The internet showers us with information and because we fear the unknown, we try to string together as many pieces of information as possible to form meaningful patterns. Thus, conspiratorial thinking is rampant on the internet. Instead of thinking critically about our glut of data, we may resort to imagining the most entertaining fictions to tie up the loose ends. One popular conspiracy theory is that the political division between the right and the left is a sham, because there’s some third group, some amoral, even superhuman elite that secretly rules modern societies, bent on establishing a totalitarian world order. But the various speculations about how such a minority controls the world shouldn’t interest us as much as the sense many people have that something is fishy about the way the mainstream media present the split between conservatives and liberals--especially in the US where there are only the two official parties. The consensus narratives about how the two sides of the political spectrum differ on policy questions are caricatures, at best. It’s worth examining, then, a couple of those narratives, to get at the real, hidden political differences in modern democracies.
Tradition and Progress
So much for the caricatures, but where did the distinction between tradition and progress come from and what’s at the root of it? In the classic sense, “liberalism” is pretty much synonymous with “European modernism.” Skepticism about tradition and optimism about progress are defining features of early modernity, beginning with Renaissance humanism and continuing with the Protestant Reformation, which set the individual at odds with the Catholic institution; the Scientific Revolution, which overthrew the Thomistic synthesis of Aristotle’s worldview and the Bible; the American and French Revolutions which fulfilled Enlightenment ideals and established democracy and capitalism as the official expressions of the new faith in the sovereign individual; and ending in the Enlightenment’s science-centered, positivistic philosophy which set the stage for the postmodern period in which The Simpsons and Jon Stewart, for example, mock the Western culture that’s the fruit of all of that progress.
Early modern conservatives, that is, the monarchists and aristocrats were defending medieval traditions that were dashed by classic liberals who proclaimed the equal rights of every person. Now, in the medieval period, conservatism was genuinely heroic, because the choice was to have faith in tradition or to suffer the chaos left after the fall of the Roman Empire. But then a new world order emerged, thanks to the historical events just listed. The feudal lords were no longer needed as protectors, since advances in technology and in exploration were producing a globalized world in which the majority could make their own way as merchants and free workers, as opposed to living as serfs. Individualism became the rallying cry, and what made the individual special was his freedom, meaning his ability to choose how to act based on his rational, conscious control of himself. Eventually, this rationalistic appreciation of the worth of the sovereign individual was expanded to cover not just white males, but women and people of other races, such as African-Americans.
So liberalism was an ideology that celebrated the birth of the modern world in these respects. Freedom of thinking and of commerce, freedom to vote and thus to govern, the individual’s freedom to pursue her personal artistic vision--the early modernist saw the writing on the wall, the glory of ancient Greek writings compared to Thomistic dogma and the superiority of the empirical theories of Galileo, Newton, and Maxwell to those of Aristotle or Ptolemy; and the new wealth being created by the self-interested merchants and mercantilists. And for the liberal, progress went hand in hand with the power of the free individual. When a person is free to live as she sees fit (as long as she doesn’t deprive anyone else of the same right), she’s bound to be more or less original, because she has her personal identity to express--and so much the worse for the oppressive traditions of the dead-weight past that ought to be left behind by those who have woken up from the Dark Age, eager to explore new ideas.
There are at least a couple of curiosities here. First, the heart of classic liberalism looks like it beats now in the chest of the American conservative. After all, isn’t it the American talk-radio host, the Fox News pundit, and the Tea Party libertarian who champion personal liberty but who are loathe to stand anywhere near a left-wing Democrat, let alone to vote for one, while the Democrat wants to empower the government to regulate everything and take away people’s freedoms? There are a number of reasons why this turn-around has happened, but the one I want to focus on has to do with the fate of the liberal in the postmodern world. All of that eye-opening enlightenment, that righteous modern skepticism and trust in people’s freedom to decide what they should do with their lives, which birthed the culture of modernity have given way to postmodern cynicism, apathy, and anxiety, and to the heartbrokenness of folks who’ve lost their modern religion.
