Liberal, Conservative? Po-tay-to, Po-tah-to?

I revisited this essay I wrote last year and wanted to repost it here on my Medium page. Somethings never change…

I recently came across a post on my Facebook page via a friend (a Blue) that linked to a blog post by a writer named Lori Gallagher Witt. Apparently, this post found its way to my feed through a viral sharing on Twitter by some well-known celebrities, the film director and actor Ron Howard among them.

I clicked through and read the blog post, which was an open letter in the form of a manifesto of how Ms. Witt defined herself as “liberal.” I was immediately struck by how little of it defined liberal ideology from any other ideology. It was really a defense of 15 core beliefs by which Ms. Witt defined her political identity. I realized the manifesto was more of a profession of faith, not unlike what many religious groups adhere to. (Ms. Witt eschewed any form of religious faith or belief, adopting a live-and-let-live attitude with a strong tinge of anti-religious secularism. In other words, her religion is modern secular liberalism.)

I decided to write a response to this post in an article for Braver Angels not because I wish to critique Ms. Witt’s belief system but to address many of the deeply held beliefs that many citizens think distinguish them from their opposition. Rather, I believe most citizens share these beliefs, but understand that implementing policies consistent with these beliefs can lead to divergent political interests.

As Ms. Witt writes, “let’s break it down, shall we?” I will classify her 15 principles into three categories to delineate defining differences.

First are those that seem completely agreeable to most Americans, especially those who go to church [bracketed sections are paraphrased.]

  1. I believe a country should take care of its weakest members.

Second are those beliefs that carry with them a positive right to goods and services provided by collective society (which means somebody has to produce them, somebody has to pay for them, and somebody has to distribute them.)

  1. I believe healthcare is a right.

Lastly are some of Ms. Witt’s opinions of the character of American society, which seem more interpretive than strictly factual:

  1. [I believe] I should pay my [fair] share [of taxes] as long as it’s actually going to something besides…

I’m not going to address this 3rd category of beliefs because, without extensive empirical data, these opinions are impossible to refute, just like religious doctrine. I make a point of it not to argue with peoples’ beliefs.

Anyhow, Ms. Witt concludes her litany with this statement: I’m a liberal because I think we should take care of each other.

I trust that Ms. Witt is sincerely expressing her deeply held, empathetic political beliefs, but I also don’t believe these beliefs define her differently than a generic conservative. One could easily substitute I’m a conservative because I think we should take care of each other, and receive no objection from conservatives. Perhaps that needs further explanation.

The first category above concerns the extension of equal rights and opportunity in a free society. I don’t believe anyone who believes in American exceptionalism could possibly disagree with these expressions of empathy and compassion for our fellow citizens, or even those who desire to become citizens. Differences of opinion mostly settle on the “How,” or the means to accomplishing those goals. For example, a conservative might ask — how do we make good education accessible to all? Or, how much regulation is necessary to ensure open competitive markets as the ultimate regulator? Or, how do we manage refugee flows to ensure the integrity of our free society? Or finally, how do we best take care of our weakest fellow citizens, or lift them up to where they can care for their own needs?

So, the difference is not who believes or doesn’t believe in these objectives of a good and free society. The difference is over how we achieve them.

Next, we must deal with the more complicated second category of the provision of goods and services. To merely say “healthcare is a right” is a declaration in search of a solution. This gets at a crucial difference between left and right. The left tends to seek positive rights, by which we mean things that must be guaranteed to citizens by the social contract. An example would be free education. Positive rights are different than negative rights, which are inherent to citizenship and must be defended by the legal and judicial system, such as the right to free speech.

The problem with positive rights is that the good or service offered by the government as a “right” to all citizens, what we call a public good, must be produced by someone, and then the costs of that production and its distribution must be paid for by someone else. Liberals see the solution in taxation and redistribution under the direction of government agents. This is done in many cases, but a conservative would ask, is it necessary, and is it more beneficial than costly? Obvious cases are the USPS, the VA, the military, police and fire depts and the DMV. (Social Security and Medicare as entitlements are not public goods, but transfer payments.) A conservative would probably side with the economist’s view that public goods are specific and cannot be provided by the private market, are inefficient and often wasteful, but also are politically necessary. They also see these public goods as mostly local and decentralized, not needing centralized Federal programs.

The second category of desirable social objectives, such as affordable education, healthcare, wage growth, and affordable housing, are all societal needs that we hope we can produce in sufficient supply to meet the demand. Conservatives would argue that the public sector is not capable of accomplishing this effectively and that conceding control over the production and distribution of such to the government apparatus is an unnecessary risk. Nobody really wants to make the DMV the model for good government — but that doesn’t mean conservatives oppose the goal of meeting those societal needs.

This second category of positive rights is also infused by the idea of “fairness.” We all think we know what’s fair. And we all think that idea is determined by universal moral values. The problem is that “fairness” is a subjective notion that constantly seeks a moral absolute, and depends largely on one’s point of reference. In other words, because fairness cannot be measured in any absolute way, what seems fair to me may seem unfair to you. We become lost in relativism. This is the problem conservatives see in demanding everyone pay their “fair” share of taxes. What, exactly, is fair?

Jonathan Haidt points this out by showing that conservatives and liberals have different definitions of fairness: “On the left, fairness often implies equality, but on the right it means proportionality — people should be rewarded in proportion to what they contribute, even if that guarantees unequal outcomes.”

It flows from this that conservatives believe that we can and should guarantee equality of opportunity, but not equality of result, and that’s about as fair as we can be. Most of us heard from our parents early on that “life is not fair,” which is true, but that’s why we have many non-political institutions such as family, kin networks, unions, charities, and more to help compensate for the unfairness of life.

After thinking about Ms. Witt’s manifesto, I realized she was just declaring herself a humanist, a claim shared by almost all people who live in harmony among their fellow human beings. Humanism is noble (as long as it is not abused.) Humanists are liberal, conservative, socialist, libertarian, and also non-ideological.

I happen to believe that reds and blues share most of the same deeply held beliefs about American society but differ significantly in how to support those beliefs in practice. Differences in practice can be tested empirically and then converge on best practices. But attacking each other on moral grounds ignores our common humanity and drives us apart unnecessarily. I think as citizens, we want to achieve these goals through successful governance, and not just win elections and ultimately fail to achieve these goals.

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Michael Harrington

I am currently a tech start-up founder in the creative media original content space. Social science academic and author.