I have far more sympathy with that thing called classical liberalism than many traditionalist conservatives do. It may be a flawed, but it was good to our country, for the first hundred years at least. Modern liberalism, on the other hand (a.k.a. progressivism or socialism), is, well, illiberal. Liberals tolerate everyone and everything (including a great many things conservatives find abhorrent), but only as long as it doesn't offend anyone. Well, as long as it doesn't offend any liberals. Conservatives, on the other hand, aim for tolerance of a different sort. They feel that some behaviors are beyond the pale, and ought not be tolerated. With regard to the rest of human behavior, the tolerable part, isn't a part of toleration the public acceptance of the behaviors in question? So the conservatives reason.
There are two great differences between liberals and conservatives in a pluralistic society like our own. The first is a philosophical one, and the second is a question of temperament. Philosophically, liberals believe that human nature is so constructed as to make argument or reasoned debate an unfruitful means of convincing others. They are great believers in permanent biases, in Freudian determination, in genetics, in everybody’s fallen nature—except their own. Their best hope for a utopia is to impose governmental restraints upon society, in order to keep the different classes, races, creeds, ages, sexes, preferences, ideologies, professions, and regions from slaughtering each other.
Conservatives, like liberals, believe in a fallen nature—a nature that they see best (or do I mean worst?) represented in the liberals' hubristic plans for a Babel-perfect structure of government. But conservatives, unlike liberals, believe in freedom. Liberals want to set men free; conservatives know that they already are. Not only are men free, according to the conservatives, but they are also rational. They may behave badly (and often do) but that is as much a question of nurture as nature (so the conservatives say). You are not what your genes say you are. You may be black, white, yellow, or, like Chesterton's famous man, maroon—thus far your genes have you over a barrel. (Unless you are Michael Jackson; but that's for another post.) But there are no atheist genes, no theist genes, no genes for selfishness or altruism: no genes that tell you how to believe or behave. Genes predict; they do not determine. Thus, when a conservative passes a law, he passes it because he believes that everyone will come round to his point of view about said law. When a liberal passes a law, he passes it because he believes that everyone can't come round to his point of view.
The difference in temperament between liberals and conservatives alluded to above is linked to their philosophical divide. (Linked, please note, no more: to assert that those with the liberal temperament are of necessity liberal in philosophy and politics would, naturally, undermine my conservative assertion that genes don't make the man.) For if you believe that the world is full of people essentially different, people preprogrammed to hate each other, and—mark you, this is the important point—people whom you know better than—then you are likely to be a cynical, sour, fearful, self-important busybody. Of course, if you believe that everyone is basically the same deep down, that all human beings are basically harmless, and that everyone would agree with you if you only argued with them long enough—then you are probably a naive, loud, cocky, overbearing blowhard. (Come over some time, and I'll introduce you to my family.) But, while I must confess to having more of the liberal share of faults, I confess that I also find them far more grating. That is why I am a conservative. (This is called humility, not self-loathing, by the way.)
If you are still reading this post you are no doubt scratching your head and wondering what in heaven's name it has to do with Halloween. Well . . .
I have a large family, and most of them still go trick-or-treating. I had encouraged my fourteen-year-old brother, who was wondering what he could do with his three-piece and top hat, to go as a death panel.
He thought that was over the top, bless him. If memory serves, he actually announced himself alternately as Jeeves, the IRS, and a magician. So he went along with his younger siblings, for a while; and then when they got to a particular house he held back. My mother encouraged him to go up to the porch with the rest, but he said he’d rather not go to any houses that had a Deeds sign out front.
It turned out that at the last house with a Deeds sign they had been met at the door by a woman. As she was giving out candy, she looked at “Jeeves” and asked him how old he was. “Fourteen,” he said, wondering how many neighborhood ordinances he was breaking. Her response: “How stupid. How stupid for a fourteen-year-old to get dressed up and go trick-or-treating.”
My first emotion on hearing the story was anger. Who did the woman think she was anyway? Would it have been less stupid if he had been wearing claws or fangs, like all the other kids his age? My second emotion was amusement. Who cares? If she has no better way to spend her time than excoriating kids who come to her door for candy, well . . . she needs to lighten up. But my final thought was: of course she had a Deeds sign out front. If it had been McDonnell or Boling—certainly if it had been Cuccinelli—the incident would never have happened.
Am I wrong about that? Liberals may think so. But being the big-hearted conservative that I am, I am willing to argue the point—politely—with them.
That’s because I’m not a liberal.