Libertarian-Conservatives Are from the Earth, Liberals Are from the Moon

A post by Tyler Cowen of Marginal Revolution points to George Lakoff’s book, Moral Politics. Lakoff thinks he has an explanation for the difference between conservatives (who hew to a “Strict Father” model) and liberals (a “Nurturant Parent” model):

What we have here are two different forms of family-based morality. What links them to politics is a common understanding of the nation as a family, with the government as parent. Thus, it is natural for liberals to see it as the function of the government to help people in need and hence to support social programs, while it is equally natural for conservatives to see the function of the government as requiring citizens to be self-disciplined and self-reliant and, therefore, to help themselves.

Lakoff is probably wrong about liberals, and he’s certainly wrong about most conservatives — and about libertarians, whom he doesn’t seem to acknowledge.

Liberals, in my observation, don’t think of the nation as a family. They think of it as a playground full of unruly children, needing someone (government) to enforce the rules (liberal rules, of course). A liberal’s candid thoughts would run something like this:

Well, here we are all on the same playground. Well, if we’re going to be here, we might as well get along together. I’m sure we’ll do just fine, and you’ll all be happy, if you do as I say. Now, if we all share, there won’t be any fights. Johnny, you have more toys than Billy, you have to give him some of your toys. Susie, no fair hanging around with your friends, you have to hang around with people you’ve never met; it’ll be good for you.

In other words, the liberal mindset is more like that of a bossy child trying to control her playmates than that of a “nuturant parent.”

Conservatives (those who think about such things, anyway) and libertarians don’t see “the nation as a family, with government as parent.” They see the nation as parent whose role is to guarantee a form of government that exists not to require citizens to be self-disciplined and self-reliant but to allow citizens to realize the fruits of whatever self-discipline and self-reliance they can muster.

It is not surprising, therefore, to find that conservatives and libertarians are generally more patriotic than liberals. Conservatives and libertarians put nationhood above government, realizing that without the nation our enemies (without and within) would rob us of our ability to enjoy the fruits of our self-discipline and self-reliance. Liberals, on the other hand, put government first and seem embarrassed by patriotism.

Thomas Sowell, in A Conflict of Visions, has a much better explanation of the dichotomy between the liberal and conservative-libertarian perspectives. He posits two opposing visions: the unconstrained vision (I would call it the idealistic vision) and the constrained vision (which I would call the realistic vision). As Sowell explains, at the end of chapter 2:

The dichotomy between constrained and unconstrained visions is based on whether or not inherent limitations of man are among the key elements included in each vision….These different ways of conceiving man and the world lead not merely to different conclusions but to sharply divergent, often diametrically opposed, conclusions on issues ranging from justice to war.

Thus, in chapter 5, Sowell writes:

The enormous importance of evolved systemic interactions in the constrained vision does not make it a vision of collective choice, for the end results are not chosen at all — the prices, output, employment, and interest rates emerging from competition under laissez-faire economics being the classic example. Judges adhering closely to the written law — avoiding the choosing of results per se — would be the analogue in law. Laissez-faire economics and “black letter” law are essentially frameworks, with the locus of substantive discretion being innumerable individuals.

By contrast,

those in the tradition of the unconstrained vision almost invariably assume that some intellectual and moral pioneers advance far beyond their contemporaries, and in one way or another lead them toward ever-higher levels of understanding and practice. These intellectual and moral pioneers become the surrogate decision-makers, pending the eventual progress of mankind to the point where all can make moral decisions.

Sowell has nailed it. Equality is a state that we will reach when liberals tell us we’ve reached it. Until then, we must do as they say — or else.