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Spring 2000, Volume 17.3

Essay

 

Manfred Weidhornphoto of manfred Weidhorn.

Liberal and Conservative Blindspots 


Manfred Weidhorn was born in 1931, in Vienna, Austria. He came to the United States in 1941. He earned graduate degrees in English from the University of Wisconsin and from Columbia University. He has published over seventy essays in scholarly journals, two books on seventeenth-century literature, four books on Churchill, three biographies for
Young Adults, and one self-help book. In 1998, he received the Fred Farrow Award for Excellence in Churchill Studies and in 1999 the Victor Emmett Jr. Award for best essay published in The Midwest Quarterly. He currently lives in northern New Jersey with his wife and two sons.

 

In that secular Bible for philosophers and psychologists, Cervantes's Don Quixote, appears a scene which sheds light on political science as well. The Don, on a mission to right all wrongs, comes across a farmer whipping a young employee and forces the farmer to desist from such an apparently unjust act. Though he rides away satisfied with himself, the Don later learns that he actually worsened matters. For, no sooner was he out of sight, than the farmer resumed whipping with redoubled force.

So it is that in politics most people operate with a moral obtuseness: They celebrate the benefits of the policies they espouse but wilfully ignore the unintended consequences. Conservatives, of course, use that fact as a weapon of choice against liberals, arguing that disposing of old evils usually begets new evils. But the same iron law applies to conservative measures as well. The truth is that, in the abstract, both liberals and conservatives (and, for that matter, socialists too) make noble cases, but when theories are given practical application, the intractability of human nature—the stubborn reluctance of facts to yield themselves to mere theory—is everywhere evident. Lest this assertion itself sound too theoretical and abstract, here is a rundown of the blind spots of both ideological camps.

Liberal

The Activist Fallacy: Modern liberals are indeed, as conservatives complain, hopelessly smitten with government activism. Believing that passing a law will improve things, they are oblivious of the workings of such supreme laws of the universe as Murphy's Law or Life as a Zero-Sum Game. A few decades ago, for example, the California legislature, mindful of the unfairness of divorce proceedings to women, passed reforms. Years later, a study of the consequences showed that, with the best of intentions on the part of the legislators, the law had actually worsened the condition of women. Similarly, as a result of Watergate, liberals passed the Independent Counsel law, which, a quarter century later, they have learned to curse.

The Price Tag: Coupled with this naivete is the liberals' indifference to the financial cost of their altruistic social programs. They have the foolish belief that costs will be contained or that others will in the future attend to such messy little details by taxing the rich. Liberals ignore how a federal program—whether it be the income tax begun in 1913 at a 1% rate or the more recent bilingual education policy—starts innocuously enough but develops a momentum and, with the pressure of newly spawned special interest groups, ramifies in all directions. Medicare, begun in 1965 (in response, be it said, to a legitimate need) and estimated to have a cost of $9 billion at some future time, ended up costing, at the targeted date, approximately ten times as much as was projected.

The Cancer of Bureaucracy: The bill is large in part because these social programs fall under the sway of Parkinson's Law—that work expands to fill available time. The result has been a swollen, intrusive government: the creation of massive bureaucracies which dehumanize the relations within the community, make pedantic rulings, and absorb many of the funds consigned to reform. Unavoidable, as well, is cheating by some of the beneficiaries. When common sense measures against fraud are proposed, such as having welfare recipients fingerprinted, liberals routinely object. They thereby give conservatives good reasons—or pretexts—to attack the programs.

The Hidden Human Costs: Liberals are profligate not only with money but also with human life. They deserve much credit, to be sure, for bringing the South under the rule of law, as well as for expanding the rights of the accused. But their operative principle that it is better for 100 guilty people to go free than for one innocent person to be punished has serious drawbacks. They do not take into account the numerous crimes subsequently committed by guilty men freed as a result of legal technicalities, procedural errors, or easy parole. There is a justifiable feeling that a liberal America has overcompensated for the severity of the law in earlier centuries by making the law too lax. Certainly when dealing with convicted violent criminals, the rule applied to the accused could be reversed: Better 100 allegedly reformed criminals (do they have a high rehabilitation rate anyway?) remain in jail than one secretly unrehabilitated person be paroled and take more innocent life.

The Ambiguity of Violence: Violence in general is indeed a bigger problem for liberals than they realize. Here the whirligig of history has played its trick. In the social ferment of the 1960s, when the movements for civil rights and against the Vietnam War sometimes spilled over into violence, liberals would, without condoning the violence, express sympathy for the cause. They would also welcome clergymen into the ranks of the demonstrators as if that gave their cause the blessing of divinity.

