A minor peeve of mine in American politics is the allegation that conservatives don’t know what Socialism is. Granted, conservatives attribute a lot of problems in our nation to socialism. From a more generalized perspective, Marxism, Socialism, Communism, and Fascism all hold to the ideal that society needs to be controlled by government. A standard feature of this type of thinking is that government knows best, and if anything is to be accomplished in society it can be accomplished only by government. This view can be summarized in one term: Socialist.
Contrast this with some other generalizations you find in America. To some, all sodas are called “coke” (though this trend seems to be dying away). Another common example can be found in just about every household in the nation. Do you know what this is?
If you call this a “Band-Aid” you are wrong. This is a bandage, or more specifically an adhesive bandage. “Band-Aid” is a brand name of bandage just like Coca-Cola is a brand name of carbonated beverage.
Technically, to be accurate, we should simply use the term bandages. But, practically speaking, it’s okay to call all bandages “Band-Aids”. We play this same semantic game in politics with another concept: Democracy.
Technically, the United States is not a Democracy. Democracy is direct government by the people. We either show up to a meeting and offer our input, or we don’t show up and we don’t have a voice. Direct government by the people means you have to personally participate to have input into anything. That’s simply not feasible in a large nation spread over thousands of miles (though technology might change that – over 200 years after the American form of government was installed).
The logistical difficulty in Democracy is why we have elections. We elect people to represent us and our interests so we don’t have to spend our own time, every day, doing “the people’s business”. We send our representatives to meet together and handle government business on our behalf. In America we have representative Democracy. There is a word for this type of government; it’s called a Republic. If we’re going to be sticklers about the accuracy of the term “Socialism” we should be equally strict about the term “Democracy”. If what conservatives often call Socialism isn’t really Socialism, what liberals call Democracy isn’t really Democracy.
But we’re not often concerned with semantic accuracy. We can say conservatives don’t understand Socialism, but likewise we can say liberals don’t understand Democracy (especially since by “Democracy” liberals often mean government makes decisions with or without our consent). In fact, liberals don’t understand conservatism either, and seldom are honest enough to care to.
Liberals have a backwards understanding of many things in life. Their views on conservatism are merely par for the course. It’s very easy to find out what liberals think conservatism is since many definitions of the term and the concept are written by liberals. The trite, myopic, and intellectually dishonest view of conservatism held by liberals is typically something like a group of control freaks who don’t like change. Aristocracy is sometimes a term liberals might use to describe conservatism. The problem is, in the real world all political power is like this regardless of ideology.
All political power seeks to preserve itself. Which is another point where liberals are confused; they don’t know the difference between preservative and conservative. Power is very much like an addictive substance. That’s why, as we say, power corrupts. Communism seeks to preserve itself. Socialism seeks to preserve itself. Monarchy, aristocracy, and dictatorship all seek to preserve themselves. But preserving power is a bit different than preserving other things. For power to be preserved it must be expanded. How does power get expanded? Ironically, political power is expanded by being concentrated.
The preservation of power naturally encourages the concentration of power – gaining more power and keeping in the hands of the few. This is something conservatives despise. Conservatives abhor aristocracy. Conservative ideology demands the dispersion of political power, not its concentration. The concentration of government power inevitably means the loss of autonomy among the people. But when they talk about this common sense fact of power, you can probably guess what liberals call conservatives: anti-government. To the modern liberal more government is good a thing. So in fact, it is liberals who want concentration of power – aristocracy. Conservatives are constantly talking about getting government out of people’s way and what they mean by this is the opposite of the concentration of power. Liberals, on the other hand, often feel free to take liberty with other people’s rights – just as an aristocracy would.
So why does conservatism demand the dispersion of power? Because conservatism recognizes, among many other things in life, that good and evil actually exist. Conservatism does not pretend all things are equal. Some things are better than others. Some decisions are good, and some not so good. Things in life are not all equal, which makes it very important for power to be limited. In the view that good and evil exist it is natural to resist and fight evil. Preventing it is even better; thus the impetus to prevent the concentration of power.
One of Conservatism’s prime imperatives is the avoidance of waste and abuse. In fact, liberals do actually have an example of conservatism where they are willing to be at least somewhat intellectually honest: environmentalism.
Environmentalism commonly includes the imperative to avoid wasting energy or abusing resources. That’s why we call it “conservation”. Environmentalism seeks to conserve resources (avoid waste) in order to preserve our environment (avoid abuse). But, unlike political conservatism, environmental conservatism follows a liberal methodology of enforcement: taking liberty with other people’s rights by concentrating power in the hands of the few. Thus, where political conservatives seek to avoid the over use of power, environmentalists, and frankly all modern liberals, prefer the over use of power to compel people to do what liberals think people should do.
