I wrote this post almost ten years ago and it received minimal interest at the time. But my readers have changed over the years (even as they remained small in numbers!) and the topic does seem relevant. So I repost it here as, in the current climate, it is difficult to find new topics to discuss that I have not either already written about or are of the political variety, which I avoid like the plague that it is.
I have come to the point where I try to remember to put “liberal” and “conservative” in scare quotes. I do so because the words have scarcely any meaning. “Liberal” actually comes from the same root as “libertarian,” which is the school of thought initiated by the very liberal John Stuart Mill in the nineteenth century even though today libertarians are for the most part conservatives. Originally the term stressed minimal government and maximum freedom — as though you needed one in order to guarantee the other. There is some truth in this. But one finds the same concern in diverse thinkers like Nietzsche and Dostoevsky, both of whom insisted that human freedom could only be fully realized when governments were kept at a minimum. Otherwise, with large governments, we would get comfortable knowing that we would be taken care of if we are in need and our freedom would be lost. But one would hardly call either Dostoevsky or Nietzsche “liberal” as both were intellectually conservative and shared a deep distrust of what came to be called “socialism.” Does this sound familiar? Indeed, it is precisely the concern of modern-day “dollar conservatives” who may or may not be libertarians, but who distrust government and hate socialism, or what they understand socialism to be.
As you can see, the words swim before our eyes. Today, “liberals” tend to be in favor of large government as a buffer to protect individuals against the abuses of great powers in the state that would take their freedom away, such as large corporations. Thus, they see large governments with numerous agencies as necessary for human freedom. The word “liberal” when used derisively tends to be equated with “socialist,” another abused term. Socialists believe that the state should own the means of production, because they don’t trust greedy capitalists to do the right thing. “Conservatives,” on the other hand, tend to be in favor of lower taxes and increased license for business which they tend to identify with the greatest good: what is good for business is good for society — all of us. This, of course, is at best a half-truth. Also, in recent years “conservatives” have gotten mixed up with religious enthusiasts who want minimum interference with individual conscience (theirs anyway) and approve only those laws that prohibit acts they regard as evil, such as abortion and the teaching of evolution in the schools. In extreme forms, these people would just as soon see the end of government altogether. Neither of these main groups of “conservatives” seems to give a tinker’s dam for conserving the environment, so the term seems to have no application beyond promoting their own religious or financial interests.
My adviser at Northwestern wrote an essay in which he claimed that the main difference between conservatives and liberals is that the former believe that the world exhibits ineluctable evil, echoing John Calvin’s doctrine of “total depravity,” whereas the latter believe that the world can be improved through social engineering. There may be some truth in this, and it certainly attempts to take us to the heart of a real ideological difference. For my part, I think those we loosely call “conservatives” are fundamentally fearful and want a government strong enough to protect them and their interests, but not large enough to take anything away from them; those we call “liberal” are naively optimistic about the ways human life can be improved and seem convinced that most of our problems can be solved by throwing money at them. In any case, the terms are muddy at best and deserve to be placed in scare quotes, or trashed altogether.