A Philosopher's Blog

Two Conservatives

Posted in Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on April 23, 2012

Karl Marx 1882 (edited)

Back in my undergraduate days, one of my political science professors semi-jokingly explained the difference between our  (the United States) political system and the Soviet system: “they have one political part, we have one more than that.” While this was obviously a oversimplification, he did make a very good point. After all, while we do get a choice, it is a rather limited choice between the Republican or the Democrat.

Because we just have two truly viable parties, this tends to create a political compression in which people are often forced to pick a party that does not, in fact, reflect their full range of beliefs. While this is true of the Democrats, it has really stood out for the Republicans as that party has gone through the process of selecting their 2012 candidate. To be specific, this process has made it rather clear that there are at least two distinct types of conservatives.

The first type is the fiscal conservative. Being a fiscal conservative is generally taken to involve being conservative about taxation and  government spending. To be more specific, fiscal conservatives favor keeping both of these at a minimum.

While I typically get branded as a liberal, I am actually a fiscal conservative: I favor lowering taxes and government expenditures to a minimal level consistent with the government fulfilling its legal and moral duties (such as defense). I am also against wasteful spending, corruption, and pork. As might be imagined, the disputes tend to get started when it comes to the matter of defining the legal and moral duties of the state.

The second type is the social conservative. Being a social conservative is generally taken to involve the idea that one should conserve (or preserve) “the way things were” and thus avoid change in social areas.  The social areas include things such as religion, morals, race-relations, gender roles and so on. As might be imagined, there are degrees of conservatism in this area. Some folks tend to regard almost any change in the social areas as suspicious and would prefer to keep everything as it was. Others are considerably more flexible and focus on conserving what they regard as good, but are willing to accept certain changes. Of course, a “conservative” who is too willing to accept change (even good change) runs the obvious risk of becoming a liberal or even a progressive.

In a limited sense, I am a conservative: I am quite willing to conserve what is good and I am against changing things without justification. This is, of course, a reasonable position: to infer that past idea, morals and values are incorrect simply because they are old is just as fallacious as assuming that they are correct just because they are old. The age of such things, at least by itself, has no bearing on their goodness or badness. As might be imagined, being a conservative in this sense is not what people usually think of when they think of what it is to be a conservative. After all, someone who thinks that something should be conserved on the basis of rational arguments for its goodness just seems to be, well, rational. As such, a mere willingness to conserve what is both old and good does not seem to be enough to count as a social conservative. The question is, of course, what more is needed.

While some might take the easy path and try to define conservatives against a straw man version of the liberal, that would be rather unfair and not exactly reasonable. It would, of course, be equally unfair to present a straw man version of the conservative. That said, given that the political vocabulary is so limited in this regard, it might be rather hard to avoid creating straw men.

The easy and obvious approach is to regard social conservatives as  people who regard the way things have been in the social areas as being correct. Naturally, if they claim that such things are good because they are old or traditional, they are committing the classic fallacy of appeal to tradition. If they prefer such things because of their psychology, then this says why they believe what they do, but does nothing to support the correctness of said beliefs. After all, if they just like the old and dislike the new, this does nothing to show that the old is good and the new is bad. It just says something about their mental states. To use the obvious analogy, the fact that I have some preference for music from my college days does not entail that the music of today is inferior or bad. Likewise, the fact that some folks prefer the music of today to the music of that time does not prove that the music of the 1980s is inferior.

To avoid falling into fallacies, a conservative would need to argue that the traditional value are better than the liberal alternatives based on grounds other than mere tradition. That is, they need to show that the traditional values (as they see them) are good, rather than saying that they are good because they are traditional. Of course, this would make such people contingent conservatives. After all, their commitment would be to what is good rather than what is merely traditional and this would leave open the possibility that they could accept “liberal” values as good. Unless, of course, it is a matter of necessity that traditional values are always better than the liberal values. The challenge then, obviously enough, is to account for the initial goodness of today’s conservative values-after all, there are various much older values that they replaced.

