“Conservative” and “Liberal” are Heuristics, Not Ideologies

“Conservative” and “Liberal” are Heuristics, Not Ideologies

I've said before that Conservatism and Liberalism are not ideologies so much as aesthetics. The specific ideological content of the labels varies so much by place, time, and context (e.g. theologically conservative or liberal). Even in a particular place at a particular time, no one can quite agree what "most conservative" means.

There are attempts to rescue these terms as descriptively useful for ideologies by prefacing them with "fiscally" or "socially". But what does social conservatism have to do with fiscal conservatism ideologically? Others have drawn up a multiplicity of moral foundations to explain why people group around these labels. This is probably closer to the mark: emotional appeal is a better test of a mass movement than ideological consistency.

But rather than a collection of foundations, the dichotomy between the conservative and the liberal mindset can be boiled down to a heuristic; a mental shortcut when looking at a stranger: the liberal says, "This person is like me", and the Conservative says "This person is not like me".

This is why, according to Moral Foundations Theory, solidarity plays such a big role in the conservative mindset and not the liberal. It's why the world seems scarier – the threat of muslims, terrorists, and communists always strike the conservative heart more deeply. It's also why conservatives tend to see their culture as it exists as something in need of protection, whether from immigrants, gays, or youth.

The tendency to downplay interpersonal differences also explains the liberal insistence on unqualified welfare benefits. Unable or unwilling to see any differences except accidental ones between himself and a less well-off individual, he imagines himself in that situation without any thought to the circumstances leading up to it. Thus the stridence with which liberals oppose drug testing, means testing, or any sort of restrictions or qualifications on welfare, serves to preserve their own hypothetical dignity. Conversely, the animus against the rich common on the left reflects the fact that these liberals, not being able to conceive of themselves as deserving vast sums of money, cannot conceive that anyone should deserve it. "No one can earn a million dollars honestly," as the saying went.

These mindsets also inform the typical attitudes toward criminal justice. The liberal is more likely to chalk up the guilt to external circumstances because he imagines them constituting most,if not all, of the difference between them. The conservative, on the other hand, is stereotypically "tough on crime". Unable to see himself committing such a crime under any circumstances, it's easier for the conservative to assign blame to the criminal's personal character.

It's been said that conservatives are generally less bothered by inequality as such than liberals, for exactly this reason. Where the liberal cannot see any difference between himself and the less fortunate, the conservative is always ready to posit a difference that explains the outcomes. Thus conservatives oppose what they see as leveling against the natural order. The decline of the landed elites in the face of the rise of the market was deeply lamented by conservatives as liberalism fought against political privilege. Now that the liberalism has turned against the market in pursuit of ever more egalitarian aims, conservatism has adjusted itself to hold the market, rather than heredity, as reflecting the inherent differences in people.

This even holds outside of the political context. Theological liberalism was a rejection of the supernatural in favor of a universal brotherhood of man under God. On the other hand, theological conservatism universally rejected universalism, likely in large part as a reaction against liberal protestantism. The distinction between the saved and the unsaved is inconvenient for the liberal mind, and perhaps too convenient for the conservative mind.

Finally, this also explains why National Socialism is considered a "right-wing" movement while Leninism is considered "left-wing", despite being largely similar in terms of actual political ideology ("Socialism of the German variety" and "Socialism of the Russian variety"): they rested on appeals to very different mindsets. Nazism embodied extreme parochial nationalism on the one hand, and Leninism extreme revolutionary universalism on the other. The one emphasized the uniqueness of the Aryan; the other the universal solidarity of the working class.

This is, of course, painting in broad strokes. No doubt many self-consciously intellectual and self-described conservatives and liberals do come to conclusions from a consistent ideology, rather than piecemeal from a heuristic. But the fact remains that, whatever the specific ideological content of the words at any point in time, that content has shifted radically – but the type of person generally self-describing as those words has not changed. The more ideological may indeed find themselves on the opposite side from where they started: consistent pro-market ideology, once called liberal, now called "classical liberal" or libertarian, now often finds itself lumped in with conservatism, despite their lack of affinity for the conservative heuristic.

Nor does everyone necessarily fall to one side or the other. There are aspects in which people are similar to one another, and there are aspects in which they are different. It is the task of an ideology, whether political, theological, sociological, or anything else, to determine at which points people are similar or different, and which of these points are salient. A persistent bias one way or the other, far from being a point of identity or solidarity, is a cloud over clear thought and a vitiation of its ideology.




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  • 1

    Ken Amelio

    Mar 15, 2012 at 20:16 | Reply

    The article addresses why people might tend toward political views without defining those views. By definition, conservatives are promoting what is or was, and liberals are promoting change.

    This means that those who are successful or happy with any system tend to be conservative since they are content with the status quo, while those doing poorly or who empathize with those doing poorly tend to advocate change.

    Change always happens, which can lead liberals to point out that conservatives are on the losing side of history. The problem with this though is that it focusses only on the good changes that worked. And not the damaging. Changes prevented by conservatives.

    There are an infinite number of possible changes, most of which are bad. Any sensible person will have issues on which they are conservative and others on which they are liberal. The selection though can well be impacted by which groups not succeeding under the status quo with which we identify (as indicated by the article).

    • 1.1

      Cameron Harwick

      Mar 15, 2012 at 20:43

      As many policies as we’ve been through over the past hundred years, I don’t think “change” vs. “stay the same” captures the distinction any better than thinking of them as ideologies. Social security, for example. “Liberals” want to keep it the way it is; “conservatives” want to privatize it (something we’ve never done before). A self-consciously liberal status quo, like we had in the decades after the New Deal, makes that metric almost meaningless.

      So I don’t think change, even in a new direction, is necessarily incompatible with the conservative mindset. Likewise a liberal doesn’t necessarily have to be dissatisfied with the status quo.

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