A government professor of mine once stated that all governments were a balance between three different values: Equality, Order, and Liberty. No one value can be pursued without cost to the other two. The ideal society would actually be the one that keeps these three points in balance. However, as we look around modern parties and political movements, the logic of balance seems nowhere to be found.
Liberals, socialists and progressives seek equality at the cost of order and liberty finally reaching their ideal society, a Communistic state where everyone is equal but in the end utterly worthless as equality requires none be higher than others, thus all talent, all incentives, and all goals have been destroyed leaving society to collapse before the equally unimpressive slaves that it has created. In a state where all are equal there can be no order because power cannot be vested (even through law) in another thus nothing can keep law and civil society together thus at best everything is merely slave to the whim of the herd (law by the same methods created reality TV)…and there can be no liberty, as liberty leads to exceptionalism, and no one can be better than anyone else
The growing fascist movements of Greece, the tyranny of Vladimir Putin, and the vile wretchedness of Islamofascism value order above all else. But for there to be complete order there can be no liberty because if people can choose for themselves, they will sometimes choose wrong and this inevitably leads to some level of chaos, some crime, some disorder. And in the ordered state there can be no equality, as equality requires that all are subject to rules, and for the ordered state to work no one can watch the watchers because they are the final authority, otherwise there is no way to control and maintain order.
Libertarians and anarchists view liberty as the end all be all of all politics. But where there is perfect freedom there can be no equality, even before the law, because there can be no law if there is nothing but license to do whatever you want. And there can be no order in the fully liberated state as the law who would hold back those who do not recognize the rights of others cannot exist.
And finally populists don’t particularly view any of these as all that important. Yes populists want equality when someone is doing better than them, which is why businesses and businessmen are evil and need to be reined in…but they strangely don’t care about equality when they’re doing better, which is why even Ron Paul brought back millions in pork to his district. They care about liberty, for themselves…but for anyone else, eh, it’s not that important. And order is important, so long as it’s in my general vicinity, enforced by me, and I don’t care if it’s not in my line of sight. (And please understand why I have been hitting the populists posing as conservatives a lot lately, your average Democratic voter has always been a populist. Their activists and politicians maybe progressives, but the voters are populists who just care about their entitlements and what will be given to them).
Meanwhile there is the real conservative viewpoint. That these three virtues of a society must be held in careful balance. That the extreme of any one of these because a dystopian nightmare (Liberty, Order, Equality…Lord of the Flies, 1984, Harrison Bergeron…or for the less well read, Mad Max, Hunger Games, Divergent…or if you prefer history, Somalia, Nazi Germany, Revolutionary France). That a society without these three to guide them is just as bad as one where only one is followed (I’d give an example but modern politics seems to be it and the last few years of Rome seem to be the only places dumb enough to try such an abhorrent idea in practice). Only the society that balances these forces is a prosperous one.
So what is the guiding star of conservatism that makes it so different from these other ideologies? Well, not to sound like a dozen other blogs on this site but the answer is once again, Aristotle.
Aristotle, for all his flawed understanding of politics (give the man a break, there wasn’t much reliable history to work with in the 4th century B.C. and you can’t expect him to have prescience of what was to come) understood that in politics, as with ethics, it is not a question of ends or means, but a question of ends and means. Those who value equality or order only value an end of making everyone equal or making everything peaceful. Those who value liberty only value the means of liberty not the result of what such anarchy brings. Only balancing both ends and means work.
And Aristotle saw the correct end to focus on. The end to all human life is Happiness. And society, family, education must all be structured to ensure Happiness for the greatest number of people. Now because Happiness requires freedom of choice and personal growth, not everyone will reach happiness no matter what a government/family/society does, but it requires liberty and the ability to exercise free will. But because Happiness requires some ability to plan and control your own life, it requires order to some degree. And because the point is to provide Happiness (or the opportunity to pursue Happiness) for the most people as all are equally human and equally deserving at birth of achieving Happiness. None of these on their own can lead to Happiness, and all must work together.
And this is why other belief systems don’t work; they’re not aimed at Happiness.
For instance look at misnamed “social conservatives” (Progressives for Jesus might be a better way to put it). They keep saying that the point of marriage is to have children. As if having children is an end in itself. And they keep bringing this up as a reason why they opposed gay marriage. Now there are good reasons to get rid of marriage as a legal concept (and replace it with legal civil unions and let religion handle marriage without government interference) but it is not just the Progressive mentality here to have the government take control of everything. It is the missed sense of what the end of things are. They view the family as a means to creating another family. The family, society, everything in the view has no purpose but to serve itself. You have to have marriage to create children. You have to raise children so they lead lives where they get married. They get married to have children…over and over again. There is no point to the individual life (unless you want to get into some bizarre servitude to God, which views God as a master and the individual the slave…but no serious reading of any sane religion even comes close to that.) This is why social conservatives tend to be not only bad at politics but their own religion. Social conservatives should go back and read their Aquinas who makes it clear that “the principal end of matrimony, namely the good of the offspring” and that “the secondary end of matrimony, which is the mutual services which married persons render one another in household matters.” Notice how in the second point it is the betterment of each other (i.e. the individual’s happiness) that is the point of marriage. Just as every social institution is supposed to place the Happiness of the individual as a goal. Parents should be concerned with teaching their children the knowledge, ethics, and character that will allow them to be happy adults. Schools and other societal organizations should be focused on encouraging people to be the best they can be with the goal being individual Happiness. Social conservatives’ problem, like all progressives, is they think society is the end goal, it is not; the good of individual is the goal.