In the 1990s, however, the resort to civil disobedience and violence has become a conservative tactic, and clerics are more visible on the right than the left. Liberal shock over violence practised or preached by anti-abortionists or state militiamen sounds hollow. After all, these rightwingers are also fighting for a cause: Anti-abortionists truly believe abortion to be murder. Did not the liberals establish in the 1960s the principle that divine and moral laws transcend man-made ones? Did they not assert that a man of the cloth has a meaningful contribution to make to civil discourse and to enter politics? Did they not celebrate people who act on principle in the face of hostility from the majority of the untutored populace?

Cultural and Moral Decline: Violence on the right is to liberals a part of the general coarsening of society, as registered by violence on TV; the proliferation of guns; children killing children, sometimes within schools; teenage pregnancy; crudeness in manners and language; drug abuse; the flaunting of deviant behavior. Yet surely liberals themselves have contributed to this decline with an endless stream of permissive books, laws, and judicial rulings which attenuate the notion of individual moral responsibility. Sheltering soft-core pornography, for example, under the umbrella of the First Amendment was surely not what the Founding Fathers intended. The same laxity has contaminated divorce, adultery, abortion, drugs.

The Abrogation of Standards: The decline has reached even into education. There, liberal egalitarianism and permissiveness, however noble in theory, has been baneful. The American school system, once a cynosure, has become one of the worst in the developed world. The experiment of giving virtually everyone who wanted it a shot at higher education has come at the price of the lowering of standards, as quantity trumps quality. Hence, City College in New York, hitherto the poor person's Harvard and the seedbed of Nobelists, has suffered greatly in reputation.

Sentimentality: Liberal open wallets are matched by open hearts. There is a treacly side to liberal benevolence. Concern for civil rights often translates into paternalism towards blacks and into unconscious racism. Liberal guilt over America's racist past has resulted in a double standard, as black militants are allowed to flout some laws and make racist pronouncements in ways that whites cannot. School busing for the sake of integration has proved counter- productive and divisive. Making life easier for immigrants has led to the mess of bilingual education, an expensive program pushed by liberals who are indifferent to the fact that earlier immigrant waves had no difficulty in picking up English and that children learn new languages from the environment very quickly. Experience, no less than common sense, shows that the program actually retards the learning of English and is opposed by many immigrant parents, the supposed beneficiaries.

The Metaphysical Fallacy: Liberals, in short, adhere to the metaphysical fallacy that the universe favors beneficence and good intentions. Though a goodly number of liberals are irreligious, this attitude is a relic of the sense of an orderly, moral universe propagated by ethical monotheism. But, unfortunately for liberals, we live rather in a world in which no good deed goes unpunished.

Conservative

Are Libertarian Conservatives Moral? The conservative camp is notoriously split into the libertarian (or fiscal/ tax-cutting) conservatives and the social conservatives. While each camp has its anomalies, the libertarian conservatives at least have the virtue of consistency. When they speak of keeping government out of our lives, they mean it across the board. But the trouble with them is that by concentrating on money only, they are unaware of how money affects the quality of life.

The obsession with development, efficiency, and productivity leaves out of account the impact of greed on the natural and social environment, on all the esthetic, humanitarian, and moral values that are life's less visible necessities. The libertarians are oblivious to the corrosive effects—the cultural contradictions—of capitalism. Thus the Gross National Product, which they blindly worship, includes not only the money made by tobacco companies but also the money that changes hands as a result of the illnesses cigarettes cause. The same profit motive which generates innovation and excellence also causes cuts in essential services in HMOs and nursing homes.

Unfettered capitalism, in fact, means addicting children to tobacco and alcohol; the rape of the environment; ugly vistas in town and country; a popular culture catering to the lowest tastes; a bountiful arms trade at home and abroad; undermining of family values; coarsening of the moral sensibility.

Cultural and Moral Decline: The deleterious effects of the marketplace on moral values has dual origins. Liberal latitudinarianism is only half the story. Both liberals and conservatives—while blaming each other—have been working in unconscious collusion. Liberals did not incite publishers to print pornography; they merely said that the First Amendment permits it. The actual publishing is perpetrated by businessmen operating on the principle of fulfilling human desires, and their amoral profit motive is at the heart of libertarian economics. Gresham's Law operates here no less than in economics—bad taste invariably drives out good taste. The sainted market place is not about esthetics or morality or tradition; for the results, look around you.

