Liberals and Conservatives

(I’ve been mulling the following essay for a while now–was finally inspired to action by a post from Cassandra, asking readers to “define conservatism for me.”)

Two stories….

During the Cold War, an American officer was watching a British artillery battery doing some practice firing. He noticed that every time the battery fired, two soldiers were detailed to stand about 50 feet away, each man with his right arm up in the air.

“What are they doing?” asked the American.

“Standard orders, sir,” responded a sergeant. “What we were taught.”

Unable to imagine any reason for this procedure, the American began to make inquiries. Everyone he talks to simply responded that this was they way they had been taught to do things. Finally, he interviewed a very old soldier, who had served in World War One and was now in a veterans hospital.

“You know, when the battery fires?” asked the American. “Those two guys off to the side with their arms in the air? What are they doing?”

“They’re holding the horses,” gasped the old soldier.

This is how liberals tend to think about conservatives–doing things they way they’ve always been done, for no good reason other than precedent.

A different story…

You have inherited a chemical plant which makes a valuable and vitally-needed product. It is a vast facility, covering many acres: kind of a spooky place, too, with steam jets and gas flares everywhere. The plant has grown up over time, and the piping and wiring diagrams, if they ever existed, have long since been lost.

The plant’s chemical process has been developed by trial-and-error, and is not well understood. It is controlled by hundreds of set-point knobs adjusting various temperatures, pressure, and rates of flow. The plant operators, most of them with years of experience, have been able to make some changes in the plant’s efficiency by making slight occasional adjustments to the set points. They do this very carefully: several times in the past, adjustments which proved to be unwise have resulted in explosions, destroying equipment, shutting down the plant, and even sometimes injuring and killing people. Some of these failed adjustments were based on mathematical process models which said that they should have worked out just fine.

Two of your executives come to see you with a proposal. One is a chemical engineer, the other an MBA. They have a new, very elaborate process model in which they have very high confidence, and a proposal for optimizing the plant based on this model. If you will just give approval for all the setpoints to be simultaneously reset to new values, then the plant will increase its production by 75%–as verified by the chemical engineer’s process model–and will make you lots and lots of money–as verified by the MBA’s spreadsheets.

This is how conservatives tend to think about liberals–implementing major social change based on untested theories and with no fallback when things don’t work out as planned.

The above two stories are meant to represent psychological liberalism and conservatism. Political liberalism and conservatism, as these words are used today, does not by any means always follow these psychological meanings: when it comes to the public schools in their current form, for example, liberals tend to be not just conservative but positively reactionary.

11 thoughts on “Liberals and Conservatives”

  1. I heard that one about the “guys holding horses” on the gun squad, but some military history types suggested that there may have been much more to the story.

    For example, you may want “spares” among your gun crew, men to take over from wounded or dead if their comrades fall to counter-battery attack. So you don’t say, “Hey, you two just stand here, a little bit out of the way, and you don’t do anything, or at least anything until your mates fall dead, and at that time you come in an take over.” So you tell them some story about maintaining a tradition . . .

    Now on the other hand, if there were those magic tweaks to the chemical plant that some hot-shot Che-E just told you about that would be one thing. But does anyone really believe that the Health Care Reform Bill coming out of Congress is any such thing? That, in aggregate, it will in any shape or form reduce health care costs or improve health care outcomes? Is there anyone, liberal, progressive, or Communist, or whatever, out there, (apart from Mr. Obama), willing to tell us with a straight face that his kludge of a bill is even predicted to improve anything?

  2. The gun story is like the ham story…

    In the storyteller’s family, they always cut the end of the ham off before they bake it. After years of this, one of the now-grown daughters calls her mother to ask why. The mother suggests there might be something bad in the end of the ham, but eventually admits “I’m not sure, but I’ve always done it that way.” She then calls her aged mother.

    “Why are we supposed to cut the end off the ham before we bake it?”

    “Because otherwise, dear, it won’t fit in my tiny little baking pan.”

  3. PaulM…interesting story about the guns. Burke would probably cite this as an example of his belief that there are many traditions that have value even though no one remembers *why* they have value.