Then you have Libertarians who don’t even consider ends and just, like good Kantian idiots, look at means. And liberty is the only mean they care about. Oh they may say that freedom leads to individual Happiness, but they ignore that just because the exercise of free will is necessary it is not sufficient. (Just as Milton Friedman said that “History suggests only that capitalism is a necessary condition for political freedom. Clearly it is not a sufficient condition.”) Let’s take a look at what sometimes appears to be the only thing that libertarians think about: The War on Drugs. Okay, I will concede that the War on Drugs has been handled idiotically. I will concede that if a person should be able to use drugs in the privacy of their own home if they’re not hurting anyone. I concede that the power to prosecute the War on Drugs has led to massive costs and an intolerable level of corruption in the name of the War on Drugs. But in all this the libertarians fail to admit some very simple things. They act like the people who take drugs are all just innocent little lambs who are the victims of an unjust police power.
Let me set the record straight: They’re criminals (whether they get caught and convicted or not, they’re criminals). They have the mentality that the rules of society, their long term well-being, and how their actions may hurt others are of absolutely no concern to them so long as they get a moment of pleasure. At best that is vilely hedonistic, at worst it has a bit of a sociopath in it. Libertarians like to pretend that you have otherwise innocent drug users in one group, and in another you have real criminals. And that the fact that we have a massive prison population proves that this War on Drugs needs to end. The problem is that you don’t have two different groups; you have a Venn diagram where criminals and drug users are often one in the same. Libertarians like to point to the increasing prison population, but they always conveniently forget that as prison populations go up violent and non-violent crime go down. They ignore that often drugs are used to put dangerous criminals away when other more serious charges don’t have as much admissible evidence. So there are benefits to the War on Drugs. But not willing to admit that drops in the murder, rape, theft rates is a good thing, libertarians only care about the liberty to do drugs. They don’t advocate that we should focus more on the cartels, the gang distributors, and legalize personal home use (all things which would still probably round up the worst real criminals while not hurt the people who can actually handle personal use)…no they have to argue that we should just legalize all drugs. No concern for order, just liberty…and no Happiness for anyone.
The other difference between libertarians, Progressive for Jesus**, and real conservatives. Unlike Libertarians, conservatives understand that laws do need to be structured not just to protect rights but to encourage habits that will typically lead to a healthy society and Happiness in individuals (for instance unless we switch to a flat tax having tax credit for charity; the fact that we can’t just get rid of civil union side of marriage, and that we do need a safety net of some kind***; providing minimum standards for education to make sure all students receive a basic minimum of education) but unlike the Progressive for Jesus we must do so in a way that limits (or at least poses as few limits as possible) to the good that liberty provides (deciding what counts as a marriage and what doesn’t, when gay marriage provides the same benefits; spending money and resources checking on what people do in private that hurts no one; dictating what to include content wise in education; etc.).
Being consistently conservative is difficult. It requires balancing numerous issues of the needs of individuals, the long term good of society, Liberty, Order, Equality. And it’s a constantly shifting point because what creates that balance in one era may be totally unbalanced in another. Proper government needs to be directed toward the Happiness of individuals. It needs to balance our needs for liberty, order, and equality. When it does not do these things it creates bad laws. And it is so easy to get lost in caring only about your own want (populists) or one of the political virtues at the expense of the others. Right now we need a lot more liberty, but we cannot forget that it is the balance and the good of society and the individual that is our true goal—not just liberty for the sake of liberty.
Of course none of this is really new…the people who real conservatives look toward as a guide post made it quite clear that liberty, or order (tranquility, defense), or equality (justice, general welfare) were all equal political virtues that had to be held in balance of each other…
We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.
*Now I know that I have heard some people have claimed that the FBI is merely shading the numbers—that they’re not counting things the same way to make things look better than they are. I’ve heard that claim from LOTS of people. But you know what I find interesting, I can’t find that claim on any think tank. None. Liberal. Conservative. Libertarian. Nobody. You would think that conservatives would have hit Clinton or Obama for skewing the data, or liberals would have hit Bush. But nobody seems to questions the FBI’s stats…nor is there any jump that you would see if you changed the criteria, it’s a slow progression. So either everybody and I mean everybody, is on a massive conspiracy to slowly skew the crime numbers, or crime really has been dropping.
**You thought I wasn’t serious, but I am. I am using that from now on.
***Libertarians, before you yell at me that we need to get rid of welfare entirely, please remember that Friedman and Hayek both said we need a safety net because having people in real poverty (the kind you see in the third world) creates people who seriously have the choice of steal or die, at which point it becomes a need for them to steal and as we all know from the example of Jean Valjean, utterly unjust to punish them.