Are Social Conservatives Democratic? The other wing, the social conservatives, have a greater propensity for self contradiction than do the libertarian conservatives. While sloganeering about "getting the government off our backs," they limit that policy to economic matters. On social issues they are actually more interventionist than liberals, socialists, and fascists. They would have the state limit, if not eliminate, drug use (even for medicinal purposes), prostitution, pornography, divorce, abortion, and the secular school system. Not too long ago, these conservatives defended (unsuccessfully) a Connecticut law prohibiting the sale of contraceptives even to married couples and (successfully at first) a Georgia law against sodomy (heterosexual no less than homosexual) in the privacy of one's home. Such interference with the intimate moral choices of people approximates the reach of Stalin and Hitler. Some of these conservatives would prohibit abortion under any circumstances, thus infringing on the religious freedom of Protestants, Jews, and the many others for whom abortion to save the life of the mother is mandatory.

While deriding the oversolicitous liberal "Nanny State," social conservatives are pushing for a "clerical state" by intruding into the bedroom and the doctor's office in their attempt to eliminate behavior not to their liking. They claim to be nonsectarian, but they give us the Bible in a plain brown wrapper.

Are Social Conservatives Christian? The religious provenance (often thinly disguised) of the social conservatives makes for unease. Social conservatives, like their libertarian conservative brethren, are against the welfare state, and the justification for their stance is a variant of "tough love." Welfare, they claim, makes people dependent on the government rather than on their own resources. Yet who cannot feel a certain discomfort when social conservatives attack liberals for being "bleeding hearts." Since many of these social conservatives operate on a foundation of Christian charity, it is rather odd to hear "bleeding heart" used as a pejorative. One would have thought that Jesus was the original "bleeding heart," one who had, moreover, little good to say about wealthy people.

While Jesus took no stand on social legislation, social conservatives seem Scrooge-like in arguing against government help for the unfortunate even when churches and charities assert that they cannot fill the need. Though oft talking of a religious dimension in life, social conservatives are prepared to go with a Darwinian marketplace and let the devil take the hindmost. Could it be that for social conservatives, despite their religious commitment, the invisible hand of Adam Smith trumps the visible hand of God?

Kidnapping Adam Smith: Conservatives have indeed kidnapped not only Christ but also Adam Smith, whom they give scriptural status. From the ramparts of his free market structure, they fire away at the manifest sentimentality of liberals. They themselves affect Machiavellian realism, the sturdy spelling out of things as they are rather than as we would have them be.

The trouble is inconsistency. When it comes to large corporations and CEOs, the Conservatives suddenly go limp. No corporation or CEO can ever do wrong. Conservatives pay lip service to ending corporate welfare, but when was the last time a crusade against this expensive program, like the ones against social welfare, was mounted by a conservative journal or political caucus?

Conservatives are reflexively pro wealth. They do not ask by what means a treasure was accumulated; they do not inquire whether a corporation has become preeminent by mutilating the environment, exploiting labor, fixing prices, or advertising misleadingly. They do not challenge the disproportionate sums awarded by sycophantic Boards of Directors to CEOs, a practice particularly obscene when the corporation has not done well.

Conservatives are thereby ignoring not only, predictably, Karl Marx but also, surprisingly, Adam Smith, who happens to be more consistently tough than they are. Showing no favoritism, he sounds rather more like a present day liberal: He speaks of the proclivity of employers to conspire and "to deceive and even to oppress the public," of "the mean rapacity, the monopolizing spirit of merchants and manufacturers," and of the need for government action to prevent the stultification of the "laboring poor." Would that Conservatives read all of Smith instead of only the entries "profit" and "marketplace" in the index!

Kidnapping Burke: The other great but equally misunderstood conservative guru is Edmund Burke. A telling conservative critique of liberalism and especially socialism is the Burkean idea that you cannot build a society from scratch, through reason alone, and according to a blueprint. Society is something organic which evolves gradually and non rationally. The liberal and radical reformers with their abstractions disrupt a delicate set of relationships. Thus it was, in the Burkean reading, that the revolutions in France and Russia led to reigns of terror.

This is a plausible argument, all the more so as it applies to conservatives as well. Just as the left allowed its dream of utopia to detach it from the realities of human nature, so have the conservatives their own utopian abstractions—the free marketplace and the profit motive. One conservative spoke for many when he said, "The marketplace can do no wrong!" This is the kind abstract oversimplification Burke warned about. A lot obviously depends on the definition of "wrong." A corporation can gobble up an older, smaller firm, then downsize and lay off many workers; as a result, the mom and pop stores in the company town dependent on the workers go bankrupt, and the town, its tax base eroded, turns into a slum or shell. All that pain—inflicted, mind you, just so that some leveraged buy-out artist can walk away with hundreds of millions of dollars—is not "wrong"?

