I was just reading this Paul Krugman blog post in which he presents a very good explanation of why American politics looks the way it looks, in the context of describing why Rand Paul doesn’t have much of a constituency.
His point is that conservatism is the protection and promotion of traditional structures of authority and dominance. Men over women, white over black, native over immigrant, the security state over citizens, America over other countries, and of course the big one, rich over poor. Liberals (or leftists or progressives or whatever we’re calling that side of the political spectrum these days) are thus the opposite: those who support breaking down these traditional authority structures in the interest of building a better society. Thus, instead of a series of disconnected issues, politics is more unidimensional than you might expect. It’s surprisingly easy to predict someone’s position on the welfare state based on their position on abortion. It’s not about big government versus small government at all – conservatives are fine with using government to reinforce traditional values by banning abortion after all. It’s about how abortion gives women more ability to control their own sexuality and reproduction, rather than having it controlled by her husband, state, religion, or what have you. And of course no surprise that the welfare state is conservative’s biggest bugaboo of all these days – not only does it strengthen the position of the poor against the rich, it strengthens the position of the individual relative hir family / community by providing an alternative safety net.
So thinking about this definition reminded me of another great blog post I read a while back (yes, I read too many blog posts, but that’s not the issue right now!): A Thrive/Survive Theory of the Political Spectrum by Scott Alexander. He brings up a whole different, and also very compelling theory to explain the political spectrum: that conservative policies are geared towards a scary, hostile world, while liberal policies are geared towards a friendly and abundant world. Thus conservatives are pro-military, pro-police, pro-unity, and generally focused on helping yourself and your in-group to survive, and not expending limited resources to help outsiders. Basically, if an action makes sense in the context of a zombie apocalypse, conservatives are in favor. If it would be risky or get you killed in that scenario, they’re against. Leftists then are the opposite: anti-military, pro-dissent, pro-tolerance, in favor of giving aid to the less successful, etc. Basically policies that would make sense in a society where we are safe and have plenty of resources, and the main issue is how to organize ourselves and distribute those resources to maximize happiness and fulfillment for everybody.
This theory works nicely, because it helps explain why there has been a trend towards liberalism over time: the world is becoming safer and richer, so liberal policies are making steadily more sense. This is substantiated by exceptions to the onward march of human progress, say the fall of the Roman Empire, also being marked by retreats from ‘liberal’, tolerant values and towards a more conservative, hierarchical setup. I find that it also meshes well with Krugman’s theory: the established authority structures he describes developed back when the world was not nearly so friendly of a place. Pre-contraception and pre-antibiotics, there were some pretty compelling reasons to avoid pre-marital sex. Pre-gunpowder, it was a lot more possible for a rampaging barbarian army to roll in and ransack your whole country for anything that’s not nailed down – pretty solid reason to keep up the old warrior ethos. Pre-massive 20th century economic growth, there really weren’t enough resources to provide everyone with a decent lifestyle, so why bother with redistribution? Now we have all these structures that don’t make sense anymore in terms of benefiting most people (to the extent they ever did) but are still being pushed very hard by the minority that do benefit from, who as a result of benefiting, have a disproportionate amount of power to make their preferences heard.
So if you agree with me on all this and are on the left, pretty much carry on. Contribute to the onward march of human progress, try to push policy farther left, and just live with the arc of history being (incredibly) long but hopefully bending towards justice. If you’re a conservative, you might have more thinking to do.