The Roots of Liberalism and Conservatism

Conservative writers sometimes complain about the obstinacy of liberals -- how they persist in their beliefs despite the flagrant misdeeds of their politicians and the collapse of welfare states, as is now happening in Europe.  Since false conclusions are often the result of false initial assumptions, I tried to find the cause of this persistence by tracing back to the roots of liberal and conservative thought.

I concluded that conservatism is based on the concept that "all men are equal but not necessarily good," while liberalism is derived from the idea that "all men are good but not necessarily equal."

Conservatism is the logical consequence of two Christian doctrines: universal equal rights and original sin.  As Wikipedia puts it:

The concept of universal human rights was not known in the ancient world, not in Ancient Greece and Rome, Ancient India, Ancient China, nor among the Hebrews; slavery, for instance, was justified in ancient times as a natural condition.

The concept of universal equal rights is implicit in the New Testament and was discussed by Augustine and Thomas Aquinas.  However, few organized attempts were made to put the doctrine into practice until the issue of slavery in the Spanish colonies induced Dominican missionary Bartolom√© de Las Casas to plead for freedom and legal protection for the Indians on the basis of divinely ordained human equality [1].  This led Robert Bellarmine, a Jesuit theologian, to set forth in detail (e.g., in his De Laicis) the universal rights of human beings.  Through later philosophers, like Hume and Locke, this doctrine came down to Jefferson and was embodied in the Declaration of Independence.

Original sin -- the doctrine that all human beings have an unfortunate tendency (like a car with a bent axle) to go crooked rather than straight -- was cited as the reason for the need of redemption by Christ.  It is also the most obvious lesson that history teaches us.  Its principal political/economic ramification is the dictum, expressed by many champions of freedom, that no one can be unquestioningly trusted with power:

"There is no safety for honest men except by believing all possible evil of evil men[.] ... Those who have been once intoxicated with power and have derived any kind of emolument from it can never willingly abandon it." -Edmund Burke

"It is weakness rather than wickedness which renders men unfit to be trusted with unlimited power." -John Adams

"Free government is founded in jealousy, not confidence.  It is jealousy and not confidence which prescribes limited constitutions, to bind those we are obliged to trust with power." -Thomas Jeffferson

"All power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely." -Lord Acton

These two doctrines lead conservatives to the conclusions that (a) freedom is the most precious and fragile blessing we possess, and (b) no single individual or group can be trusted to protect and preserve it for us.  Therefore, conservatives try to construct society like a mobile -- balancing the powers of one group against those of another, so that no group or coalition can become powerful enough to outweigh the others.  Conservatives differ among themselves as to how best to achieve this balance but agree that it is precarious and difficult to maintain.  As Thomas Paine said, "[t]hose who expect to reap the blessings of freedom must, like men, undergo the fatigue of supporting it."

In contrast, liberals accept the concept of human rights -- and have an admirable record of fighting for some of them -- but deny the existence of original sin.  They do not believe that there is anything wrong with humanity that proper nurturing and education won't cure [2].  Instead, they tend to believe in evolutism, a quasi-religious belief that humanity is guided by a driving force (like the black slab in Kubrick's 2001: Space Odyssey) that will lead us toward an ever-higher form of life and intelligence.  Therefore, if we follow the right path, we will inevitably come to a happy world with peace and security for all.

However, there is no experimental evidence that the black slab or shining path really exists.  I therefore contend that liberalism is as much a faith-based religion as Christianity.  As with any religion, it has a demonology -- Wall Street, big business, and the rich and powerful.  Once we get rid of these demons (after stripping them of their wealth), we will all be kind and prosperous.

To exorcize these demons, and to supervise our nurture and education, liberals believe that the common herd needs shepherds to guide it.  This is in keeping with the doctrines of evolutism; some of us will be more evolved than the rest and will be the fittest leaders [3].  Therefore, despite constant professions of universal equality, liberalism is essentially elitist and tends, as Djilas pointed out, to produce a class system of its own.

Liberalism has even flirted with a variety of gods.  The rationalists of the French revolution tried to make mankind its own god.  Others have worshiped Historical Necessity or Gaia [4].  But these are unsatisfactorily abstract, so contemporary leftists tend to choose dictator-gods like Chairman Mao or Kim Jong-il.