It is, of course, somewhat tempting to take “liberal” and “conservative” as being marketing and rhetorical terms rather than having much value in categorizing political views. After all, people who identify as liberals take being a liberal to involve the virtues of tolerance, acceptance and so on while regarding conservatives as clinging to an unjust past out of fear of change. In response, those who identify as conservatives often see themselves as defending what is good and holy from the depravity of the godless liberals and their agenda.

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42 Responses

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  1. magus71 said, on April 23, 2012 at 6:35 am

    You talk about conservatives who want to keep things the same because of tradition. The major problem I see with liberalism as it is today, is a reflexive attacking of traditional institutions merely because they are traditional. Thus, the liberal harping on white, Christian males.

    Name on liberal besides Krugman who will openly state, “I want the government to spend more money.”

    The beliefs of Edmund Burke all the way to WF Buckley are thus: Conservatives are not against change. But when we are talking about changing values and practices that every culture in history has practices, well brother, we better think hard about it.

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on April 23, 2012 at 3:16 pm

      Rejecting values just because they are traditional would be as fallacious as accepting them as correct because they are traditional. So, liberals and conservatives can be equally wrong in this case.

      Few people say they want the state to spend more money. However, it is hard to find someone who doesn’t want more money going to what s/he likes-be that person an avowed liberal or conservative.

  2. magus71 said, on April 23, 2012 at 6:42 am

    Another big factor that splits liberals and conservatives that has nothing to do with change or money is the thinking on how well different cultures play nice together. And by that I don’t mean races.

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on April 23, 2012 at 3:17 pm

      Cultures can play nice-provided that they have compatible values and a shared value of cooperation. Hence, the US culture plays nicely with the UK, Canada,and so on. Of course, we just had to have a war or two with them first.

  3. magus71 said, on April 23, 2012 at 7:06 am

    Another thought: By your definition I may be a liberal. I’m not for keeping around rules merely because it’s always been that way. For instance, the Army is an inherently conservative organization. Its leaders that create regulations hate change. The slightest change in regs is a huge deal.

    You may be familiar with Vibram “toe shoes”. When they first came out, some soldiers began wearing them while doing physical training. The crusty rule mongers at the top went berserk. Yes, IEDs are killing our soldiers everyday, but we have bigger fish to fry–toe shoes. After months of intense deliberation, it was decided that soldiers can’t wear toe shoes while on duty.


    Mostly it was hard-core, well inform fitness fanatics who wore the toe shoes. But again it was the best among us who were punished.

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on April 23, 2012 at 3:24 pm

      Most folks are a mix of what we call liberal and conservative, which is one more reason why the two party and two label system works poorly to categorize people.

      I have seen the Vibram toe shoes. I think the Army showed great wisdom in banning those abominations. 🙂

      I got two pairs of the New Balance Minimus when Amazon had a Gold Box deal on them. I had read some journal articles about the biomechanics of barefoot running and they seemed cautiously favorable (although their learned opinion was “not enough data yet”). They work really well on the trails by providing the ability to really adapt to the terrain while protecting from puncture wounds and raccoon crap. Some folks I’ve seen on running forums have said they are switching to these because of the Army ban. They work about the same, but look like normal shoes.

  4. T. J. Babson said, on April 23, 2012 at 7:56 am

    Another big difference I see is that conservatives tend to regard liberals as well-intentioned, but unrealistic and a bit naive. Liberals, on the other hand, will rarely grant that conservatives have good intentions, and always seem to be questioning the motives of people who disagree with them.

    • anonymous said, on April 23, 2012 at 10:28 am

      “conservatives tend to regard liberals as well-intentioned”

      Seriously? You don’t know the conservatives I know. Course, guess I shouldn’t be generalizing about all conservatives from my experiences with them.

      • magus71 said, on April 23, 2012 at 12:07 pm

        I’m a conservative and regard libs as well-intentioned. But after a while I see their stances as a stubborn refusal to admit they’re wrong. Also, I see some of the stances taken by liberals as as fundamentally un-American and nihilistic. Freedom of speech and abortion are two such issues.

        • Michael LaBossiere said, on April 23, 2012 at 3:30 pm

          Most folks are for freedom of speech-at least their own. They can be more flexible about other people.

