I think I know what ‘conservative’ means, but I’m not at all sure what ‘liberal’ means anymore.
I tend to consider “conservative” and “liberal” in the general sense, more than just in the political sense, maybe not even including the political sense.
A liberal, I was raised to perceive, is one who is interested in all aspects of the world, chooses a limited number, by necessity, to focus his or her reasonably disciplined efforts on (there are other things to do, like earning a living, raising and protecting a family, etc.), and reaches working conclusions which are always subject to reconsideration pending new information and experience. Open-minded, consciously learning, seeking principles to live by which are constructive and not harmful to the common good, etc.
“Intellectuals” are not liberal, by and large. They have a body of (limited) knowledge which they seek to protect and to impose on others. They “know” what’s right, and you don’t.
“Conservative” is not necessarily in opposition to any of these ideas, or ways. Conservatives I see more as ‘libertarian.’ Leave things alone, don’t try to change so much, preserve what works and what is beautiful and good. There are, of course, ‘conservative’, as well as ‘liberal’ intellectuals, who know better than you and I. The “besserwissers.”
I can’t say I’m beyond labels because I use them all the time in general conversation. But I find myself more and more avoiding labeling in the political realm because there seems to be no general understanding or agreement on what any given label means, even among those who adopt the same label. Historical definitions are to me, just that–historical.
Irrespective of labels, I see in the political realm those who are dependent, actually and psychologically, on the “government.” These people want more of it. Opposing these are those who see the government as the problem, as Ronald Reagan stated.
Crossing through these and other groupings are those who advocate a robust military posture, and those who prefer a more defensive posture (I am in this latter camp). There are those who are all heart and want “the government” to take care of all the suffering in the world, or at least throw money at it so they can feel good; and those who want to keep all our tax money at home, and not given in “foreign aid” and to the United Nations. Others want “the government” to advance the nation in space travel, want “the government” to take care of all the homeless, destitute, and troubled people (but not in their backyard); others want just to be left alone to advance their personal interests in their own way without myriad rules and regulations from “the government” to impede and frustrate them. Others want no tax money to go to activities they see as immoral… and on and on.
I don’t see labels such as ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative’ as useful in this stew of ‘principles’ (where any may truly exist) based in personal desires and antipathies.
“Words, as is well known, are the great foes of reality.”—Joseph Conrad
“Words are, of course, the most powerful drug used by mankind.”—Rudyard Kipling
If words are not true, concepts are not right.
If concepts are not right, morality and the arts do not thrive.
If morality and the arts do not thrive, justice miscarries.
If justice miscarries, the nation does not know where to put its feet and hands.
Therefore, disorder in words must not be tolerated.
I think “liberal” and “conservative” are best understood as philosophical orientations. Liberals believe that man can be perfected. Conservatives do not agree: man’s inherent flaws are part and parcel of the whole package. Therefore liberals are always willing to try something new to “deal with” a perceived societal problem, while conservatives are much more reluctant to adopt the latest “reform”.
I guess, therefore, I am a conservative, philosophically. I just read the following in a collections of essays by J. M. Coetzee (from his essay on W. G. Sebald): “… 1914 often appears (for Sebald) as the year when Europe took a wrong turn. But, looked at more closely, the pre-1914 idyll reveals itself to be without foundation. Did the true wrong turn take place earlier, then, with the triumph of Enlightenment reason and the enthronement of the idea of progress?… while part of his general gloom is about the destruction of habitat in the name of progress, he is not conservative in the sense of harking back to a golden age when mankind was at home in the world in a good, natural way…”
I have asked self-identified ‘progressives’ what it is to be ‘progressive’. I also ask, “toward what are you progressing?” I have always received hostility and no useful response in return. Mankind and society cannot be perfected, in my view. ‘Science’ has become the new religion, but it is a false science that is employed. Real science is a culture of doubt–everything is falsifiable; theories that have not yet been falsified are still subject to scrutiny and doubt. There is no ‘settled science’.
Most “progressives” believe that their “progress” is moving us in the direction of a more perfect future. Since nobody can actually agree what a “perfect” world would look like, they all have trouble identifying signs of “progress”.
I believe that human progress is best measured in terms of material well-being. Technology has engendered progress: people are, by and large, better fed and better housed than their grandparents were. We’re not necessarily any happier. I ascribe that to personal failings. Happiness is basically an attitude toward life’s vicissitudes.
I was trained as a scientist, so I understand about falsification. “Conjectures and Refutations” is a great book. Unfortunately, “perfection” as a limiting principle (we can never know the truth, but we can make better approximations to it as time passes) does not appeal to the “progressive” or “liberal” philosopher. Hence the reification of a fallacious “scientific consensus”. Sad, but predictable.
I like what you say here. My only quibble would be: “I believe that human progress is best measured in terms of material well-being.” I would rather the last phrase be be ‘spiritual well-being’, but then I would have a helluva time defining it.
Well, I think the Austrian economists have it just about right. Human value judgments are always subjective. That is the nature of a “value”. Almost everyone would rather have tastier food and better clothing. So we are justified in”measuring” material progress. A wealthier populace is better off than an impoverished one. In most people’s estimation, anyway.
On top of that, as Ludwig von Mises points out, “spiritual” or “aesthetic” well-being is more easily attained if a man’s basic material needs are easily provided. Time is a limiting factor for all human endeavors. Less time spent obtaining food makes more time available for spiritual, artistic, and intellctual pursuits. Material well-being is the fertile ground in which spiritual / aesthetic well-being can blossom.
Von Mises speaks approvingly of Eudæmonism, or the virtuous life. I don’t know how to measure that, but I have always cherished the maxim “virtue is its own reward.” I would commend that advice to anyone. Of course, what precisely constitutes “virtue” is the subject of endless debate. I still think it’s a better goal than “perfection”.
“Perfection” not attainable. Agree.