A Voice of Reason: Sane Views for a Crazy World

April 22, 2007

The Attractiveness of Liberalism

A good post by Perri Nelson. It’s long so I’ve edited and put in parts. My comments are interspersed.

Why do you think it is that so many people are attracted to modern day liberalism? I’m not talking about classical liberalism here, but modern day liberalism. I’m talking about the collection of ideologies that we refer to these days as “the left”.

To answer my question, I think we have to start by looking at the various components of liberalism. This is going to take a lot of discussion, and I know that there’s no way we can cover it all in just one post. Some of you are going to look at the length of this post and think “Oh Lord, another long winded dissertation.”

I’m sorry about that, but what can I say. This is my blog, and I think some things are simply too complex to leave to short “sound bite” posts. I’m not an expert on the subjects by any means, but I’d like to discuss them with you. Hopefully you’ll want to discuss them with me too. I think I can learn a lot from the discussion, and I hope you will too.

Part of my intent here is to sort out the hard-core irrational ideologues on both sides of the debate from the rest of us and look at what motivates them and us. I want to look at the consequences of the opposing viewpoints and compare them on their merits, and not on the basis of personalities or ideologies.

A bigger cause for concern to me though is the vitriol and the polarization in today’s “debate” on these subjects. I think that the radical and often profane personal attacks and name-calling from the

far left as well as the name-calling and ridicule from the far right gets in the way of any kind of meaningful dialog. I think that it does both sides of the issues a disservice. It may not invalidate the arguments on either side, but it’s often pretty hard to get past being called a “NAZI”, or a “FASCIST”, or a “LEFT-TARD”, or a “WING-NUT”. Those aren’t arguments, they’re insults, and you don’t win a debate with insults, you just end any chance of having a meaningful discussion.

This SHOULD be a bigger concern. The lack of civility in discourse is ruining the process of governance.

Anyway, let’s get back to the main question. Why are so many people attracted to modern day liberalism? I have to ask the question this way for a couple of reasons. First, I consider myself to be fairly conservative. And second, our nation today seems to be fairly evenly divided along the liberal-conservative axis of the ideological plane. At least it does if you consider the Democratic party to be essentially liberal in character and the Republican party to be essentially conservative in character.

Today, yes, twenty years ago, no. These values were based more on culture and geography rather than political identification. Boll Weevils and Rockefeller Republicanism were vibrant political themes until the 1990s.

Let’s start with the plight of the poor.

Since the beginning of recorded civilization, the poor have always been with us. There have always been some in every society that have more than others, and by extension there have always been some in every society that have less than others. The reasons for this aren’t the issue, yet. It’s the fact that there are those we consider to be the poor among us that is the issue.

I think it’s fair to say that most of us are living a fairly comfortable lifestyle. The vast majority of us have some form of gainful employment, most of us have a good solid roof over our heads at night. We’re warm, we’re exceptionally well fed, and we’re so entertained by one another that it’s often boring. If you’re reading this post, it’s pretty much guaranteed that you have access to a computer and a telecommunications system.

By historical standards, it’s probably safe to say that the vast majority of us are rich. Maybe not by the standards of today’s society, but probably compared to just a few hundred years ago, and definitely compared to a couple of thousand years ago, or in comparison to the standards of some of the developing nations.

Who among us can walk down a city street and see a homeless family huddled together in an alleyway or standing on a street corner panhandling and not feel some compassion for them? How often though, do we stop to help them? How do you determine the difference between those that truly need and can benefit from some assistance and those that simply prey on your compassion? What if you simply can’t help them because of obligations that you have elsewhere?

These aren’t new questions. The answers to them aren’t very comfortable either. Most of us who have grown up in Western Civilization have grown up exposed to Christianity. That isn’t to say that we’re all Christians, or that we all even believe in God or accept the idea of religion. But Western Civilization has its roots in Judeo-Christian religion and philosophies.

Those philosophies teach us that material riches make it difficult for a man to enter into the Kingdom of Heaven. They instruct us to be compassionate to the poor. They demand that we give help to those less fortunate than us. Christians, or at least people raised in nominally Christian families are taught, or at least exposed to the parable of the good Samaritan. The parable is presented in the Book of Luke, Chapter 10, verses 25 through 38.

Can we all agree that maybe, just maybe deep down, the average conservative and the average liberal both have a desire to do what’s right? We both agree that something needs to be done to help the poor and the needy.Here’s where I think conservatives and liberals begin to part company. There’s a good chance I’m wrong about this, but I believe that liberals see the plight of the poor and think that it’s up to society to solve the problem, while conservatives see the plight of the poor and think that it’s up to individuals to recognize the problem and deal with it on a personal level.