Conservatives will, of course, say that the social wreckage is compensated for by other workers in other towns who will obtain jobs as a result of these transactions. Even if true, is this any different from the communist idea that the present generation has to suffer so that future generations will prosper—except that the one is a spatial, horizontal compensation and the other is a temporal, vertical one? If the communist justification is ruthless, so is the conservative one (even though no gulags are involved, just invisible, silent suffering).

Unshackled capitalism, as Adam Smith warned, tends toward oligopolies and monopolies. The market may (or may not!) in the long run straighten itself out, but not before colossal damage is done and not without government intervention. Yet conservatives ritually tell us that government never does good and must be kept out of our lives.

Conservatives respond that the free market is not functioning to everyone's benefit because, as a result of welfare state programs and environmental regulations, it is not truly free. Unfortunately that is exactly the argument used by Marxists—that communism in Russia, China, and elsewhere did not work because it was not truly communist. Either group being committed to unrealizable abstractions, the one excuse is as implausible as the other.

The Ambiguity of Freedom: The free market is twinned by conservatives with political freedom. Conservatives parrot slogans about liberty but are oblivious of its limitations. Freedom is often a zero-sum game; my liberty comes at the expense of someone else's restriction.

Liberty as conservatives understand it turns out to be for the few mainly. For conservatives, it means the manufacturer's right to dump toxic chemicals, not the consumer's freedom from polluted water and air; the white man's right to do as he pleases, not the black man's freedom from racism; a man's right to amass prerogatives, not a woman's freedom from a double standard in morality, economic power, legal rights; the rich citizen's freedom from the federal government's intrusion into his life, not the average citizen's freedom from intrusion by the state government, the corporation, and the neo-puritans.

The illiteracy, unemployment, poor health, slum conditions, police harassment that are the bane of poor people, especially of the minority poor, are as much an abridgment of freedom as are government regulations. A person can live in a free country and still feel as if she were in a dictatorship or jail because excluded by lack of opportunity from the blessings available to most others. That lack of opportunity may be as much due to bad luck or to prejudice as to incompetence or laziness.

The Goddess Fortuna: For freedom is not only ambiguous but also a function of luck; as Anatole France observed, rich and poor people are equally free to sleep under bridges. To which the conservative response in effect is like John Kennedy's observation that "life is unfair." If some people are born into poverty, it is not society's task to undo their bad luck. This response is another example of conservative mean spiritedness.

Were Americans living at some primitive level, with only so many resources to go around, the conservative assignment of a major role to luck would be as fair as any other system. If, that is, there are ten people in a house that has food and facilities for only six, one solution is to spread everything out thinly (socialism) and the other is to flip a coin to see which six will be winners and which four will be left out (capitalism).

Still, it is hard to subordinate morality and compassion to luck, especially as the social conservatives always invoke religion. Compassion, one gathers from the spirit of Jesus's sayings, is not something to be limited to personal relations. What is called the "social gospel" means bringing compassion to bear on social and political matters.

But that is not even the whole of it. Americans are not at some primitive level. We live rather in a land of great abundance, and, particularly in an age of technology which provides more than enough for everyone; the conservative attitude is simply ugly. The poor and the unfortunate could well be taken care of without making much of a dent in the lives of the affluent. Something like the progressive tax's minimal redistribution of wealth is dictated by common decency or the Golden Rule. If the conservatives and the rich were down on their luck, would not they too appreciate a helping hand?

The Pyramid Factor: Conservatives cater to luck in more than one way. When they justifiably wax lyrical about the openness of America to individuals with an idea and a drive, they act as if only such people succeed and as if such talent has not been sufficiently rewarded. They want to give them ever more tax breaks (e.g. eliminate the capital gains tax), and they disdain the rest of the populace. It is, of course, a characteristic of most self-made people to look askance at those who are down and out. They harbor the feeling, rarely hidden successfully, that "If I can make it, so can you. If you don't, you're lazy and don't deserve any compassion or hand outs."

What conservatives overlook is that not everybody is a cauldron of bubbling talent. Most of us are average, plodding souls who muddle through as best we can. Besides, in any social unit, be it a nation, a business, or a fraternal organization, there is only so much room at the top. Most of the others have to make do as foot soldiers. The few who reach the top do so because of talent—or seniority, sycophancy, or skulduggery. And, yes, they often do so because of luck, which means being at the right place at the right time, happening to know somebody who happens to know somebody else who….

Those not at the top may be mediocre or may just be unlucky; they are not necessarily undeserving. Yet to them conservatives bring the self-made man's indifference to the foot soldiers of life. To wit, they oppose extending unemployment benefits; they attack attempts to provide medical coverage to millions of Americans; they lead the charge against federal programs for education, job training, and job creation, even for summer jobs in the ghetto. They do so because they themselves, or those they represent, did not need these programs in their rise to the top, so why should anyone else?