  5. ajmacdonaldjr said, on April 23, 2012 at 8:55 am

    This is not rocket science. For many years American legal/political philosophy was based upon natural law. This was an objective standard of good and evil. of right and wrong all – liberal and conservative – could agree upon. For over 50 years the liberals have been doing away with natural law. In fact, they have been and are defining right as wrong and wrong as right, which conservatives cannot tolerate, not should they. Take the abortion on demand issue. You wish to quibble over the meaning of the words involved – life, person, human, death – but in doing so you are not seeking truth and justice, you are seeking to score political points for your position. Liberal today are those who, without knowing why a particular fence was put up to begin with, wish to tear all fences down. Today’s liberalism basically equals anarchy.

    • dhammett said, on April 23, 2012 at 4:30 pm

      This article has something to say about what all “agree on”:

      Para 7 lists some Supreme Court cases that were decided by decent majorities (7-2, 9-0) and some decided by 5-4. Take Plessy v Ferguson (7-1) and Brown v Board (9-0). Who was defining “right as wrong and wrong as right” in these two cases that fall outside the 50 year limit you describe. Marbury was unanimous, but some still take issue with it. Differences of opinion are not uncommon in law or life. We’ve just gotten to the point, it seems, where we’re convinced that anyone who disagrees with us is the root of all evil.

      Roe v Wade: 7-2. Was it really about abortion on demand? This writer seems to believe so:

      But as you read the entire article, it becomes clear that Roe is , indeed, not about “abortion on demand”. By the time Mr. Beckwith finishes trying to fit states’ rights and the states’ obligations, it becomes clear that the “quibbles” you describe don’t originate only on one side of the argument.

      This paragraph from the Wikipedia article on Roe v Wade:
      “The Court later rejected Roe’s trimester framework, while affirming Roe’s central holding that a person has a right to abortion until viability.[1] The Roe decision defined ‘viable’ as being ‘potentially able to live outside the mother’s womb, albeit with artificial aid’, adding that viability ‘is usually placed at about seven months (28 weeks) but may occur earlier, even at 24 weeks.'”[2]

      Perhaps what Mr. Beckwith means by “abortion on demand” needs some clarification to make the statement more a matter of truth and less of a political talking point. I’d recommend “abortion on demand up to a point” I’m still very partial to allowing a woman who has been raped, who is a victim of incest, or a woman whose health is in danger being allowed the choice of having an abortion.

      And here’s where I differ from the crowd that has all the answers: If Mrs. Rick Santorum wants to follow through on a dangerous pregnancy, that should be her choice. If Rick Santorum’s campaign manager rapes Rick’s wife, and she wants to carry the bastard for 9 months,she has my permission. If Rick’s daughter gets raped by an uncle, or a stranger, or, Heaven help us,Rick himself, and his daughter want’s to carry that for 9 months, she should have the right to do so. She should not, however, have the right to take away the rights of other women who choose to have abortions under similar circumstances . And I don’t believe–as magus (above) seems to, ifI interpreted him properly– that a woman or girl who wishes to terminate the product of rape or incest or save her life from a life threatening process is in any way unpatriotic (women being forced to carry the product of rape or incest to full term is not uncommon in places like Afghanistan) or nihilistic.

  6. T. J. Babson said, on April 23, 2012 at 9:51 am

    Interesting that Mike put up a picture of Marx to accompany this post. I think we are witnessing the final death throes of Marxism and its watered-down versions such as socialism, progressivism, etc. Obama was their last, best, hope, and, like the mighty Casey, he has struck out.

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on April 23, 2012 at 3:29 pm

      Obama is about as much a socialist as Ronald Reagan was (or as much as Romney is a devoted social conservative). Not surprisingly, folks who think they are socialists and progressives have been rather disappointed by Obama turning out to be just another moderate.

      Obama does favor many social programs such as social security, collective defense, and collective police.

      • dhammett said, on April 23, 2012 at 4:44 pm

        There you go “quibbling over the meaning of words” again. We all know social programs are socialist programs. The only difference is the suffix. Why, I bet that if we’d partially privatize Social Security–in the name of saving the program, as President Bush wanted to– but still called it Social Security, it would have still been a socialist program. But we’d have re-named it Bush-o-care. Our big socialist problem would have been resolved.

