Tuesday, July 12, 2011

LOOK LEFT, LOOK RIGHT: A liberal acknowledges his conservative side

Where does the liberal me end and the conservative begin?

       A good legal system is both liberal and conservative. Most people are, as well. This is worth remembering as those of us at either end of the political spectrum continue to punch each other silly in the run-up to next year’s elections.
       I am, by pretty much anyone’s definition, a liberal or, if you prefer, a “progressive.” I support all of the following:
  • gay marriage
  • a woman’s right to an unrestricted abortion
  • tax-supported public-works programs, unemployment benefits, and welfare disbursements for the poor such that everyone has access to a respectable job, a living income, free public education, sufficient food, and free health care
  • a 50% or higher tax rate on all individual earnings beyond, say, $200,000 per year, to help pay for the above programs
  • a minimum 35% tax rate on capital gains
  • strong worker unions
  • a higher minimum wage keyed annually to inflation
  • strong environmental-protection, consumer-protection, women-protection, minority-protection, disability-protection, worker-protection, and elderly-protection laws
  • taxes on property owned by religious institutions
  • an end to prayer at government events and to the word “God” on money
  • an end to the saying of the Pledge of Allegiance in public schools.

And so on. Liberal positions, all. Okay, flaming liberal positions.
     A liberal is comfortable with change—change in the nature of marriage, for example, and in the distribution of wealth, and in the location of political and social power.  What is “traditional”—as in “traditional marriage” or “traditional gender roles” or the “traditional” relationship of labor to management, customer to business, and citizen to government—has less influence on liberals like me than on those more conservative. In fact, liberals believe many traditions should be left behind and many norms abandoned. Gay marriage is “abnormal”? So what? It’s “traditional” to say the Pledge of Allegiance in school every day. So what? Judeo-Christian beliefs are the norm in our society? So what? Liberals say “So what?” a lot. That is, they question traditions and norms. A lot.
Yes, I’m definitely a liberal.
Yet I also understand that, when it comes right down to it, I am also a conservative; that is, I want tomorrow to be pretty much the same as today. When I wake up tomorrow, I want my house and my things still to be my house and my things—not taken by someone else. When I wake up tomorrow, I want the persons I love—my wife, if I have one, and my children, say—still to be part of my life, and the government to pass laws that protect my family relationships. Whatever I own today, I want the government to make sure it’s still mine tomorrow if I’ve done nothing to disown it; whatever health I have today, I expect the laws to protect me from anyone who would injure me, so that I will still be healthy tomorrow; whatever business or job I have today, I expect the government to do what it can to protect that business or that job from anyone who would take it away from me without just cause, so it is still mine tomorrow. While I would willingly part with some of my money (through taxation) to support my liberal ideals, I expect the government to protect me from those who would simply steal my money or con me out of it; I expect that—I demand that—barring bad fortune or my own mistakes, I will be, approximately, no less wealthy tomorrow than I am today.
Make tomorrow predictably the same as today—that is the conservative’s doctrine. A conservative is, in other words, someone whose default position is to conserve the status quo. Like nearly everyone else I know, whether Obama Democrat or Tea Party Republican, I am, by this definition, quite the “conservative.” *
A conservative also believes in norms—the traditional, predictable, “normal” ways people behave. Norms pressure people to behave tomorrow as they behave today; enforcement of norms is another way to preserve the status quo. As a liberal, I’m somewhat relaxed in my attitudes toward many norms—I’ve lived with a woman for 20 years, for example, without being married, and I don’t believe in mowing my suburban lawn—but still, like most people, I want many things that I think of as “normal” today still to be the norm tomorrow: I don’t want to awaken tomorrow to a world in which people pee against storefronts in public, for example, or walk down the sidewalk blindfolded, or commit incest with their children; when I awaken tomorrow, I’d prefer not to see policemen directing traffic naked or calling little old ladies “f***ing bitches.” Many norms are more powerful to me than the written law. Like most people, I would, for example, sooner park illegally than call a black man “nigger” or an old grandmother “bitch.” I am, in other words, a fairly “normal” guy. That makes me (and most of my liberal friends) pretty “conservative,” too; we believe in many norms.
A famous set of conservative laws.
I would estimate that at least ninety percent of all laws are designed to protect the status quo and perpetuate norms. That is, nearly all laws are, at bottom, conservative. For simplicity’s sake, consider the set of “laws” that most Jews and Christians consider fundamental to their ethos: the Ten Commandments. Here they are, in modern language:
1. Don’t worship other gods.
2. Don’t worship false idols.
3. Don’t take the Lord’s name in vain.
4. Remember the Sabbath and keep it holy.
5. Honor your father and mother.
6. Don’t murder.
7. Don’t commit adultery.
8. Don’t steal.
9. Don’t bear false witness against your neighbor.
10. Don’t covet your neighbor’s wife or property.