What environmental conservatism and political conservatism share is a desire to preserve something by conserving something else. Political conservatism seeks to preserve liberty by conserving political power (avoiding its abuse). But liberty can be abused as well, thus conservatism seeks to limit liberty only where it becomes destructive. Of course, these notions are quite subjective, thus not so simple to navigate.
Liberalism, on the other hand, also claims to preserve liberty by avoiding abuse. But liberalism seems to focus on limiting the abuse of liberty by means of concentrated power. It is not conservatives who tried to restrict sodas in order to “protect” people’s health (a measure which did not survive). It is not conservatives floating the idea of mandatory voting as a means of “helping” people. It is not conservatives infringing on people’s right to defend themselves under the guise of preventing gun violence (gun control supporters easily make themselves look anti-self defense). It is not conservatives who thought increasing government bureaucracy in healthcare or mandating health insurance was a good way to improve healthcare. It is not conservatives who keep regulating fossil fuels into astronomically high prices with ethanol and taxes. It is not conservatives who keep regulating tobacco products out of the marketplace while touting weed should be legalized. It is not conservatives creating and enforcing politically correct speech codes all across the country, limiting what people are permitted to say and punishing them for the slightest transgressions. It is not conservatives redefining bedrock notions upon which civilization itself is built.
A common issue where liberals think they really know what conservatives believe is gay marriage. But, as is typically the case, liberals are wrong. Liberals tend to believe ideas are so malleable that anyone can make any idea into anything they want. Liberals trumpet the notion of redefining things. As mentioned above, to the modern liberal the constitutional right to free speech has been redefined to include an ever expanding list of things people cannot say – because being free from unpleasant words is somehow better than being free to express those words (a lesson quite the opposite of one society has taught conservative Christians over the years). To the liberal, believing marriage means one man and one woman is equivalent to preventing gay people from loving or living with whom ever they wish. Which is simply not the case, as is clear for anyone willing to actually think about it for themselves. But to the liberal, as of last year, to still believe something about marriage that billions of people believed only two years ago is now bigotry. In fact, conservatives commonly favored expanding civil unions to accommodate gay activists. Instead, liberals demanded the government usurp a religious institution to redefine marriage and pretend the new definition is what marriage really meant all along (which is in direct contradiction of the separation between church and state liberals so frequently claim is such an important aspect of a free society).
Conservatism is not about resistance to change or keeping things “the way they used to be”. Conservatives freely embrace well vetted ideas. But fast, untested change automatically meets great resistance for two reasons. First, untested change means we don’t know what the consequences will be. Wanting good change is one thing; wanting any change and pretending it will be good is very different. We don’t know what consequences untested change brings and that means change could be bad even if unintentionally so. That’s asking for trouble. Massive cultural change ought to be good and good change requires thorough consideration over time. Second, fast and untested change on a massive scale is how tyrants get into power and cement it.
Even the battle against slavery was not fast, untested change. Slavery was an abuse of power and a distortion of reason and decency. It was not progressives who fought against slavery in the US; it was conservatives who wanted to end an abuse of power. Slave owners saw slavery as about property rights; abolitionists saw slavery as about human rights. Likewise conservatives want to put an end to abortion, for the same reasons they wanted to put and end to slavery. Preserving freedom demands conserving power. Abortion supporters view abortion as about women’s rights; conservatives see abortion as about babies’ rights and the abuse of power over them.
The liberal perspective of freedom often results in restricting what people are allowed to do or say or even believe and it does so by demanding more power concentrated in government. For liberalism, dealing with problems requires more government programs and more laws. To conservatives, this looks like oppression. The conservative perspective of freedom is meant to restrict the harm unfettered power or unfettered liberty can inflict on society in general while dispersing power from government and leaving as much liberty as possible for the individual. For conservatism, dealing with problems is best left to individuals and groups navigating tough decisions in a respectful way which does not infringe upon other people’s right over themselves. Similarly, conservatism holds compassion is the responsibility of the individual, not the state, and that self-inflicted harm or harm we may inflict on others is best dealt with by avoiding it (recognizing the consequences (good and bad) of our own decisions). To liberals this looks like oppression.
So the next time someone talks about Democracy but uses it wrongly, it’s probably not worth the trouble to correct the mistake. But if some liberal hack spouts off about conservatism, if possible remind them they don’t know what they are talking about. You can use Coke, Band-Aid, and Democracy to help drive the point home.