What happened, in short, is that the narrow progress in science and technology has far outpaced the individual’s ability to advance in terms of finding happiness, choosing creative goals, or of living peacefully with others. Indeed, part of the way science has progressed is by showing why we shouldn’t expect much personal or social progress. Darwin explained how our species is in fact continuous with the animals we eat, enslave, or hunt for sport; Einstein, Gödel, Heisenberg and others showed that knowledge is relative and partial, not absolute; and Freud popularized the discovery of the irrational unconscious, while cognitive psychologists today expose the myriad biases we have and the fallacies we’re prone to commit because of how our brains evolved. Moreover, amoral advances in technology have improved our lives in some ways while harming us in others. The world wars, for example, were devastating to the hope that societies might progress along with the narrow rational project of discovering the natural facts and exploiting them with technology. Then there was the corruption and collapse of the socialist utopias in the last century, including the communist and Nazi ones. In Britain and the US, the ‘60s hippie revolutions fizzled out (after serving up the progressive victory of civil rights) and gave way to the free market consensus in the ‘80s, under Thatcher and Reagan, and all the while the Western art worlds and philosophy departments were reflecting the public’s disenchantment with all overarching narratives that proclaim some universal meaning of life.
To return to the American conservative’s coopting of the liberal myths, then, one reason this has happened is that the conservative has been spared the suffering from the deflation of modern expectations, because she’s held on to the premodern myths without taking to heart the modern ones. Only the liberals were quintessentially modern and so only the liberals are left to writhe in the ashes of modern culture. To be sure, Western conservatism should have ended centuries ago at the dawn of the Age of Reason. But precisely because people are the animals that scientists have shown us to be, conservatives stubbornly clung to their prejudices and their theistic delusions, without much shame or cognitive dissonance. We are not as rational or as heroic as the Enlightenment myths proclaimed, and as modernists felt the full force of that discovery over the last couple of centuries, they lost the drive to cheer for the modern slogans. Postmodern liberals aren’t so keen to speak of individual liberty in the full-throated, early modern way, because those liberals have lost faith in the free individual’s ability to save herself.
Meanwhile, the wily conservative has taken a page from Thomas Aquinas’s playbook and synthesized the premodern Christian worldview with the modern one, creating a Frankenstein monster that ought to horrify all decent people. Instead of proclaiming the same old, transparently preposterous myths that no longer made sense in Europe after the Scientific Revolution, Protestant conservatives joined the ever-flexible (compromised) Christian doctrines with the modern myth of the greatness of the rational, autonomous individual. Martin Luther made this possible by following up on the Gnostic heresy, albeit replacing the ancient Gnostic’s elitist confidence in rational enlightenment with idol worship of the Bible. So postmodern Western conservatives hold on to premodern myths even while they zealously guard the modern privileges of the liberated citizens of capitalistic democracies. Not realizing that the ideal of modern freedom of thought and of action is condemned by the Christian Promethean tale of the rebellious angel Lucifer who goes his own way unto his destruction in hell, the postmodern Christian conservative cheerfully embraces the modern American project that precludes theocracy or any other tyranny in the US, out of trust in what rational and free individuals will choose to do. Isn’t the individual cursed with original sin? Aren’t God’s ways foolish to the worldly-wise elites? Isn’t satanic individualism the epitome of evil? No matter! If you can wrap your mind around premodern notions in the first place, even after the Age of Reason has blasted them a billion times over, you can betray Jesus’s hippie ideals, snatch the modern torch from the crestfallen liberal’s hand, and carry on like the oblivious pair that waits for Godot. Either that or you can use premodern myths to distract from your private postmodern nihilism.
