OPINION: Liberal vs. conservative: What distinguishes them?

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Before the primary election, this paper printed many letters in support of citizen candidates and most of them used words such as principled conservative, thoughtful conservative, realistic conservative, proven conservative and a real conservative. So what is a “REAL” conservative?

Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679), who is considered the father of modern conservative thought, believed that since man has a natural right to his own self-preservation, by any means possible, then man will subdue and destroy each other in pursuit of their own selfish ends. This right will quickly degenerate into “war of every man against every man,” resulting in a life that is solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short. To avoid this pitiful condition, Hobbes believed, it is necessary to give up one’s right of governing himself to the sovereign — in other words, a small ruling elite of “good people” or “wise ones” to concentrate power and wealth, because too much power in the hands of the people will lead to instability.

 Today, conservatives want less government but more of the military industrial complex (perpetual war). Conservatives want less taxes for the wealthy and then wonder why our schools and infrastructure are failing. The conservatives want less regulation because business and corporations should be able to pollute water, air and soil without any consequences. Conservatives want to privatize everything so the wealthy (the good people) and powerful (the wise ones) can make huge profits. Are these the “REAL” conservatives?

 The philosopher John Locke (1632-1704) wrote his “Two Treatises on Government” in part as a rebuttal to Thomas Hobbes. Locke laid out the idea that a “law of nature,” — reason — governs men’s actions. It includes a certain moral code, that no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty or possessions. It is a natural consequence of reason that we are God’s property and are to survive during his, not another’s, pleasure. Locke’s view of a sovereign with limited powers is a government that will preserve the people’s inalienable rights.

 Thomas Jefferson drew heavily on John Locke’s theories in writing the Declaration of Independence.

“We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness — That to secure these Rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just Powers from the Consent of the Governed ...”

Jefferson believed in the essential goodness of human nature, of happiness as its “original state,” and that natural law traced itself back to ensuring happiness as much as it did life and liberty.

 To conservatives, freedom is found in the restraint of human nature by the iron fist of church, state, or corporations, thus preventing the original state of perpetual warfare.

 To liberals, freedom is found in the restraint of church, state, or corporations, leaving the individual and a self-governing society to reclaim the original state of balance, harmony and happiness.

 This is why liberal morality is nearly always focused on providing for the needs of individuals, so well articulated by Jesus in Matthew 25 when he said, essentially, that we couldn’t claim morality if there were hungry, homeless, sick, thirsty or imprisoned people among us whose needs were not being met.

 The Preamble of the Constitution lays out six purposes for creating our government: 1) to form a more perfect union, 2) establish justice, 3) insure domestic tranquility, 4) provide for the common defense, 5) promote the general welfare, and 6) secure the blessings of liberty. These reasons have to do with helping people achieve their fullest potential and protecting the common wealth and the common future.

 Together, the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States lay a clear and solid story of the original worldview of the founders of our nation, nearly all of them liberal “children of the Enlightenment.”

Virtually all the advances since the Enlightenment, democracy, human rights, personal liberties and family well-being, have come from reform-minded liberals. Conservatives defended racial segregation, but lost. They tried to block voting by women, but lost. They obstructed Social Security pensions for old people and the disabled, but lost. They tried to defeat Medicare and Medicaid, but lost. They tried to prevent couples from using birth control, but lost. They sought to jail girls and doctors who end pregnancies, but lost. They tried to block labor unions, unemployment compensation and workers compensation for on-the-job injuries, but lost. They tried to prevent expansion of health insurance through the Affordable Care Act, but lost. They tried to halt same-sex marriage, but lost. Conservatives defend hierarchies, the privileged, and inequality.

 The progressive worldview is called humanism, trying to make life better for all people. In 1960, John F. Kennedy said, “If by a ‘liberal’ they mean someone who looks ahead and not behind, someone who welcomes new ideas without rigid reaction, someone who cares about the welfare of the people — their health, their housing, their schools, their jobs, their civil rights and their civil liberties ... then I’m proud to say I’m a liberal.”


Brosten is a resident of Bigfork.

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