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Trying to Understand the Liberal v. Conservative Approaches

The title alone invites mockery (from people like me, among others), but for now I’ll just put this here with the very genuine explanation that I heard this on CSPAN radio on Sunday, and I’ve been thinking about it since.

Yuval Levin, of National Affairs Journal, being interviewed by Brian Lamb:

LAMB: I want to ask you to help define the nuances of conservatism. We’re going to go back to 2005; eight years ago. Paul Weyrich, the late Paul Weyrich was in that chair there and he said this and see what you think of this.


PAUL WEYRICH, AMERICAN CONSERVATIVE POLITICAL ACTIVIST: Our culture is continuing to decline. Here we are, working on a marriage amendment you know something that I thought was self-evident that marriage was between a man and a woman, but now we’re having difficulty trying to get this passed. You know we are not succeeding in changing the culture to return to a time when values mattered. They’re becoming less and less important in the society. And you know when all is said and done, it doesn’t matter whether you have a minimum wage or not. And it doesn’t matter you know what kind of trade policy you have, if in fact the moral fabric of the society has disintegrated.


LAMB: What about the morals; the values?


LAMB: I mean his definition of values might be different than today’s.

LEVIN: Well, let me – let me start in a general way. I think conservatism is – the difference between conservatives and liberals; a very profound difference is that conservatives begin from a constrained and limited notion of – limited set of expectations about what human beings can achieve, what human knowledge can achieve, what human power can achieve. And because of those low expectations, they value very highly the achievements we have in our society; the things that work and they want to preserve them. They want to save the preconditions for those things continuing to work. Liberals tend to begin from higher expectations; from a notion of greater perfectibility in the human being, from higher expectations about human knowledge, about human power. And for that reason, they start out with a sense of outrage about what’s failing because they think we can do a lot better. They don’t begin by appreciating what is best; they begin by trying to undo and root out what is worse.

Both of these things are very valuable, very important and very necessary, but they’re quite different. You start looking at a world that has both good things and bad things and your first instinct is to be grateful for the good and build on it to address the bad or you start looking at a world that’s both good and bad and your first instinct is to be outraged and to root out what is – what is worse based on an idea of what could be best; an idea of perfectibility, you approach politics very differently.

And what you see from Paul Weyrich there, in part, is a sense that what works about our society has to be protected, because it’s rare, because it’s enormously valuable, and because it could be lost very easily. Conservatives care a lot about culture, because culture’s the way we sustain those things that work about our society. Any human society is always under constant barrage by new members, by people who were born without all the great progressive notions of what we can do. We’re all born barbarians and we have to be trained to become civilized people. And the culture is what does that. It’s what makes it possible to turn a newborn human being into a civilized American citizen. And so conservatives think that’s not easy. That doesn’t happen by itself. And one of the most important things that any society has to do at any given time is to preserve that; to worry about the culture, the way in which it can train the next generation to continue in the footsteps of past ones. And so culture matters an enormous amount to conservatives. It’s not taken for granted as just being there and we can build on it. It has to constantly be nourished.

This is worth thinking about.


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  1. freewheel

    “Conservatives care a lot about culture…”

    Whose culture? Is he referring to what Glenn Beck called “white culture”?

    I think a key difference between conservatives and liberals is not mentioned here. It’s fear. Conservatives are afraid of change and anything too foreign or unfamiliar. Liberals are less likely to fear change and tend to welcome diversity, both in terms of culture and ideas.

  2. Interesting. My take on conservatism and liberalism is quite the opposite.

    For me as a conservative, I see that the government’s primary role is to protect us from each other, not to protect us from ourselves. The government is not there to give us a safety net. That is what family, church, and charity is for. If the people want Planned Parenthood, they will give their own money to it. If the people want Head Start, they will give their own money to it.

    Liberals, it seems to me, do not believe that people are smart enough or wise enough to manage their own affairs. They must be told what cars they can drive, what toilets they can buy, what light bulbs they can buy, and what insurance they MUST buy. People must have their money taken from them to give to the elderly in their retirement, because people are too foolish to save for their own retirement, and their children and grandchildren too selfish to take care of their parents and grandparents. Money must be take from the people and given to the “right” charities, because the people are too stupid and selfish to donate their money properly.

    That is why conservatives give more money, time, and blood to charity than liberals do. Conservatives believe it is OUR job, as individuals and voluntary associations, to take care of those in need. Liberals believe that it is the government’s job, and so must TAKE the money to do those things.

    Which begs the question, if the people are too selfish, stupid, and unwise to manage their own affairs and to help those in need, how can they possibly be altruistic, smart, and wise enough to vote for those who will make those decisions for them?

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