The Fairness Question: Being or representing the "haves" rather than the "have nots," conservatives rail at big government and heavy taxation. What they really mean is that they object to having the rich subsidize government programs which help the poor. For the record, of course, they claim to be treating the poor as mature adults by forcing them to fend for themselves on the job market, where they can work their way up.

In practice, however, things lack such textbook neatness. To tell poor people to find jobs in a society in which many manufacturing jobs are disappearing and other jobs require technological sophistication is cruel. Economists, moreover, believe that a certain unem ployment rate (once thought to be 6%) is necessary to keep inflation in check. What are those people in the sacrificial group to do without the New Deal safety nets that conservatives would eliminate?

To conservatives therefore—judging them by their policies rather than by their uplifting verbiage—the poor might as well obliterate themselves. Conservatives, moreover, yell "class war!" whenever liberals raise taxes on the wealthy but are quiet when they themselves cut taxes for the rich and indirectly raise them on the poor. This is apparently a war in which one class does all the fighting.

The Underclass: Conservative insensitivity to the poor is matched by their indifference to the travails of the largely minority underclass. In not wanting to hear about the roots of crime, conservatives are invincibly ignorant. Ever inclined to dismiss the criminals from the ghetto and the barrio as beyond the pale, they need to place themselves in the criminal's shoes long enough to see the element of victimization in the criminal, victimization, be it noted, partly deriving (as in the case of slumlords and sweatshop owners) from the much lauded profit motive. Far more important, they need to confront the question of whether they themselves could have done any better were they raised in such abysmal conditions.

Conservatives will, of course, point to those who lifted themselves by their bootstraps—a notable example being, ironically, the eloquent, gifted, albeit ultra-liberal, Jesse Jackson. The answer is that there are geniuses in every field who overcome disabilities, but many minority people are, like many whites, merely average and, unlike whites, are handicapped by their hostile environment. Citing a Jesse Jackson or Jackie Robinson would be like saying to a white person, Einstein was white, how come you are not as productive as he?

Or conservatives will say that, with slavery gone for 130 years and segregation for 30, it is high time to put these excuses to rest. But defects get transmitted from generation to generation. If conservatives emphasize the importance of tradition—religious, moral, patriotic—as a builder of good character, they must also concede the power of bad tradition or of absence of tradition in building bad character. Under slavery, to teach literacy to a black was a crime, families were torn apart at the whim of a master, and work was not properly rewarded. After Emancipation, the nation defaulted on true reconstruction, rehabilitation, and restitution. Much more time and effort will therefore be needed to bring some of the descendants of slavery into the twentieth and twenty first centuries. Nor is the conservative emphasis on family values helpful if not accompanied by the liberals' emphasis on jobs.

The Progressive Tax: One liberal way to cope with the problem of poverty is to adopt the originally Marxist idea of progressive taxation. Conservatives have always railed against it. Why indeed should someone who makes more money— either because he works harder, has more specialized skills, or is more entrepreneurial—be punished for these virtues by having to pay a greater portion of his income in taxes than someone who earns less because of laziness or incompetence?

The answer is that it depends on whether one looks at the productive or the consuming end of the equation. The rationale for the progressive tax is not that it is envious and punitive but that it compassionately takes into account the luck or pain of the taxpayer. The extra percentage that the affluent person pays may crimp his life-style—may prevent him from buying a third home or fourth car—but the extra dollars that someone at the low end of the scale keeps count far more because there are fewer of them. Society has a moral right to say that giving a poor person a chance at a necessity like a college education is more important than helping the rich to obtain yet another luxury.

Conservatives are clearly more concerned with the welfare of those who are already well off than with those who are not. For all their talk about the opportunity society, conservatives forced the free public colleges to begin charging tuition and since then have been constantly raising these fees. If conservatives really want, as they claim, to see society prosper through a maximum use of all available talent, they would do away with public college tuition fees and reduce taxes on the lower middle class.

The Triangle Factor: With the conservative disdain toward the lower orders and the sycophancy towards private wealth and corporate power goes a cynicism and iconoclasm directed at government, as though government is evil beyond redemption. The jihad against government is based on a firm belief in an adversarial relationship between the individual and the state. The individual's loss is the state's gain, and vice versa. Thus forcing someone to fill out an OSHA form is an example of arbitrary government intrusiveness.

