What is Conservatism?
Or, What Goes Around, Comes Around


A friend recently asked if I would take a few moments and write a description of liberalism or, what is a liberal. I was happy to do this as I found it an interesting mental exercise. By expressing my thoughts in words on a page, I was forced to clarify my thinking. Good stuff.

After reading my dissertation, we had a chance to talk on the phone and she asked, "Well, what is the definition of a conservative then?"

Once I began talking and thinking at the same time, certain points began crystallizing in my mind. Explaining some of my thoughts on the matter I recalled my earlier description of liberalism and attempted to make comparisons. My personal background is non-academic; I deal in real objects in the physical world. Therefore, I instinctively reach for a drawing or other visual means to express myself. During the conversation, I realized the object that best helps to define the differences between the two philosophies.

The object that best demonstrates this difference has the added benefit of explaining the differences among those that consider themselves conservatives — a wheel.

What goes around, comes around Here we have a wheel with "DC" at the hub representing Washington, DC or, any central government authority. Around the central hub located on the wheel proper are several arrows representing the people or, the masses. The red arrows are the liberals and the blue arrows are the conservatives. The direction in which each arrow is pointing indicates where the liberal or conservative entity or, group, looks for the answers to society's needs and problems.

You will notice that in all instances the red arrows point inward directly at the hub — toward the central government. In addition, all of the blue arrows point away from the central authority. To me what this means is that liberals will look primarily toward Washington for the answers to all their problems, real or perceived. Meanwhile those of a conservative persuasion look away from government for guidance.

The choice of a wheel was not casual. Look again at the arrows. There are three of each in my example. Let's assign three different social issues to these arrows and let one of each, one red and one blue, demonstrate some peculiarities of the liberal/conservative grouping. You can do this yourself, just pick any issue at all and see how it plays out. For now, I'm going to suggest the issues of education, crime/morality, and equal rights.

Education has long been a democrat/liberal-rallying cry. In every instance where improvement in the quality of our schools is an issue, they will turn to the federal government for money and national policies. The conservative approach to education has been to look to the local communities and the states for solutions to the problems in education.

The liberals also believe that only Washington has the answer to crime. Under their pressure, ever more crimes have been "federalized" and the morality associated with crime has been decided in Washington. So-called "hate crimes" against selected groups comes immediately to mind. Conservatives know that all crime is indeed local. A person or a business is the victim. You, your neighbor, the corner grocery store may be a victim of crime and neither the perpetrators nor the sufferers of crime are at all national. Since the seeds of crime dwell within the heart of the criminal, the morality behind a criminal's action is also local. Communities, churches, civic groups and individuals can have the most effect on the prevailing morality in their own towns and cities. What works in one area of the country may not be viable in another. Conservatives know that a one-size-fits-all "solution" from a central government is more likely to be an impediment than a cure.

Finally, on equal rights ... rights guaranteed by the Constitution ... here you might think that the liberal gaze to Washington is warranted. Yet, while such legislation as the Equal Rights Act and Voting Rights Act is indeed appropriate it is the testing and monitoring of these laws and the enforcement of them that presents differing viewpoints. Federal edicts such as hiring quotas and the categorizing of student college admissions have all proved to be counter-productive and discriminatory in their own way. Yet, liberals continue to look to the central government for solution to individual cases of discrimination. Conservatives attempt to address these problems at the point at which they occur which is, of course, locally.

Conservatives have no trouble assailing liberals for a monolithic reliance on central planning and that charge sticks. Look at the three red arrows. They all point to the same "answer".

However, the liberals, and conservatives themselves, are bedeviled at attempting to place all conservatives in one box. It is also frequently pointed out how often various groups loosely defined as conservative bicker and disagree among themselves. The reason for this is perfectly clear upon examining the blue arrows around the wheel.

While the conservatives are united on looking outward away from the central authority, all three have a different focal point! In other words, for each social issue the conservative remedy, or point of action, is different. The only real unity is that which is not looked upon as a solution.

Taking the three social issues I first presented as examples, let us see how conservatives differ. On education, they may suggest that the individual states provide general guidance and standards for education and then local control of curriculums. On crime and morality, they may call for tough local enforcement of existing law and increased intervention of religious institutions in high-crime areas. Finally, on equal rights, you might see a call for direct pressure on those within the community who persist in discriminatory behavior.

Three problems ... three outlooks for the answers. What isn't shown on the diagram however, is what happens in the real world where there are more than three liberals and three conservatives. On any particular issue, multiple parties will have slightly differing viewpoints. Yet, the wheel still holds true and at the same time demonstrates the complexity of politics.

Let's concentrate on one issue for discussion. On education, let us place ten of each color arrow around the wheel. While all of the all red ones will look inward at a common point all of the blue ones will be looking outward but at many different points. Some conservatives will be adamantly in favor of vouchers, some in favor of home schooling, and some for another solution altogether. Even if each of the arrows, red or blue is turned a few degrees left or right ... representing the normal variations in individual philosophies ... the liberals will be generally looking toward the hub and the conservatives will be looking away from the center.

This explains why under the umbrella of conservatism you will find hard-core Christian fundamentalists, laissez-faire libertarians, and strict Constitutionalists. This diversity of thought is the strength of the conservative movement — many different approaches to the problems at hand. (Notice how conservative governors of various states have taken different paths toward improving education, for example.) Unfortunately, their opponents can demagogue and cajole this diverse grouping into arguing among themselves. It then becomes easier for the media and others to paint the conservatives as too fractious to be relied upon for any problem solving. Of course, their answer then becomes looking once more to Washington.

What goes around, comes around — like a wheel.

20 March 2000

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