Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Why We Disagree

Why is it that conservatives and liberals have a hard time agreeing on anything? Clearly there is something very different about the way we see the world. Thomas Sowell's book A Conflict of Visions - Idealogical Origins of Political Struggles attempts to describe these two very different worldviews. Sowell is a conservative economist and while most of his books promote conservatism, I think he's even handed in this book. Here's his take, I'm interested to see if you guys agree or disagree.

Sowell's argument is that the basic difference is that conservatives ("constrained vision") see human nature as unchanging and fundamentally selfish while liberals ("unconstrained vision") see human nature as something that can be changed and improved. These opposing visions then have very different ideas about how society and government should function.

Conservatives then believe society is constantly evolving as people, using limited resources and limited reason, establish ways to correctly harnesses man's true nature. Limited government with checks and balances is seen as an ideal system, as politicians and the elite are not exempt from man's basic, selfish nature. Capitalism recognizes the role of incentives in behavior and rewards self interested people for creating goods and services that help others. Justice requires procedural fairness but not results-based fairness.

Liberals on the other hand, think that people can be brought closer to their potential by instituting wiser and more moral policies. They believe that people can be conditioned to do the right thing for the right reason, rather than out of self interest. While conservatives seek the best trade off using limited resources, liberals seek an equitable solution. The elite, with their superior wisdom and morals, should guide the masses toward a more perfect society. Even if there is procedural fairness, there can't be justice is there is too much inequality.

Most people are not all the way in either camp, but does this sound about right?


Rudi said...

To simplify it even more... conservatives presuppose that man is fundamentally bad, while liberals presuppose that man is fundamentally good.

I believe that this is really the crux of conflict by which all other political disagreements and policy differences are made.

Tom and Stacia said...

This is interesting -- I like thinking about this stuff. I'll have to think about it more, but one initial question I have is how this plays out when it comes to caring for the poor -- as the Bible consistently commands us to do.

My understanding of a conservative perspective is that they think the private sector should bear the primary responsibility for this and only in emergency situations should the government step in. However, is this not depending upon the generosity/fundamentally good and charitable spirits of the people to care for others in their communities?

Likewise, a liberal perspective would have the government providing all of those services because of the assumption that fellow human beings are too selfish to actually care for one another and that ultimately it is the government's responsibility to be sure the people at the bottom of the SES ladder are cared for.

I personally think it needs to be a combination of these two perspectives -- Partnership between the government and private sector to care for the needs of the poor.

I does also have some interesting intersections with creation/fall/redemption, being made in God's image, common grace, total depravity, kingdom restoration, etc.

Great post Jon!

Kyle Hommes said...

I think there is definitely something to that argument. The way you explained conservatism was easier to understand than the the way you explained liberalism, I'm not sure I understood exactly what you, or Thomas Sowell for that matter, were trying to say about liberalism, but it sounded pretty accurate.

Jon Vander Plas said...

Sorry for not explaining the liberal part very well. Let me try again.

Liberals do not believe that man is inherently selfish, but that he is corrupted by institutions. Therefore, the elite, using superior reason and morals to the masses, can lead a society into a more perfect state. Reason and education can overcome man's selfishness. The flaws in our institutions are what keeps us from a just and equal society, not man's unchanging nature.

As for Stacia's interesting comments, let me come back to those this afternoon.

Kyle Hommes said...

Okay, that was helpful, and I think that is definitely the underlying philosophy that leads to the differences. Does Sowell propose how two bridge the gap between the two ideologies?

Jon Vander Plas said...

To Stacia's point, the Bible commands us to care for the poor, which I interpret as an individual responsibility. The government should only do what it can do more efficiently than private organizations can do. Some level of help from the government makes sense, but keeping in mind that man is selfish, if you give him incentives to do nothing while the government takes care of his every need, many people will do just that. That does not help the poor. Many well intentioned policies hurt the poor by destroying self reliance. For example, out of wedlock births in the black community have skyrocketed since the modern day welfare state.

We already have welfare, food stamps, free education, and Medicaid. We need to provide jobs for the poor and I would hope that efforts to help them encourage them to make good decisions instead of bad ones.

Good point about all the intersections: I think conservatives would agree that although we are fundamentally selfish (total depravity) we are still capable of good (common grace). We also have a responsibility to help the poor, but I would argue that this is done better locally and privately than at a federal level.

To Kyle's question about bridging the gap, I don't really remember Sowell touching on that. However, I think that understanding these differences go a long way in communicating with people that think in a totally different way. For example, conservatives might realize that liberals are often well intentioned, instead of assuming they are just power hungry people who want to control other people's lives. Liberals might realize that conservatives want a good trade off, a fair process, that gives the best result and not greedy, uncaring people.