Kudos to Jeremy Truitt for his article on the psychology of liberals versus conservatives. This is a difficult topic for a centrist, because our goal is to make each side think constructively about the other. It’s much easier to write for one side and vilify the other – that’s why you see so much of it.
We will start with the caricatures, and then move on to a place of understanding. Conservatives, technically, come in two varieties – fiscal and social. In the left’s imagination, the former are soulless capitalists, bent on exploiting workers and despoiling the planet. The latter are uneducated zealots, who favor civil rights only for white Christian males. Unfortunately, we do see the likes of Todd Akin every so often, and that reinforces the stereotype.
On the right, liberals are diagnosed with a pathological guilt that drives them to give money to a class of lazy freeloaders – that is, the ones who are not lazy freeloaders themselves. We covered some of this material in Voting Your Self-Interest. It boils down to whether you are willing to raise taxes on yourself, or on someone else.
The constructive way to look at liberals is that they are empathetic. They want to help people less fortunate, and they expect government to be the vehicle for this help. Conservatives are not insensitive to these needs, but they are skeptical about involving the government. What liberals think of as a government function called “social justice,” conservatives think of as “charity.” They are favorably inclined toward “Christian charity,” but they see it as outside the scope of government.
Fundamentally, the social goals of Liberty and Equality are at odds. It’s easy to scrawl both of them on a banner – with Fraternité, for good measure – but they result in opposing policies and opposing world views.
America’s founders were preoccupied with Liberty. At that time, the economy consisted of agriculture and trade, and inequality was due to hereditary land ownership. Let a man clear his own land in the new world, and all would prosper.
Liberty means that whatever you make from your own toil, you can keep – no harsh taxes to King George. It also means the freedom to fail. If you make bad decisions, or don’t exert yourself, you get what you deserve. If you are infirm, or plain unlucky – the church will take you in.
This is the world inhabited by conservatives. It is not quite “every man for himself.” It is more like self-reliance, the adult notion that you are primarily responsible for what happens in your life.
Within one hundred years, a third “factor of production” had developed – capital – and now we can say that a hereditary monopoly of capital is just as damaging as that of land once was. If our government is to maintain the meritocracy envisaged by the founders, there are not many proactive policy options. Attempts to level the playing field almost always have the character of an ad hoc redistribution of wealth.
This drives conservatives crazy. They feel violated by high taxes, because it infringes their basic liberty. They also feel, on the flip side, that receiving largesse from the government makes you its slave. There is empirical evidence that once the government gets involved with “who deserves what,” it is on the fast track to dictatorship.
Liberals, on the other hand, can make a plausible case that “the system isn’t fair,” and intervention is required. Inequality is stark in America, especially if you take a synchronic view.
So, here is the our impartial, centrist synopsis of the left-right psychological divide.
- The right feels that Liberty is paramount, and inequality a tolerable side-effect. They fear and distrust a government that treats the latter by infringing the former.
- The left feels that inequality is a blight on America, and they expect the government to fix it. They trust government to deliver some kind of Equality without unduly infringing Liberty, or the meritocracy.
It’s tough to thread that needle. We hope you saw your own perspective here – and the other one, too.