By Donella Meadows
–August 20, 1992–
Everyone knows what a liberal is — a person who wants to ruin the nation by taxing and spending with no restraint. Furthermore, that liberal spends the money on wasteful, unpatriotic projects like education and roads and the environment and helping the poor.
Everyone knows what a conservative is — a person who wants to ruin the nation by cutting the taxes of the rich, raising the taxes of the poor, borrowing and spending with no restraint. The spending goes toward exorbitant weapons and subsidies to businesses owned by the sons or uncles or brothers-in-law of conservatives.
Those, children, are not the original definitions of these words. Once, not so long ago, they had completely different meanings, which, believe it or not, had nothing to do with taxing, borrowing, or spending. Here is what they meant, such a short time ago that my dictionary still lists them this way:
Liberal: generous, giving largely, as a liberal donor.
Liberal: free, not literal or strict, as a liberal interpretation of the Constitution.
Liberal: not narrow or bigoted; broad-minded.
Liberal: of democratic or republican forms of government, as distinguished from monarchies, aristocracies, etc.
Liberal: favoring reform or progress; specificallly favoring political reforms tending toward democracy and personal freedom for the individual.
You can see, by these meanings, that it once might have been rather fine to be a liberal. That’s why conservatives keep changing the definition.
Here’s how the dictionary describes them:
Conservative: tending to preserve old institutions, methods, customs, and the like; adhering to what is old or established; opposing or resisting change, as a conservative political party.
Conservative: moderate, prudent, safe, as a conservative estimate.
Conservative: one who wishes to preserve traditions or institutions and resists innovation or change.
It would seem by these definitions a fine thing to be a conservative too, at least when things are going well, when prudence is appropriate, when there are important values to be conserved. In fact, if you think about both these words in their original meanings, you see that a society needs both liberalism and conservatism — a will to change what needs changing, a determination to keep what is worth keeping, and above all, as they say in the old prayer, the wisdom to know the difference.
Of course there lies the problem, wisdom, moderation, balance. Conservatism pushed too far becomes elitism, preservation of the privileges of the rich and neglect of or cruelty toward the poor. At the extreme conservatism becomes monarchy or fascism. Liberalism pushed too far is populism, the leveling of everything to the lowest common denominator — and at the extreme, communism. The political spectrum bends back on itself to meet at its far edges. The biggest difference between fascism and communism is their rhetoric, not their policies, nor the misery of society under their rule.
Humanity has been divided between liberals and conservatives for a long time, and apparently always will be, in spite of persistent efforts by each side to convert the other. Science is even finding evidence that the difference is genetic. Those poor (liberals, conservatives) can’t help themselves.
Thomas Jefferson, an outspoken early liberal, who fought constantly against the early conservative Alexander Hamilton, summed up the difference between the two in a thoroughly biased statement that sounds (to liberals) still accurate today: “Men by their constitutions are naturally divided into two parties: 1. Those who fear and distrust the people, and wish to draw all powers from them into the hands of the higher classes. 2. Those who identify themselves with the people, have confidence in them, cherish and consider them as the most honest and safe, although not the most wise, depository of the public interests.”
In pointing to trust, Jefferson is getting to the heart of the difference between liberals and conservatives — where they put their trust. Conservatives trust the elite, not the unwashed unrich. They lean toward persuasion when dealing with bosses and toward force when dealing with ordinary folks. Make abortion illegal but not pollution. Require a Pledge of Allegiance but not a minimum wage. Jail outsiders who rob banks with guns, but not insiders who rob banks with fraud. Liberals lean exactly the other way. Constrain business, persuade the people. Put polluters in jail, but stop abortion through education and contraception, not through criminal sanctions,
For some reason it is conservatives more than liberals who like to turn the perfectly honorable label of their opponents into a dirty word. They wrinkle their noses when they say “liberal” as if to avoid an unpleasant smell. Though all is fair and often unsavory in politics, that’s a shame, whichever side does it. It undermines clear thinking and social integrity to turn a good word into an epithet, to pervert its meaning, to condemn people for honest and well-considered beliefs.
Better to make the case for your side than to deride the other. Better to present reason and evidence about when and where liberalism and conservatism each have their place.
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1992