The second curiosity is that liberalism can’t amount to the abandonment of faith for pure rationality, because the classic liberal committed himself to the modern faith that society could and would progress just like science and technology. Although there was some such progress, depending on your values, the cynicism and angst of the postmodern period indicate a crisis of faith, that is, disenchantment with the modern metanarrative. And this returns us to the first popular way of distinguishing between conservatism and liberalism (the conservative values tradition while the liberal is more open to change). The modern/classically liberal spin on this is to say that the conservative prefers feel-good superstitions while the liberal understands Reason’s empowerment of the individual to improve her circumstances. But we oversimplify the political difference if we assume that the conservative has religious faith while the liberal just follows Reason in all affairs. Modernism is not the sum of the scientific findings and rational calculations that have accrued over the last several centuries. Instead, modernism is, or rather was, itself a religion, featuring an ideology that posited a distinction between sacred things (progress, reason, freedom, equality) and profanities (dogma, irrationality, oppression, rigid hierarchy). Again, there would have been no postmodern angst were the modern ideology that discredited itself just a purely rational expression of modern culture. Thus, if you think the conservative irrationally commits to a tradition in spite of what Reason tells her, while the liberal is a sage with no irrational commitments, you’re not clear on the political difference in question. The classic liberal had faith in Reason, trusting that Reason would tell us not just how nature works and how we might modify our environments with technology, but how we ought to behave and how we can improve ourselves.
After a few hundred years of trusting in human nature, liberals began to lose their modern faith, in the last century, while conservatives managed to maintain their faith by combining premodern and modern myths. That means that scientific objectivity has rubbed off more on liberalism than on conservatism. Liberals had the decency at least to hit rock bottom with postmodern relativism and nihilism after recognizing the folly of certain modern ideals. Still, it’s not the case that conservatives have strong values while liberals have none. Modern skepticism presupposes an emotional attachment to the modern ideals and even to the myth about the brave utopian future opened up by rational exploration. In the end, modernists didn’t like what they found. Modernism has resulted in postmodern malaise and ennui, and so liberals currently have no basis for speaking of social progress. They lack a compass even if they pretend to know where they’re going, like the proverbial lost man who won’t ask for directions.
Postmodern liberal nihilism has been exacerbated by the rise of communications technologies, which have swamped experts with information that can’t be fully analyzed. The internet collects all of this information and it’s available at the push of a button, but this technological power intimidates more than it emboldens. Certainly, the availability of so much mental labour has its advantages, but its timing kicks liberals when they’re down. The difference between information and wisdom becomes clear when we see that we have an overabundance of the former and so little trust in any idea as to what should be done with the data glut. More and more information flows in so that we can’t create new traditions even if we wanted to: we lack the patience or the clarity of vision to commit to any new ideal to replace the modern one. American liberals trusted that Obama would change their society, but his biggest changes have been the tone of his rhetoric and his skin colour. Policy-wise, there’s been more continuity with the Bush regime than there has been change, and the deepest reason why that’s been so is that postmodern liberals no longer have a map to tell them where social progress lies. They’re left with hollow, vestigial rhetoric.
So far, then, the actual difference between conservatism and liberalism is that the former is an untenable synthesis of premodern and modern ideas and practices, which calls upon its adherents to boldly dispense with their capacity for shame--even if some conservatives only pretend to be premodern in their outlook--whereas liberalism/modernism was a new European religion that competed with Christianity until the modern myths lost their power to enchant in the face of recent history, leaving liberals with all too much shame.
The Size of Government
More likely, though, you’d answer the foregoing question by saying that conservatives want government to be small whereas liberals want to expand government, that conservatives privatize government functions and lower taxes while liberals add regulations and raise taxes. But this popular way of putting the distinction, too, isn’t helpful. For example, George W. Bush increased the size of the American government and Bill Clinton and Obama deregulated the economy. Obama even employed the same economic experts who laid the groundwork under Clinton for the Great Recession, to deal with that Recession (namely Larry Summers and Timothy Geithner who were one with Paul Rubin and Alan Greenspan in their zeal for deregulation). Foreseeably, then, as of mid-2013, the big banks are still too big to fail or to prosecute and the interest rates are once again low enough to punish savers and to inflate the stock and bond markets with borrowed money, encouraging the gambling that has historically produced the Ponzi schemes called “booms” that lead inevitably to busts.
