believe we have a moral duty to intervene in foreign disputes to help those who are being unjustly harmed. Thus, liberals like Hillary Clinton (and some more liberal Republicans like John McCain) argued for an American intervention in Syria on behalf of the rebels against the brutal Assad regime, whereas most conservatives opposed it, arguing that interfering in the affairs of others is only justified if there's a clear national interest at stake.

Fiscally, conservatives tend to believe that government should not spend more than it takes in, should not spend taxpayers' money frivolously or wastefully, and should keep the tax burden on its citizens low. They also believe that freedom is inversely proportional to the size of government. The bigger, more obtrusive government is the less free its citizens will be. Liberals are much less concerned about deficit spending (i.e. spending more than revenues can pay for), debt, or big government. Indeed, they see government as a force for good in society and the more of it there is the better off we are.

This is one reason why liberals are supportive of the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) and conservatives oppose it. The ACA hands control of almost 20% of the economy to the federal government and takes many health care decisions out of the individual's control and hands them to bureaucrats. It also explains why liberals are much less concerned about NSA surveillance of citizens' communications than are conservatives who see this as a dangerous intrusion by government upon personal privacy.

On social matters, liberals are much less bound by traditional values like marriage, family, work, religion, etc. than are conservatives who believe that deviations from the traditional ways of ordering society should be undertaken only with the utmost caution and circumspection and only for very compelling reasons. Thus conservatives take a dim view of progressive experiments with marriage, abortion, easy divorce, profligate welfare programs, and secularization, whereas liberals tend to embrace all of these.

All of this may seem a bit abstract so perhaps the difference between liberals and conservatives, particularly as regards social welfare, can best be summed up in a story a student recently shared with me. I've amended the tale somewhat to make it fit the theme of the post:

A high school-aged son of liberal parents was speaking with a neighbor, who happened to be a conservative, about a friend from his class at school whose family was very poor and couldn't buy decent clothes or school supplies for their kids. He told the neighbor how much his heart went out to this family and how much he wanted to help them, but he didn't have much money. The conservative neighbor commended the boy for his compassion and told him that if he wished to help the disadvantaged family he could do some yard work and painting for him and use what he earned to help his needy classmate.

The boy thought about this for a moment and then said "That'd be great, but why couldn't my friend come here, do the work, and earn the pay himself?" The man smiled and said, "Don't tell your parents you asked that. They'll think you're becoming a conservative."