Such a view of society is blinkered. The truth is that there are not just two players in the game but three. What conservatives leave out of the picture is a third party, i.e. an intermediate power bloc consisting of state governments, the corporations, the rich, and the large labor unions. We have here a triangular rather than a bipolar relationship: The individual, the federal government, and the intermediate power bloc are in a three-way tug of war. Accordingly, during the Civil War, the federal government rescued the individual from the tyranny of state governments; it freed many individuals from state-sanctioned exploitation by some individuals. The same thing happened, far less violently, during the days of the civil rights movement against segregation. In other words, the same government that was oppressive to a few thousand slave owners and to the white beneficiaries of the post-Civil War Jim Crow system was liberating to millions of human beings.

Nowadays, when the issue is no longer slavery or caste, government is admittedly oppressive to manufacturers who dump toxic by-products into the environment, but it is liberating to all those—including, one hopes, conservatives—who would prefer to have nonpoisonous air and water to ingest. The government is thus not at war with the individual but tries to keep a balance between the interests of the intermediate power bloc and those of the citizenry. That it sometimes does so awkwardly or unfairly is undeniable but hardly unique to it and certainly mendable. The conservative attempt to neutralize the government will, instead of liberating the individual, give him up to the not-so-tender mercies of the intermediate power bloc.

Such a nuanced assessment, rather than the childish Manichaean vision of good individual vs. evil government, is in the spirit of the classical political philosophers, who spoke of the healthy rivalry of the one, the few, and the many. It also accords with the Founding Fathers' vision of power parceled out—again in triangular fashion—among the competing executive, legislative, and judicial branches. The fallacy, then, is to reprehend government power rather than government power. That is, power should indeed be feared, but power accumulated by corporations and wealthy individuals is as threatening as that accumulated by government.

The Ambiguity of Violence: That the Founding Fathers were radical and violent in their day raises some interesting questions. In periods of social turmoil, conservatives are quick to decry resort to violence by radical groups. Even the acts of civil disobedience that marked the civil rights era were denounced by them. There is a bit of hypocrisy here and a lot of inconsistency. "Violence is never justified and does no good" is another one of those abstractions loved by conservatives (as well as, to be fair, by a good many moderates and liberals). This edifying mantra would be legitimate if the conservatives proceeded to condemn the English Civil War, the Glorious Revolution of 1688, The American Revolution, the Civil War, World War II and numerous other acts of violence which they celebrate for producing the liberties which they enjoy. They mean, of course, that the violence in the past that brought me or us to power and prosperity is justified, but the violence in the present with which you or they, the outsiders, try to wrest some of that power from me is wicked. Such an unstated argument is psychologically understandable and widespread, logically self contradictory, intellectually shallow, and morally—if one may dare to apply so radical a thing to politics—a double standard of conduct.

Nostalgia: The ambiguity of the violent American Revolution shows up conservatives as guilty of romanticizing the "good old days." They score many points by emphasizing the things that have worsened—streets and parks no longer safe, quality of life impoverished, family structure in decline, etc. But by blaming liberals for all these changes, they presume far too much about cause and effect. They overlook the tremendous impact of accelerating technological progress on social institutions. They hark back, moreover, to a time when only white men with property had full citizenship and when women, blacks, and children were a good part of their property. They abhor Affirmative Action for women and blacks, forgetting that in the past there existed an unofficial Affirmative Action program that favored white Protestant males, as well as athletes and the sons of the rich and of the alumni. And, above all, while insisting perhaps correctly that America is one of the greatest civilizations, they blithely ignore in the American past the role of treason, rebellion, slavery, genocide, segregation, sexism, homophobia, and atomic attack. The "good old days" were good for whom?

A Static American Revolution: Nostalgia for an idealized past results in a conservative misreading of the American Revolution as a handing down of maximum freedom at one fell swoop. In reality the Revolution was but a beginning. First came the sweeping noble rhetoric about the equality of all men. To subsequent generations fell the task of realizing the rich and at first only dimly perceived true meaning: "Men" came to include black men and, later, white and black women. Nowadays "men" is being made to apply to handicapped people, to homosexuals, to children. When opposing the various liberation movements—African American, Native American, feminist, homosexual—conservatives have been unable to see them as continuing waves stirred up by that rock falling into the lake in 1776. The American Revolution is actually a living, ongoing process and its realization is still in the future.

A Static Constitution: In their fixation on the American Revolution as a definitive, singular event, conservatives have, since the post-New Deal days, been at war with the judiciary. They resent the alleged activism of liberal and moderate judges who seem to go out of their way to find interpretations that uphold the constitutionality of liberal legislation. They thus assume the existence of The Constitution, which liberals putatively rewrite to please themselves.