To understand what’s going on here, I believe you should be aware of three principles that trump the mainstream media’s talk of small versus big government, low versus high taxes, and so forth. First, the default organization of groups within most social species, from fish to birds to mammals and primates, is the dominance hierarchy, which is to say the pecking order in which resources are split unequally between alphas, betas, and the rest. This inequality facilitates mating by laying bare genetic differences between competing males, and ensures that finite resources aren’t squandered on unfit individuals. Second, there’s the Iron Law of Oligarchy, which is that the larger a group, the more power has to be concentrated within fewer and fewer hands so that the group can operate with any efficiency. Third, there’s Lord Acton’s maxim that the more power someone has, the more likely she’ll be corrupted by that power, so that if she enjoys absolute power she has no chance of preserving her moral sense. You can test this maxim by asking yourself whether you’d act more immorally than usual if only you had no fear of getting caught; say, for example, you had the mythical Ring of Gyges which gives you the power of invisibility. When we put these principles together, we should see that for biological and pragmatic, organizational reasons, society tends to empower a minority to rule over the majority, which concentrates power, corrupts the minority, and endangers the whole society.
Given that default social dynamic (DSD), let’s return to the second superficial difference between the conservative and the liberal. The conservative wants to transfer power from the political sphere to the economic one, shrinking government and creating more opportunity for private profit. The belief here is that competition between suppliers in a free market is a more efficient way not just of setting prices but of managing society in almost all areas, compared to lobbying or voting in a democratic election. Notice that in either case, the DSD is in force, despite the appearance of a decentralization of power in the free market. If the collective demand of the majority of consumers actually determined what’s of value and thus what should be produced and how society should be run, the outcome would be far from optimal, because the population would be split and the society would lack a coherent plan of action on any issue. Moreover, majorities tend to be weighed down by those who are naturally inferior in their cognitive abilities and tastes.
To correct for this, the Iron Law of Oligarchy is applied, and so demagogues and public relations experts arise to manipulate mass opinion, to turn the population into a mob in which social pressures eliminate idiosyncratic differences of opinion. And in the political sphere, most modern democracies are representative rather than direct, so that again power is concentrated. Because of the DSD, we can expect corruption and eventual decline and possible revitalization in either a free market or a modern democracy. The more power is given to the private sector, the more monopolies will form and the majority will be manipulated for the sake of social unity and exploited as the monopolists are corrupted, until the majority come to resemble medieval serfs who depend on the largesse of the wealthy elites. Likewise, the more power is entrusted even to a democratically elected government, the more the government will abuse that power, manipulating mass opinion for the sake of national security and striking corrupt deals with cronies in the private sector, until the society exhibits the fixed inequality that’s typical of the default social order.
When it comes to the size of government, then, the effective difference between the conservative and the liberal is that the conservative values traditional social structures which most efficiently reflect natural inequalities, whereas the classic liberal proposed an egalitarian, socialist experiment which naturally failed, leaving the postmodern liberal to pretend that she has some viable way of overcoming the DSD. To understand the conservative reflex, you need to appreciate that the main difference between ways of organizing large groups is between the DSD and some radical challenge to that default. The conservative unleashes nature’s primary means of sustaining large groups, the dominance hierarchy, which is to say a pyramidal sort of economic and political inequality. Modern liberalism arose as a socialist, egalitarian rival to that default social order. When that rival first appeared, the dominance hierarchy took the forms of monarchies and oligarchies, while today the hierarchy is often more hidden from view but is still operative, for example, as a plutocracy (United States) or a kleptocracy (Russia).
At the start of the Age of Reason, classic liberals redefined human nature, based on an awakened view of our power of reason. Reason freed us from the tyrannies of natural forces and of dogmatic institutions like the Catholic Church, and again modernists thought that all people free themselves by their power of rational self-control. For modernists, that freedom is the source of human rights and so liberals feel that anyone who finds herself impoverished or disempowered mustn’t be allowed to languish. Marx gave voice to this secular humanism, predicting that because capitalism exploits and alienates the working class, the workers will revolt and establish a communist society that abolishes private property. Communism was thus supposed to be a democratic revolution, one that would liberate the majority. Russia provides the most instructive example of a country that carried out the modern experiment of diverging from the DSD for the sake of social progress.