There’s a wide gap between these two approaches. I don’t think that either approach, or even a combination of them both will ever solve the problem of poverty. Maybe I’m wrong, but I doubt it, at least on that point. Given that you might think it doesn’t matter which approach we take. I think that the intractability of the problem actually gives us a clue as to which approach is right, but that’s for another post.

I started this by asking what attracts people to liberalism. I noted that there are a lot of different components to the so-called liberal ideology, and I decided to tackle just one of the issues. I know I’ve gone far afield from actually tackling that issue, but I wanted to establish up front that this isn’t really about which side is right and which is wrong. So to bring this to a close, I’m back at what attracts people to the liberal approach to the issue of poverty.

The liberal approach to the plight of the poor is to let society, in the form of government, solve the problem. This approach does have some facets that might make it attractive.

First of all, it puts the resources of society as a whole at the disposal of the problem solver. That’s a whole lot of resources. When you compare that weight of resources to an individual need, the individual need seems considerably smaller.

Second, it reduces the need for personal commitment. If the problem really belongs to the government, then it’s not my problem. If it’s government’s responsibility to take care of the needy, then I don’t have to feel guilty when I don’t personally do something about it.

This approach is great for helping to displace personal guilt in lots of ways. It lets us feel better about ourselves when we see someone wealthier than us. They must have acquired that wealth through underhanded means, they aren’t as charitable as I am.

It lets us feel better about ourselves too when we take things away from someone else to give them to the poor and the downtrodden. After all, they’re wealthy, they have an obligation to help the less fortunate.

Have you noticed a trend here? Maybe I’m a bit biased, but, except for the first attraction that this approach has, all of the rest of these feed a narcissistic attitude. We can feel good about ourselves without having personally done anything about our personal guilt.

The guilt remains though. And it’s projected onto others and onto other issues as well.

So maybe you think it’s not fair to look at it this way. If you believe that it’s society’s responsibility to care for the poor, and not an individual responsibility, then please, tell me in the comments why you believe that. What makes this approach attractive?

I’ve heard how the right wing doesn’t care about the poor. I’ve heard about how the Republican party wants to starve the elderly, or make them eat dog food. I’ve heard that the Democratic party is the “party of the people”.

If you believe those things, then tell me about it. Tell me why you believe that. I want to have the discussion. Maybe we can also discuss what attracts people to conservatism, and the conservative approaches.



  1. So much to comment on, but I will try to be brief!

    I think that the classic sense of liberalism could be defined as what is the proper government role in shaping policy while the classic sense of conservativism is how can we keep government out of shaping a role in this policy. That is the classic view, but it has been replaced by neo-conservativism and neo-liberalism, which are odd bedfellows.

    Now, I happen to be Centrist, which means I kind of like government involvement in certain areas of life, such as Social Security, yeah it needs to reform, but it’s a good concept, Medicare, Title I, the programs of the New Deal, these are classic “liberal” ideas, but I think that they are pretty much accepted as public policy, and therefore are now mainstream. The truth is, that NO ONE would want to live pre- New Deal. At least I wouldn’t. I like the idea of knowing that my parents contributions as well as my own take the edge out of their last years. I feel they’ve earned it, and I feel that government is meeting the general welfare clause of the Constitution by this social institutions.

    Conservativism in the classic sense would be to add private initiatives to these public domains, private markets being set up and letting markets determine values. This works until you have the public suffer, and that’s when an intervention of government is appropriate. It would be to restrain from more government intervention. However, some things are just too large to handle, Katrina comes to mind, and the only agency that has the oomph to get the right thing done, and boy did they mess up down there, are the Feds. I would argue that the lack of equity in education between rich and poor and black and white was setting up de facto segregation, and in the interest of public policy the Feds rightly entered with NCLB. By the way NCLB is about the MOST LIBERAL legislation EVERY visited upon our Republic in the traditional liberal = government intervention and conservative = private markets, and I am pretty squarely behind the NCLB policies in most areas, certainly from an equity perspective.

    However, today Conservativism has been sort of linked to Libertarianism, but even those ties are not pure. Libertarianism, which wants government OUT of prrivate life would favor decrimininalization of drugs, prostitution and other areas which are considered social vices, which do not serve the public interest. Modern Conservatives however, are among the largest champions of these restrictive practices which limit and are in effect rather BIG government, hence liberal.

    The traditional lines of liberalism and conservativism may best be drawn bewteen doves and hawks and also between traditionalists and those who are in favor of abandoning traditional values in our culture. I’ve always considered myself a social moderate and a fiscal moderate, but am an out and out Hawk.