There is, however, no such entity. Like the Bible, the constitution exists in the eye of the beholder. Just as Jew, Catholic, Protestant, and Moslem (not to speak of the multiple branches and sects within each religion) read the same Bible differently, so do liberals, conservatives, and moderates the constitution. Who is to say which interpretation is definitive? In rendering the constitution friendly to large corporations, for instance, conservative jurists have been as guilty of reading into the text as have liberals.

The conservative legal approach is actually twofold. One school emphasizes strict construction of the words of the constitution, while the other school concerns itself rather with the original intent of its authors. Both approaches downplay the vast changes that society has undergone since the Constitution was written. Here is a simple test case. The Declaration of Independence, from which the Constitution in a sense derives and which was written by the same generation of founders, declares that "all men are created equal." The Constitution, while not containing such a statement, operates within its parameters. Yet it originally treated blacks as three fifths of a person and implicitly withheld the suffrage from the bulk of the population. Some equality! Subsequent generations have, because of the tides of history, interpreted more broadly, as is seen in Amendments 13-15, 17, 19, 24-25. If the "strict construction" and "original intent" conservatives mean what they say, they should be agitating for taking the vote away from all blacks, women, and the propertyless. That they are not prepared to do so, either because of ignorance, inconsistency, political cowardice, or broadened horizon, brings their central principle crashing down. For, once the strict construction and original intent approaches are no longer absolute, the problem becomes of where to draw the line. Conservatives can draw it wherever they like, but they will have a hard time justifying objectively and definitively their choice. With an absolute principle, they were desperately archaic but at least logically invincible; without the absolute principle, they are cast into the high seas of subjectivity.

Pessimism: In the bad old days down to about 1930 (and during the McCarthy years), raising questions about the distribution of wealth or the power of corporations got one labeled as a radical or even fired. Today the climate is different; there is widespread, resigned talk of the widening gap between the rich and everyone else. In our conservative era, the power of money can be openly discussed, as if conservatives, confident of holding all the cards, defy others to try to do something about it. Acknowledging the pervasive, dominating role of money no longer distinguishes liberals from conservatives. The O.J. Simpson case, for example, clearly exhibited the venerable fact that rich people tried for capital crimes will never be executed and often are unfairly exculpated. Even the most extreme conservative has to admit that money dominates society and, despite egalitarian rhetoric, despite the blindfold on Justice, and despite the Hippocratic Oath, provides better services of every kind for the rich. What makes conservatives different, therefore, is the response to the question of what to do about the power of money. Liberals propose to curtail it a little or to find a countervailing force—be it unions or government regulations—while conservatives prefer to leave things alone. Conservatism is therefore a form of pessimism: Evil is here to stay, and life is so constituted that attempts to improve it boomerang; "if it ain't broke don't fix it." Let money reign.

The trouble is that life is "broke" as well as "unfair" in many ways, and the conservatives are guilty of lapsing too easily into defeatism instead of trying to tame Lady Luck a little. No one can deny that human nature is unchanging and that reform runs into all sorts of obstacles, but if conservative advice were always heeded, there would have been no Emancipation, no American Revolution, no departure from primitive life in the caves.

Conservatives will, to be sure, respond that at those historical junctures, which called for radical measures on behalf of human dignity and freedom, they themselves would have been radical and that they are conservative only now when the maximum reform and freedom possible has been achieved. So the debate is over where the point of diminishing returns is to be located, and the legitimate charge against conservatives is of making it too early, too quickly.

Temperament, Not Ideology, Is All: In fact, the conservative attitude to the Constitution, no less than to the American Revolution, is terribly revealing psychologically. To the idea that conservatism is an intelligent, dispassionate analysis of what is possible given human constraints, one might respond that there is more to conservatism (and to liberalism too, of course) than reason and political science. Conservatives and liberals are in good part also the product of environment, experience, emotions, character, and irrationality. Or, to put it simply, the politics one holds (like, indeed, one's religion) is a matter of temperament, not reason or ideology. As a result, many conservatives today who take pride in the American Revolution, Emancipation, and desegregation as major steps toward the maximization of liberty would, had they been alive then, have been on the wrong side because temperamentally they would have felt that the point of diminishing returns had already been reached.

This conjecture is backed by circumstantial evidence. Nowadays everyone agrees that Nelson Mandela is one of the giants of history, but the conservatives' dismissal of him and his African National Congress (in the 1980s) as a bunch of communists suggests a blindness to an American-style Revolution in another country that might well have been matched by a blindness to the American Revolution itself were these conservatives alive in the 1770s. The opposition to sanctions against South Africa (on the laughable grounds that sanctions never work) was another example of conservative defeatism and passivity, of abject surrender to an unjust status quo.