These are all, fundamentally, conservative laws. This becomes clear when they are put in slightly different language:
1. Don’t change the god you’ve been worshipping.
2. Don’t change the traditional way you worship.
3. Don’t change your traditional attitude toward God.
4. Don’t change the way people traditionally behave on the Sabbath.
5. Don’t change the way people normally treat their fathers and mothers.
6. Don’t change a person’s state of being alive.
7. Don’t change your normative sexual partner.
8. Don’t change who has which property.
9. Don’t change the facts.
10. Don’t even think about changing people’s wives or property.

Don’t change, don’t change, don’t change. Stick to the norms, the traditional ways of doing things. The Ten Commandments are a conservative set of laws.
As I said, even in the secular realm, most laws are conservative. This is obviously true of laws that echo the Ten Commandments: Don’t kill or injure people, don’t steal others’ property, don’t sell liquor on Sunday. It is also true of most other laws: Don’t go 85 in a 35-mph zone, don’t text while driving, don’t run a railroad crossing gate—that is, don’t do things that threaten to change the good health of yourself or others. Other laws are likewise conservative: Don’t run naked down the street, don’t pee in public view, don’t shoot off firecrackers at 3 a.m., don’t let your lawn grow knee-high in a suburb, don’t have sex with your children. In other words, stick to the norms. Preserve the status quo. Don’t change the way things are. Again, most laws are conservative in this way, and even most liberals, like me, support most of these status quo-conserving laws.
Yet there are also laws designed precisely to encourage change—specifically, to encourage improvements in life, what we liberals/progressives call, well, “progress.” Intellectual property and patent laws, for example, are designed to encourage change—to reward people who come up with new ideas and new technologies that will change the world for the better. The Social Security Act, the Civil Rights Act, the Medicare Act, the Environmental Protection Act, the Consumer Protection Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Occupational Safety and Health Act, and so on are examples of laws which brought about significant change. They overturned many social norms and economic traditions. In the eyes of most liberals, at least, they improved the world.
 Interestingly, while many laws are liberal in appearance, they are conservative in effect. The “liberal” Environmental Protection Act, for example, is designed to leave much of the natural world unchanged, and the Social Security Act and Medicare were designed to protect the current health and economic status of the elderly—to preserve their status quo. Consumer-protection and worker-protection laws may have changed, respectively, the traditional relationships between business and consumer (no longer “let the buyer beware”) and between worker and business owner (no longer “owner makes all the rules”), but they also gave consumers and workers the confidence that their tomorrows would not be threatened by unwanted, unjustified change. 
Conversely, conservatives argue that most laws designed to protect the status quo in fact contribute to progress—to positive change in the world. They point out that laws designed to protect wealth give people the confidence to take entrepreneurial risks. Who would open a new business if they thought that their profits were not safe from theft? Would we have cell phones and GPS systems today if there were not “conservative” laws that assured that their inventors would be compensated for their ideas and able to pass at least some of their wealth on to their heirs? Even the low capital-gains tax rate, which I think is too low, is defended by conservatives as a way to encourage those with money to invest in new businesses and new technologies in order to change the world for the better. It’s a fair argument.
It’s clear, then, that conservatives often support change and liberals often support the status quo. Neither is a bad thing.
(I know I’m going on too long, but, heck, this is my blog. Feel free to stop reading.)
Traffic laws are conservative and liberal.
When I taught a course called “Literature and the Law,” my students and I enjoyed looking deeply at certain laws, to determine their true purpose. Often that purpose was not obvious. Consider this simple law: Don’t run a red light.
Why is there a law against running red lights? At first the answer seems obvious: to prevent accidents and keep people from getting hurt—that is, to preserve the current health and safety of the populace. This is a conservative, “status quo” reason.
But look deeper, and the answer is not so obvious. Recently, a few towns in Europe have been removing all traffic signals and stop signs at certain intersections. The result? Not more accidents, but fewer! Intersections without stop lights or stop signs were safer than those with them. The reason for this is also pretty obvious: If you know there’s no signal or sign to slow down drivers crossing your path, you enter an intersection mighty carefully.
So why do we have traffic lights—and a law against running them—if driving is safer without them? Because without them, driving is slower. Much. . . much. . . slower. Without traffic lights or stop signs, we would have to slow down at every intersection, perhaps even come to a stop. In many places, the result would be near gridlock.
As counterintuitive as it seems, traffic lights allow people to get where they’re going faster.
And why are we interested in people getting places faster? So they can get to work quicker, build things faster, sell more things, invent more things, be more productive, make more money, write more books, teach more children, feed more people, spend more time with their kids and parents, and just generally move the world along at a quicker pace, toward some future that will be different from today—and yet somehow still the same.
Political thought and political action have no traffic signals. In the sixteen months that are about to lead up to the next national elections, as we liberals and conservatives continue to drive in mad circles around each other, led by our doctrinal GPS systems, we should remember to stop at each intersection and look both ways.

*With respect to the status quo, the least conservative, most liberal people are, understandably, the poor, the sick, and the hungry. For them, the status quo isn’t so pleasant. Liberals tend to sympathize with their desire for change.

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