(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.”)
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.