What is a Conservative?

A reader asked me an interesting question the other day. Why, she asked, does almost every political issue have a well-recognized “conservative” and “liberal” side? Why should the great majority of conservatives agree with each other on subjects as diverse as abortion, tax rates, capital punishment, gun control, illegal immigration,  foreign aid, and campaign finance; and why can we count on the great majority of liberals taking the opposite side?

I think the answer is that right wing and left wing world views are based on different assumptions, different principles, and even different moral codes. The differences on specific issues arise from these more fundamental differences in outlook.

The most basic difference between conservatives and liberals is that conservatives believe in individual responsibility, where liberals believe in shared responsibility. The left-vs-right arguments about specific political issues almost always boil down to this this difference in outlook.

Take gun control. When one man uses a gun to murder another man, conservatives blame the shooter for the murder, and liberals blame the gun. Conservatives will say that the guilty individual should be executed or locked up (and the key thrown away), liberals say that the government needs to protect us all by banning guns.

Conservatives always think that the individual person is where all moral issues are centered; liberals think that the national government is the center of the moral universe.  

Making government more powerful, so it can do more good, is the central principle of the liberal moral code. President Franklin Roosevelt was a powerful spokesman for the leftist view that only government can do anything good. In his Second Inaugural Address, FDR promised to build up the federal government into “an instrument of unimagined power for the establishment of a morally better world.”

In President Reagan’s First Inaugural Address he showed how different the conservative perspective is. “Government is not the solution to our problem,” said Reagan, “government is the problem.”

Ask a typical American conservative what his most important values are, and he’ll probably give you something that sounds more or less like the biblical Ten Commandments, even if he’s not a practicing Christian or Jew. Conservative columnist George Will, for example, has no use for religion, but his political beliefs are all quite clearly based on principles like “thou shalt not commit murder,” and “thou shalt not steal.” The principles that conservatives value all pertain directly to the behavior of the individual.

Ask a liberal for his most cherished principles, and he’ll start talking about politics. The government has to give more to the poor, the government has to get rid of those evil weapons, the government has to actively make amends for black slavery in past centuries, the government has to make sure everybody has access to health care, etc. etc. 

“Mere” personal behavior is way down the list.

For this reason, liberals and conservatives frequently find themselves talking at cross purposes. Liberals say a math teacher’s first duty is to teach children how racist and unfair this country is. There is no opposite side to that. Conservatives don’t want math teachers to teach conservative politics, we want math teachers to teach math. The political ideas should be reserved for social studies classes, not math classes, and both sides should be presented even there.

Of course the constant, never ending argument about tax rates is right at the heart of the conservative vs liberal argument. Since leftist think that only government can do anything good, it is an article of faith that the government never has as much money as it should have. Conservatives, having a much more skeptical view of the role of government in society, would rather see most of the money an individual earns stay with the individual.

Ultimately just about every issue on which liberals and conservatives consistently disagree boils down to this fundamental disagreement about where moral responsibility lies. A conservative is someone who believes in individual responsibility.


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2 thoughts on “What is a Conservative?

  • This is a fairly old post but I just came across it and though I agree with some of what you say, I have to disagree with some of your conclusions.

    I am a conservative when it comes to certain issues, ie. abortion, right to carry a gun, etc. But I’m also a liberal on other issues. Everyone should have access to health care and tax dollars should be used to fund it. Everyone should be responsible for the good of society as a whole. Though I believe in individual responsibilty for myself and for others, I also believe that I am individually responsible for those that I am able to help. Just because one is a liberal does not believe that they don’t believe in individual, moral responsibility. It’s not that simple.

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