    At the present time, the DNC and GOP are in many ways the same party. They are both enslaved to the special interest of big business. They embrace “Free trade” with no thought to the consequences of labor in this country and equity issues to the world, again its a big business interest. However, one party is HAWKISH and the other is DOVEISH.

    Furthermore, one party is more traditional with regard to social mores and customs, and the other is rather opposed to many of the mores and cultural traditions of our Republic. They also really don’t like each other, and many have views of the world which are mutually exclusive of each other. To synthesize ideas, which is what responsible governance is typified by, isn’t in their mindframe, nor within their capability.

    And in the end the citizenry, particularly those like me, and I presume you, are the big losers.

    Comment by avoiceofreason — April 22, 2007 @ 2:53 am | Reply

  2. Last time I recommended a book you mentioned that you already have a long to read list. Well, it’s about to get longer: Thomas Sowell’s A Conflict Of Visions posits that the difference between liberal and conservative boils down to what people think of human nature. I wouldn’t do justice to it by trying to boil it down here, but I highly recommend the book.

    Comment by Pink Elephant — April 22, 2007 @ 2:57 am | Reply

  3. Hehe…I will have to put it on my list, but I proably will have to read some policy books of my own.

    It will be read!

    Comment by avoiceofreason — April 22, 2007 @ 3:13 am | Reply

  4. My Christian friends are all over the spectrum politically. I would say though that there largest pull toward libralism is the plight of the poor arguement. They also see big business as evil in large part. I pointed out to one friend who is employed by a large, yet responsible corp. all the wonderful perks she has. I told her that not all corp’s were Enron, and her company was more the norm, or at least average. They are often divided in how they vote b/c of abortion vs. the poor. I have heard some go as far to say that “they are tired of the abortion debate” and thus vote left.

    I could not agree more with your traditional defn. of liberal and conservativism. I see where you are coming saying you are centerist, or moderate. I guess in some of those issues I would be considered moderate as well, although I have always considered myself rather right-winged. My problem with libertarianism is exactly what you described… but I do believe in very limited government at the same time. I really wish that every church really would take care of the poor, the elderly, the widow…. like we are called to. That would make the government intervention largely limited or even completely unneccesary.

    Comment by mommyzabs — April 22, 2007 @ 3:30 am | Reply

  5. I really should edit my comments before i post them. I’m sorry for the typos and poor grammer! I should know better when dealing with people in education 🙂

    Also to clarify- my problem with libertarianism is that i do believe in legislating certain basic things that could be harmful to societ. i.e. abortion, murder, theft etc.

    Comment by mommyzabs — April 22, 2007 @ 3:32 am | Reply

  6. That’s okay, I’m off duty!

    Zabs…it is impossible to legislate morality. Prohibition proved that and the War on Drugs proves it today.

    What society needs to do is educate. Let me ask you this, if you don’t mind. If you had a bag of heroin given to you would you use it? Probably not. If you knew you could make $1000 in a few hours by committing prostitution would you do it? Probably not.

    Most people fall into that curve. What libertarians argue, and they “may” have some points is that these legislative actions create crime out of moral failures which really have a minimal negative impact on society. Drug use has alway been in the history of mankind as has prostitution, the policy issue that needs to be weighed are the negatives of allowing such behaviors either under regulation or by decriminalization weighed against the negatives that occur when statute makes these vices lucrative to criminal elements and creates a criminal culture around these vices, which historically are human behaviors.

    I find myself slightly in favor of the law and order factors, but if the same regulation was put to tobacco, I’d be a criminal, or at least go through a very unplesant withdrawl!

    There are other issues which have direct impact on society and individuals, and these areas are your crimes and misdomeanors. Where society is splitting is along lines of traditional morality and I also feel along HAWK/DOVE lines. The problem is that the middle ground, where most public policy should be formed, is shrinking as the extremes of both the right and left are making it increasingly more difficult for consensus to be found. This is partly why I support Giuliani and McCain for the GOP and would probably have to go with Biden or maybe hope that Evan Bayh would run for the Dems. However, I haven’t seen a Democrat I could easily vote for since Dick Gephardt ran, and even he had to go pretty hard leftwards to by majority leader during the Clinton Presidency.

    The sad thing is that Congress has ALWAYS been most effective when it was an organization that ran by the back room deal and consensus. I think the current climate of Clinton’s Presidency and Bush’s Presidency through their own fault and those of Congress make our nation look like Andrew Johnson’s Presidency, and not much good came out of that era.

    Comment by avoiceofreason — April 22, 2007 @ 3:51 am | Reply

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