        • dhammett said, on April 23, 2012 at 4:44 pm

          Bush-o-Care Part D

      • magus71 said, on April 23, 2012 at 9:25 pm


        I never heard you battling for Reagan like you have Obama. Why? If Obama’s a moderate, who would be a far-left president? There’s only so much he was capable of in our system in 4 years–thank goodness. He’d do much more, much faster if he could.

        • Michael LaBossiere said, on April 24, 2012 at 6:43 pm

          I didn’t have a blog back in 1984-1988, so my battle opportunities were more limited. I was opposed to Reagan primarily on the grounds of his lack of fiscal responsibility, plus my youthful liberalism. In retrospect, he probably did a better job than his competitor would have.

          I don’t think we have ever had a far left president in any meaningful sense. Nor do I think we ever will.

      • magus71 said, on April 23, 2012 at 9:30 pm

        Reagan was for socialized medicine? Reagan apologized to the Soviet Union for being the big,bad US? The economy struggled for the entirety of Reagan’s first term? Reagan allowed gays in the military? What would Obama have to do to be a non-moderate president? Nothing in his background leads me to believe that he is moderate–he is a lawyer though and they know how far they can push things. Not to mention, Obama is not half the leader Reagan was–and that matters a lot. Few have confidence in him.

        • Michael LaBossiere said, on April 24, 2012 at 6:48 pm

          Reagan was very diplomatic with the Soviets, Reagan raised taxes, and was an ideological moderate (ask yourself how much he gave to the far right).

          We’ll have to wait for some perspective on Obama before judging him in the context of leadership-at least to do a proper assessment.

      • T. J. Babson said, on April 23, 2012 at 10:37 pm

        Bill Clinton was a moderate. Obama calls Ryan’s budget, which increases federal spending at 3% per year, as “social Darwinism.”

        Isn’t it far worse to label someone as a “social Darwinist” than as a “socialist” or a “Muslim”?

        • dhammett said, on April 24, 2012 at 9:21 am

          We can quibble all week over whether one label is worse than another.
          The following is likely an oversimplification, but, In the end, labeling is labeling (and sometimes more than that). Calling a Muslim a Muslim is not labeling. Calling someone who is not a Muslim a Muslim is labeling. Calling someone a socialist who is not a socialist is labeling. Calling a socialist a socialist is not. Calling social Darwinism social Darwinism is not labeling. Calling something that is not social Darwinism social Darwinism is labeling.

          Do you think the answers to the questions “Is Obama a socialist?” “Is Obama a Muslim?” or “Is Ryan’s budget social Darwinism?” would satisfy your need to know which “label” is worse?

        • Michael LaBossiere said, on April 24, 2012 at 6:51 pm

          Ryan’s budget does seem to be a form of social Darwinism in the classic sense. After all, it does seem to leave the poor and the week to fend for themselves.

          But, if his plan is actually not social Darwinism, then Obama is merely using rhetoric-much like the use of “socialist” against him.

          • T. J. Babson said, on April 24, 2012 at 10:13 pm

            Mike, as a philosopher, you are interested in following the truth wherever it leads, right?

            According to the historical tables produced by the White House Office of Management and Budget, federal government spending after World War II has averaged 19.7 percent of GDP annually. And this is exactly what the average annual spending was for the years between President Clinton’s inauguration and the end of fiscal 2008.

            In those 16 years, federal spending never rose above 21.4 percent nor fell below 18.2 percent. In fiscal 2009, Bush’s and Obama’s responses to the financial crisis drove federal spending to a post-war high of 25.2 percent. It has since declined slightly to 23.4 percent.

            Those are the facts about our federal government’s spending history. Now let’s look at how the Obama and Ryan plans for the future match up. According to the Congressional Budget Office, under the Obama budget, federal spending falls to 22 percent in 2018, then rises again to 22.8 percent by 2022. Over the 10-year budget window, Obama spends an average of 22.6 percent of GDP, well above the historic average of 19.7 percent, and even above Clinton’s highest-spending year.