In summary, I see the battle between liberals and conservatives as a struggle between two religions [5].  The point is (reality aside), which one would you prefer to believe in?  The conservative worldview is grim; as in the red queen's race, we must run as fast as we can just to keep the freedom we now have.  In contrast, liberalism promises that if we follow its path, we will soon rid the world of its ills and enjoy peace and plenty.

According to scientific studies and practical experience, we tend to believe what we want to believe.  Liberals just don't want to endure the chill of reality. Therefore, they ignore any media revelations of liberal failures and persist in their rosy dreams.  They do not want to be awakened and will resist it.

But let us not be too patronizing.  Perhaps we conservatives have oneirogenic myths of our own.

NOTES:

[1] "The Declaration of Independence dogmatically bases all rights on the fact that God created all men equal; and it is right; for if they were not created equal, they were certainly evolved unequal. There is no basis for democracy except in a dogma about the divine origin of man." -G. K. Chesterton, What I Saw In America (1922) Ch. 19.

[2] This leads to the paradox that, if the nurturing-education theory is right, then the wealthy and aristocratic among us should be the best of humanity and our natural leaders.

[3] Invariably, the intellectuals within the liberal movement know that they are its predestined leaders.  They can be discerned by their smug, more-evolved-than-thou air.  Eric Hoffer discussed their egotism and thirst for power in The True Believer and The Temper of Our Time.

[4] This divergence of views about humanity is eerily echoed in views of nature.  Liberals, whether Gaians or Greenies, see Nature as balanced and benign, hostile only when disturbed by man.  Conservatives perceive nature to be indifferent to life and prone to catastrophic instabilities; like Auric Goldfinger, nature can destroy a species by rolling over in its sleep.

[5] It is disturbing to note that radical Islam fits into our definition of "liberal."  Islamists do not believe in original sin, regard themselves as an elite group, and expect to achieve a prosperous and peaceful world by global conquest.  Marxism and Islam have so many tenets in common that some sort of alliance or hybridization is frighteningly likely, especially in black or third-world communities.

Conservative writers sometimes complain about the obstinacy of liberals -- how they persist in their beliefs despite the flagrant misdeeds of their politicians and the collapse of welfare states, as is now happening in Europe.  Since false conclusions are often the result of false initial assumptions, I tried to find the cause of this persistence by tracing back to the roots of liberal and conservative thought.

I concluded that conservatism is based on the concept that "all men are equal but not necessarily good," while liberalism is derived from the idea that "all men are good but not necessarily equal."

Conservatism is the logical consequence of two Christian doctrines: universal equal rights and original sin.  As Wikipedia puts it:

The concept of universal human rights was not known in the ancient world, not in Ancient Greece and Rome, Ancient India, Ancient China, nor among the Hebrews; slavery, for instance, was justified in ancient times as a natural condition.

The concept of universal equal rights is implicit in the New Testament and was discussed by Augustine and Thomas Aquinas.  However, few organized attempts were made to put the doctrine into practice until the issue of slavery in the Spanish colonies induced Dominican missionary Bartolom√© de Las Casas to plead for freedom and legal protection for the Indians on the basis of divinely ordained human equality [1].  This led Robert Bellarmine, a Jesuit theologian, to set forth in detail (e.g., in his De Laicis) the universal rights of human beings.  Through later philosophers, like Hume and Locke, this doctrine came down to Jefferson and was embodied in the Declaration of Independence.

Original sin -- the doctrine that all human beings have an unfortunate tendency (like a car with a bent axle) to go crooked rather than straight -- was cited as the reason for the need of redemption by Christ.  It is also the most obvious lesson that history teaches us.  Its principal political/economic ramification is the dictum, expressed by many champions of freedom, that no one can be unquestioningly trusted with power:

"There is no safety for honest men except by believing all possible evil of evil men[.] ... Those who have been once intoxicated with power and have derived any kind of emolument from it can never willingly abandon it." -Edmund Burke

"It is weakness rather than wickedness which renders men unfit to be trusted with unlimited power." -John Adams