Revealing also was Congressman Newt Gingrich's concession, in his remarks on the occasion of his accession to the Speakership of the House in 1995, that on civil rights, the liberal wing of the Democratic Party had been right—meaning, of course, that conservatives like himself, obsessed by States' Right, missed the bus of history (and of justice) on that issue. Another bona fide conservative, the Reverend Jerry Falwell, likewise has admitted that he had been on the wrong side of the Civil Rights struggle, and William Buckley, a States Rights proponent, writes in a recent column, "The distillations of history tend to confirm the Right Thing. The Right Thing was the Civil Rights Act, we all now acknowledge." Many New Deal measures, such as social security and unemployment insurance, were bitterly resisted by the conservatives of the day and are now accepted by all but the most libertarian or reactionary few. The same is true of the rhetoric of doom which conservatives lavished on the idea of opening higher education, the professions, and the suffrage to women, as well as on various other rights now self evident. Why would today's conservatives have acted any differently than their earlier counterparts had they lived then?

The Grand Illusion

In one sense, there is nothing novel about this catalogue. It consists of all the criticisms which conservatives level at liberals and those which liberals in turn level at conservatives. The novelty is to lump them together, for each side sees the mote in the other's eye and not the beam in its own. A joint critique like this one disrupts all dogmatic slumber. The philosopher, as against the mere partisan, is therefore persuaded by neither system of thought. Each system will satisfy only those who are more eager to find a formula or panacea than to find the truth.

A centrist position, if such a thing even exists, is just as likely to combine the defects of both sides as it is the advantages of both. We are thus left with a depressing metaphysical conclusion: There is no easy way out of the human condition. Every solution exacts its price, and assessing the gains and losses is a subjective matter.

The existence of liberals and conservatives is consequently a tribute to people's myth-making capacity, to the ability of human reason to, as Montaigne said, prove anything. The ultimate flaw (or, if you will, the original sin) of thinking people is generalizing and system building. Liberalism and conservatism are only two speculative theories, neither of which conforms to reality. That is why there are two camps rather than one, and fanatic members of each are lying either to themselves (delusion) or to others (hypocrisy).

Both liberals and conservatives, to be sure, have perfectly coherent systems of thought, but, beginning with different assumptions, they come to different rational conclusions. If conservatives, believing that much evil has simply to be borne (but usually borne by the other fellow), are too dismissive of the resulting suffering, liberals are too dismissive of the difficulties of improving the world, difficulties which spring from ignorance, selfishness, inertia, malice, and vested interest. Liberals do not sufficiently take account of the Old Adam in the human race; conservatives take nothing else into account. Conservatives maximize freedom without regard to who is left out or hurt; liberals maximize the greatest good for the greatest number without regard to those endowed with exceptional talent or money or luck or ambition.

The one major defect that liberals and conservatives share is the certitude that their particular programs will solve the problems confronting the nation. Both sides ignore the possibility (if not the real evidence) that their remedial programs, based on guesses about cause and effect, will do as much harm as good. Nor do they realize that ideas are only as good as the frail people who carry them out and that the latter are unable to live up to the expectations aroused by legislation and by the accompanying noble-sounding rhetoric. Human beings are so limited in prescience and mastery that any provision they make for the future is bound to be overwhelmed by loopholes, undercurrents, human depravity, misperceptions, and the sheer intractability of things. The best that conservatives and liberals can do is tinker at the edges of human imperfection.

Both sides are unaware that the correct diagnosis of a problem does not necessarily entail a correct solution to that problem, that a remedial idea may grow naturally and logically from one's ideological commitment and still not be efficacious. Just as conservatives believe that measures rewarding the affluent and the entrepeneurial classes are sure to have a beneficial spillover or trickle down effect on the less endowed, so do liberals have an equally naive faith that because a measure would compassionately help the weak, it is ipso facto in harmony with the perverse psychology of its beneficiaries, the dismal laws of economics, and the putative moral fabric of the universe. Life being notoriously a minefield of paradoxes and ironies, one can be both consistent and ineffectual, perceptive and irrelevant. Whether conservative or liberal, one can keep the faith and still bungle the task. Psychology will trump ideology every day.

Conservatives and liberals, finally, suffer from the illusion that life is scrutable, that human reason can master challenges, and that adversity can be addressed with formulations which become the basis for action. It may well be, however, that no two cases of anything are the same and that all generalizations soon founder on the rocks of uniqueness. Any program, any course of action, therefore, eventually loses touch with the infinite mutability of reality. Exceptions do not prove or test the rule; they usually are the rule.

 

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