The causes of the Soviet Union’s collapse are complex, but notice at least the pattern in the transitions from Marx to Lenin to Stalin. In applying Marx’s neo-Hegelian theory of history’s rational unfolding, Lenin found he had a practical need of a vanguard party of elite revolutionaries who would lead the workers in their revolt and secure the revolution by dealing with counter-revolutions. Thus, whereas Marx spoke of liberation for the working class, Lenin applied the Iron Law and said that the workers’ power would have to be concentrated for the revolution to succeed in the real world. Stalin added the paranoid thesis that political repression would always be needed even after the overthrow of the bourgeoisie, because the capitalists would continually try to worm their way into the worker’s paradise and corrupt it from within. Thus, Stalin purged the Communist Party and repressed the peasants, creating a police state to stamp out any sign of political opposition. In fact, this theory of ongoing class struggle provided a pretext for Stalin’s totalitarian entrenchment of the vanguard party. The Cold War turned on a contest between American and Soviet propaganda, and because the communist stronghold degenerated into a natural dominance hierarchy that repressed rather than liberated the majority of workers, soviet propaganda proved less effective in uniting and inspiring the communists. The soviet economy unraveled, there were nationalist uprisings in parts of the USSR, and the soviets lost control of their police state.
Thus, the progressive experiment failed because the humanistic myth of social progress proved unequal to the task of escaping the force of social gravity, which is the DSD. This failure has monumental consequences besides the well-known ones. European modernists marveled at the secular humanists’ progress in understanding and controlling natural forces, and wanted to duplicate that progress in the social sphere, by speculating on how reason can control ourselves (our “passions,” instincts, or unconscious desires). Modern thinkers duly produced bureaucratic hierarchies that boasted all the formal justifications you could ask for; alas, the bureaucrats were mammals, not logic-chopping machines, and the leaders of modern states followed the cold dictates of reason to the point of exerting totalitarian control over the masses instead of liberating them.
And postmodern liberals are left without an inspiring ideal to motivate mass opposition to the DSD. Dominance hierarchies are found throughout the animal kingdom, so the conservative has no need to long for a glimpse of her shining city on a hill. Her model social arrangement is just the default one in which the weak members submit to the strong and exchange the right to their “fair,” equal share of the resources, for protection by the alphas. The conservative is mocked for calling this the Trickle-down theory, but as the Too Big to Fail banks on Wall Street made clear in 2008, the financial elites hold the integrated global economy hostage and so, as the beady-eyed economists said, the choice is between appeasement or apocalypse. By contrast, the classic liberal was a radical who dared to establish the supernatural kingdom dreamt up by spiritual visionaries from the Axial Age. This liberal trusted in Reason rather than in God to sustain an egalitarian utopia, and when people proved to be insufficiently godlike to overcome the force of social gravity, the communist bureaucracies and Keynesian welfare states disintegrated and had their treasures looted by predators who captured the regulators, rewrote or repealed the relevant laws, and installed or reinstalled crony capitalistic pecking orders.
There are rival ways of co-opting the modern rhetoric of freedom. The classic liberal bets on democracy as the vehicle of a rationally-illuminated and thus liberated majority. In the US, this democratic impulse got mixed up with individualism, self-reliance, and even social Darwinian xenophobia, because the US was settled, relatively recently, by tough pioneers who fought for their independence. Bur for all the modern rationalistic bluster and doubts about traditional religions, modernists like Marx had a spiritual, miraculous idea of progress. To progress from natural inequality, modern radicals promoted the ideals of freedom for all and of equally-shared political power. These ideals govern democracy: one person, one vote, which equalizes political influence. The moral reason for the equality is that people have the same rights because of their innate capacity for rational self-control. Conservatives counter with the mechanism of the free market, which frees the producer to satisfy the demands of the marketplace and that frees also the consumer to act on her preference by buying what she likes, thus rewarding the producer. A free market is clearly an instrument of deepening social inequality, because unlike in a democracy in which power is tied to the equally-distributed votes, the power of money is cumulative in an unregulated market, so that the more money anyone has there, the greater her power. (This is how money can corrupt a democracy.) Thus, while liberals want a permanent sort of freedom to honour our equality as dignified, rational beings, a freedom that wound up being preserved paradoxically by totalitarian communists, conservatives want mainly freedom of opportunity, which is the hypothetical freedom that stops at the starting gate, as the natural rewards and punishments, dished out by unregulated (wild) competition, are allowed to shape society, corrupting the winners and ensuring the losers’ downfall.