  4. It’s really hard to beat Chesterton on this:

    ” In the matter of reforming things, as distinct from deforming them, there is one plain and simple principle; a principle which will probably be called a paradox. There exists in such a case a certain institution or law; let us say, for the sake of simplicity, a fence or gate erected across a road. The more modern type of reformer goes gaily up to it and says, “I don’t see the use of this; let us clear it away.” To which the more intelligent type of reformer will do well to answer: “If you don’t see the use of it, I certainly won’t let you clear it away. Go away and think. Then, when you can come back and tell me that you do see the use of it, I may allow you to destroy it.”

    This paradox rests on the most elementary common sense. The gate or fence did not grow there. It was not set up by somnambulists who built it in their sleep. It is highly improbable that it was put there by escaped lunatics who were for some reason loose in the street. Some person had some reason for thinking it would be a good thing for somebody. And until we know what the reason was, we really cannot judge whether the reason was reasonable. It is extremely probable that we have overlooked some whole aspect of the question, if something set up by human beings like ourselves seems to be entirely meaningless and mysterious. There are reformers who get over this difficulty by assuming that all their fathers were fools; but if that be so, we can only say that folly appears to be a hereditary disease. But the truth is that nobody has any business to destroy a social institution until he has really seen it as an historical institution. If he knows how it arose, and what purposes it was supposed to serve, he may really be able to say that they were bad purposes, that they have since become bad purposes, or that they are purposes which are no longer served. But if he simply stares at the thing as a senseless monstrosity that has somehow sprung up in his path, it is he and not the traditionalist who is suffering from an illusion. “

  5. When the Cambrian measures were forming, They promised perpetual peace.
    They swore, if we gave them our weapons, that the wars of the tribes would cease.
    But when we disarmed They sold us and delivered us bound to our foe,
    And the Gods of the Copybook Headings said: “Stick to the Devil you know.”

    A stanza from the poem “Gods of Copybook Headings”, R. Kipling, 1919.
    Thanks to T. Greer for the link a few posts back.

  6. I’m not a liberal or conservative, and, to be blunt, I find little difference between the two groups when they’re in power. Whatever distinction might have existed at one time has become meaningless in the current era, in which each group becomes mezmerized by the power of the state once they have the reins in their hands.

    Conservatives use the state to advance one group of objectives, liberals use it for a different, but even more intrusive, list of whims. When they compromise in order to logroll each other’s favorite programs, the ordinary citizen and taxpayer is always the loser.

    A widely supported third party is now needed to gut the center of each party’s disaffected moderates, and gain the support of those usually classified as independents, leaving the fringe left and fringe right to sputter indignantly in the dark and cold.

    Whether this is possible, of course, is problematic at best, but reforming the two current utterly statist parties appears to be a fools errand.

    The hardest task on both sides will be to de-mythologize the conventional wisdom, which claims all sorts of wonderful positions and purposes for both groups, even though experience has clearly demonstrated that their positions are infinitely malleable, and their main purposes are to acquire power, to expand power, and to retain power above all else.

  7. Very Tired,

    Your confusing the parties with the principles. Conservatives do not usually advance a set of objectives. They are not the tweakers, they are the keepers. The problem is that what is being kept has been tweaked. Paradox. You need to reread the article.

  8. I was certain that the two guys holding their hands in the air was going to be an example of liberalism in that government programs never die even long after their purpose has been forgotten or made irrelevant.

    I don’t think the definition of liberal vs. conservative as being for or against change is a very useful one at all. It certainly doesn’t make a useful distinction as the words are currently used to describe political philosophies. Indeed, I don’t think it has ever been a useful definition. It depends on whose view is being enforced at the time as to whether a group wants change or not. Liberals are all for stare decisis for instance as long as the precedents in question cut their way. Conservatives on the other hand are all for change if it involves throwing a bunch of bureaucrats out of work.

    This is an example where the literal meaning of a political term can lead one far, far astray. Conservatives no more fear change than Liberals support freedom.

  9. “I don’t think the definition of liberal vs. conservative as being for or against change is a very useful one at all.”

    That is because the correct and useful spectrum is not liberal vs. conservative, it’s progressive vs. reactionary (with conservative in the middle), and liberal (libertarian/anarchist) vs. authoritarian. Unfortunately, all of these terms have been perverted by the political discourse and the current liberal vs. conservative paradigm is idiotic and corrosive.

Comments are closed.