            Contrast that with the Ryan budget, which drives spending down as far as 19.3 percent in 2018, before it rises to 19.8 percent in 2022. Over the 10-year budget window, Ryan’s budget spends an average 20 percent of GDP. So that’s what social Darwinism looks like — federal spending higher than Clinton and higher than the historical average.


            • dhammett said, on April 24, 2012 at 10:35 pm

              Does how the money is spent have any bearing on the subject? Does your article present a breakdown of the two budgets (Ryan’s and Obama’s) by spending on Defense, Welfare, Education, Health, etc.? Which approach spends less on those least capable of helping themselves?

            • magus71 said, on April 25, 2012 at 8:29 am

              What do you say, Mike?

            • Michael LaBossiere said, on April 25, 2012 at 12:06 pm

              While the percentage being spent matters, it also matters what it is being spent on. To use an analogy to household spending, cutting my spending from 22.6% to 20% might not be a good idea if I’m cutting that by not paying my mortgage or by not seeing the dentist/doctor.

              We probably also are paying more because we have a weaker economy. To use the analogy to my household budget, I am spending a higher percentage of my income these days because my salary is lower (both actually and effectively).

    • magus71 said, on April 23, 2012 at 9:26 pm

      Fortunately, if Rubio runs with Romney, it’s game over for Obama.

      • Michael LaBossiere said, on April 24, 2012 at 6:45 pm

        If that is true, then Romney should not consider anyone else. But, the only one who seems remotely eager for the job is Herman Cain.

  7. magus71 said, on April 24, 2012 at 8:30 am

    The liberal view has deadened the nation’s work ethic and sense of personal responsibility. America, since its founding, had the best work ethic in the world. And no society can sustain itself without a sufficient sense of personal responsibility.

    • dhammett said, on April 24, 2012 at 2:47 pm

      Is it possible that one or two other factors might have been heavily involved in the “deadening” that you ascribe solely to “the liberal view”?

      Consider the ascendancy of the nation to the pinnacle of world power and riches–in no small part due to liberals ^and^ conservatives– and the complacency that history has shown us often follows such a rise. . .

      Or the great industrial and scientific achievements that have eased the lives of many, but not all by any means, in this country. . . When we can work at a desk punching keys on a computer and earn enough money that we can return to our comfortable homes at the end of the day to a meal purchased fully prepared from our local market , that we’ve stored in our freezer, then cooked in our microwave ovens in 10 minutes or less. . .
      Hasn’t progress itself–a concern of liberals ^and^ conservatives– played a major part in making us the nation of lazy, irresponsible louts you say we are?

      Surely you’re not implying that ,if one is not conservative, if one is liberal (holds “the liberal view” ), one must– more or less by definition–be lazy and irresponsible. . .

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on April 24, 2012 at 6:53 pm

      Liberals don’t seem to be against the work ethic. Sure, there are some lazy liberals, but it seems a bit of a straw man to brand all liberals as enemies of the work ethic. If this were true, there would be no successful liberals for the conservatives to worry about.

  8. magus71 said, on April 24, 2012 at 12:28 pm

    The Communist Party USA endorses Obama.


    • dhammett said, on April 24, 2012 at 2:28 pm

      So? Is this guilt by association? Or some variation thereof? Dishonor by association?
      Did Obama seek their endorsement? Or did the organization simply bestow its endorsement on him?
      Exactly what does the endorsement mean–in your opinion?

      • magus71 said, on April 24, 2012 at 9:01 pm

        I assume they believe Obama holds many of their political opinions.

        • dhammett said, on April 24, 2012 at 10:16 pm

          “I assume they believe. . .”
          Again. . .”So?” ‘They’ may well be wrong.
          Just as likely, your assumption could be wrong. You haven’t forgotten what ‘they’ say about ‘assuming’ have you?

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on April 24, 2012 at 6:54 pm

      We still have one of those?

    • dhammett said, on April 25, 2012 at 4:29 pm

      Ahhhhhh. . .Mix that with the putrid stench of conservatism, and what have we got? The politico-ideological sewer that we call politics (local, state, and national). Every breath we take.

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