"Free government is founded in jealousy, not confidence.  It is jealousy and not confidence which prescribes limited constitutions, to bind those we are obliged to trust with power." -Thomas Jeffferson

"All power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely." -Lord Acton

These two doctrines lead conservatives to the conclusions that (a) freedom is the most precious and fragile blessing we possess, and (b) no single individual or group can be trusted to protect and preserve it for us.  Therefore, conservatives try to construct society like a mobile -- balancing the powers of one group against those of another, so that no group or coalition can become powerful enough to outweigh the others.  Conservatives differ among themselves as to how best to achieve this balance but agree that it is precarious and difficult to maintain.  As Thomas Paine said, "[t]hose who expect to reap the blessings of freedom must, like men, undergo the fatigue of supporting it."

In contrast, liberals accept the concept of human rights -- and have an admirable record of fighting for some of them -- but deny the existence of original sin.  They do not believe that there is anything wrong with humanity that proper nurturing and education won't cure [2].  Instead, they tend to believe in evolutism, a quasi-religious belief that humanity is guided by a driving force (like the black slab in Kubrick's 2001: Space Odyssey) that will lead us toward an ever-higher form of life and intelligence.  Therefore, if we follow the right path, we will inevitably come to a happy world with peace and security for all.

However, there is no experimental evidence that the black slab or shining path really exists.  I therefore contend that liberalism is as much a faith-based religion as Christianity.  As with any religion, it has a demonology -- Wall Street, big business, and the rich and powerful.  Once we get rid of these demons (after stripping them of their wealth), we will all be kind and prosperous.

To exorcize these demons, and to supervise our nurture and education, liberals believe that the common herd needs shepherds to guide it.  This is in keeping with the doctrines of evolutism; some of us will be more evolved than the rest and will be the fittest leaders [3].  Therefore, despite constant professions of universal equality, liberalism is essentially elitist and tends, as Djilas pointed out, to produce a class system of its own.

Liberalism has even flirted with a variety of gods.  The rationalists of the French revolution tried to make mankind its own god.  Others have worshiped Historical Necessity or Gaia [4].  But these are unsatisfactorily abstract, so contemporary leftists tend to choose dictator-gods like Chairman Mao or Kim Jong-il.

In summary, I see the battle between liberals and conservatives as a struggle between two religions [5].  The point is (reality aside), which one would you prefer to believe in?  The conservative worldview is grim; as in the red queen's race, we must run as fast as we can just to keep the freedom we now have.  In contrast, liberalism promises that if we follow its path, we will soon rid the world of its ills and enjoy peace and plenty.

According to scientific studies and practical experience, we tend to believe what we want to believe.  Liberals just don't want to endure the chill of reality. Therefore, they ignore any media revelations of liberal failures and persist in their rosy dreams.  They do not want to be awakened and will resist it.

But let us not be too patronizing.  Perhaps we conservatives have oneirogenic myths of our own.

NOTES:

[1] "The Declaration of Independence dogmatically bases all rights on the fact that God created all men equal; and it is right; for if they were not created equal, they were certainly evolved unequal. There is no basis for democracy except in a dogma about the divine origin of man." -G. K. Chesterton, What I Saw In America (1922) Ch. 19.

[2] This leads to the paradox that, if the nurturing-education theory is right, then the wealthy and aristocratic among us should be the best of humanity and our natural leaders.

[3] Invariably, the intellectuals within the liberal movement know that they are its predestined leaders.  They can be discerned by their smug, more-evolved-than-thou air.  Eric Hoffer discussed their egotism and thirst for power in The True Believer and The Temper of Our Time.

[4] This divergence of views about humanity is eerily echoed in views of nature.  Liberals, whether Gaians or Greenies, see Nature as balanced and benign, hostile only when disturbed by man.  Conservatives perceive nature to be indifferent to life and prone to catastrophic instabilities; like Auric Goldfinger, nature can destroy a species by rolling over in its sleep.

[5] It is disturbing to note that radical Islam fits into our definition of "liberal."  Islamists do not believe in original sin, regard themselves as an elite group, and expect to achieve a prosperous and peaceful world by global conquest.  Marxism and Islam have so many tenets in common that some sort of alliance or hybridization is frighteningly likely, especially in black or third-world communities.