So back to the question of big versus small government. This is a tempest in a teapot since either way, nature wins. Liberals had their chance at supernatural progress and the DSD played its tune even on the modern instruments. The current split between conservatives and liberals on this issue of the government’s size is farcical because it’s so one-sided in light of the failure of large-scale progressivism to offer a sustainable alternative to the default social order. To be sure, the conservative society is execrable from the modern viewpoint, since it dehumanizes us, treating us as animals struggling on our own for survival and power. And to be sure, some conservatives tell noble lies to conceal that this is what they fight for. Thanks to its association with the Nazis, social Darwinism is politically incorrect, but this is the true difference between conservatives and liberals. A small government means a power vacuum in the private sector and thus a brutal natural competition, which corrupts the weakened government and tanks the whole economy in boom and bust cycles. And a large government means the empowering of the vanguard party or of the bureaucracy’s upper echelons, which again corrupts the power center and dooms the society. In a conservative social order, the powerful minority benefit the most, although as in most animal groups, the total population benefits from the stability which is preferable to anarchy. In a progressive, egalitarian society, the naturally weakest members benefit the most since they receive a free lunch, but because this sort of society is miraculous it tends to be short-lived. Thus, only the rich and the powerful now have ardent political defenders in modern states, leaving the poor to fend for themselves. Liberal politicians are much more confused about their social ideals than are conservatives, although the latter may seem confused in public if they keep their postmodern ideals secret.
The Culture War
Finally, I suspect you think that conservatives and liberals differ clearly on the current issues of the day like abortion, gay marriage, when to use the military, whether to legalize drugs, whether to teach Creationism in science classes, how to interpret religious scripture, and so forth. Indeed, there are these cultural differences in all modern democracies. I won’t go into them here, but I’ll close by suggesting that this culture war derives not just from the mainstream media’s need to stir up conflict to sell the news as prepackaged infotainment, but from the history and the other factors I’ve just discussed. Conservative smugness and schadenfreude, for example, are due to the self-evident benefits of the dominance hierarchy and to the lack of a viable alternative, while the liberal’s kneejerk confidence in technocracy derives from her need to lose herself in academic abstractions, so she can avoid perceiving the unsettling reality that she’s standing in the wilderness, which is where the conservative wants to be. True, just because the dominance hierarchy stabilizes most social species doesn’t mean it will stabilize ours. Corruption can affect human predators by making them downright evil, and we have the power to wipe ourselves out beyond the possibility of our recovery. In any case, there’s no arguing with the force of social gravity; instead, there’s just the mad vision of spiritual malcontents and the recent sinking of God’s kingdom into the swamp of hierarchy and corruption, after the socialist revolutions.
Conservatives look at liberal democracies, such as the hybrid ones in Europe and Canada, and see fattened calves doomed to go belly-up like Greece, to be double-crossed and slaughtered by predators like Goldman Sachs in the open market. True, Canada’s banking system was largely protected from the recent real estate bust, so liberals can take pride in the advantages of a social safety net. But there’s a reason Canada’s success here isn’t widely-celebrated or even well-known. As safe, clean, and peaceful as Canadian society is, few people dream of being Canadian. The cost of these liberal benefits is the postmodern liberal’s cultural vacuum, the result of her disillusionment. So Canadians and Europeans may enjoy some benefits of the modern vision of social progress, but whether these benefits can motivate liberals in the long run to save our moderately socialist states from the crushing reality of the biological and pragmatic pulls toward inequality, corruption, and catastrophe is doubtful.