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Can We All Get Along?

Sean Evans, Chair and Associate Professor of Political Science
Mar 1, 2013

 As we face another budgetary crisis through ideological conflict, many Americans ask, a la Rodney King, “Why can’t we all get along?” The simple answer is that we argue because we have differing assumptions about the world, and ask questions that lack overlapping answers.

 The typical liberal believes that humans are naturally good but have been corrupted by their environment. Since we have seen society progress over time, they believe that government can step in and fix broken institutions to continue humanity’s development. However, they do not believe that we can know absolute truth, and so they promote a tolerant society where each person pursues the life one chooses, so we can eventually identify the good life.

 Consequently, liberals support social justice as they try to alleviate the oppressed so they can live freely. Today, liberals believe that the source of oppression is not government but poverty, prejudice, illness, ignorance, etc.

 For these reasons, they believe in equal worth of all individuals, and call for equal political power, opportunity, economic standing and equal respect for all people. And the means to these goals is government, which they believe reflects all people, as we have a shared responsibility to help all citizens flourish.

 In contrast, conservatives look throughout history and see that humans are naturally selfish, but are capable of becoming good through good examples. Since humans are selfish, they believe societies are fragile, and that our society will fall because all societies have fallen. Moreover, the idea that we can perfect society is a fantasy, and they point out the unintended consequences of utopian attempts to change America.

Conservatives believe in ordered liberty or freedom with decency, as people are free to live as they wish but must exercise self-restraint. When we live a free and decent life, each person can fully meet one’s potential, which promotes human dignity.

 Conversely, freedom without limits harms oneself and leads one to use others, which decreases human dignity.

In politics, conservatives are less concerned with the size of the state and more interested in finding the proper balance between government and citizens, and ensuring government policy works with, not against, our selfish nature. Naturally, conservatives seek to maintain a free and decent society against the forces of decline.

Liberals see government spending alleviating the oppressed, and believe we should fund the welfare state at whatever cost to achieve that. Therefore, if we cut government spending, we further oppression, which is evil. This explains liberals’ tax position and unwillingness to discuss meaningful entitlement reform. The problem is, we have an unaffordable social safety net, and failure to reform it means liberals will hurt those who need it the most.

Conservatives see the debt and deficit as a result of our “anything goes, me-first” society and fear we are bankrupting the nation while the entitlement society saps individual initiative. This combination will make future generations worse off, unless we act now. Therefore, conservatives see reducing and reforming the welfare state as essential to American survival and see liberal attempts at social engineering as well-meaning but ultimately foolish.

 So until we understand the position of others and work to address their concerns, we will continue to argue.

This column originally appeared in the March 1 edition of The Jackson Sun