Too often, liberalism as an ideology is framed—and has framed itself—as being the polar opposite of conservatism. However, just because they are often competing world views does not automatically make them natural enemies. Instead of defining itself in such terms, liberalism would be better served by describing what it stands for instead of merely being counter-reactive to conservative ideals. This not only helps to rally the liberal cause, but leaves the door open for those who are conservative leaning to join in causes that make sense to them without feeling antagonized.
That being said, if the guiding light of liberalism is to maximize the collective good, nearly all the reasons that liberalism collides with conservatism can be grouped into four categories: (1) the battle between labor and capital, (2) the interest of the common good vs. individualism, (3) democracy vs. autocracy, and (4) openness and acceptance vs. tribalism and parochialism. Where one stands with respect to these categories forms a framework for defining what liberalism can look like for the 21st century. I will elaborate on these four categories for the remainder of this post.
The battle between labor and capital
If one reads their Piketty, then one concept that he brings to the fore early in his work is the apportioning of national income between those who derive their income through the ownership of capital and those who derive their income from the fruits of their labor: between those who own the factories, and those who work in them; between those who own the living spaces, and those who rent them; and so on. It is inarguable that this has been a source of immense class stress and innumerable battles for as far back as humanity has cared to record its history, with the pendulum swinging from capital (monarchies, dictatorships, and other autocratic ideologies) to labor (ideologies represented by communism, anarchy, and others) and everywhere in between (social democracies, regulated free market economies, etc.). Therefore, a common differentiator between conservative and liberal ideals is whether one falls on the side of capital or on the side of labor.
In general terms, inequality tends to be higher when capital has the power and lower when labor has the power. This is because capital tends to be concentrated in the hands of a relative few, while labor is dispersed amongst nearly everyone. There are far fewer people who own factories (and corporations) than work in them. Thus, when the fruits of an economy are shifted towards capital, it becomes concentrated in the hands of those who own it. When the fruits of an economy are shifted towards labor, it is distributed to a much larger portion of the population. Since a concentration of income leads to a concentration of power and, subsequently, autocratic forms of government, then it is clear that liberalism should stand with labor. This is not to say that all of the power should reside with labor, as this has proven just as self-destructive as the opposite. Merely that liberalism should seek a balance between the two: it should provide a countervailing force to the natural concentration of capital in order to allow labor to receive its fair share of the economic pie. Thus, collective bargaining, worker protections, a strong social safety net, and other means of strengthening the power of labor to demand fair compensation are clearly liberal causes.
The common good vs. individualism
It is inarguable that individualism is an ideal fundamental to the American ethos. This is a country, after all, that prides itself on a sense of rugged frontierism, whether those frontiers are real or virtual. However, too much individualism can lead to a tragedy of the commons, by which individuals seeking self-interested—and rational—goals create a situation detrimental to the entire group. Thus, it may be in the individual economic interest of farmers to let their runoff spill into the local lake, but bad for the group when a resulting toxic algal bloom contaminates the water supply. It may be in an individual’s economic interest to be able to use his land anyway he sees fit, but bad for everyone else if this means creating a fertilizer storage facility in the middle of a residential neighborhood. And so on. The purpose of liberalism in this context, therefore, is to promote the long-term best interest of the common good, whether this means creating laws to ensure clean air and water, regulating land use in the interest of the community, taking a stand against global warming and destruction of the environment, regulating the free market, and other causes that benefit the common good.
Democracy vs. autocracy
It is inarguable that the common good is maximized through democratic institutions that allow the people to have a say in how they are governed. When that voice is shuttered in service of economic or theological ideals, the people become servants of their government and the autocrats who run it. Perhaps that is why conservatism is so reliant on autocratic institutions, since it is an ideology that often requires obedience of its subjects in the face of contrary evidence and reality. By strengthening and promoting democracy, liberalism seeks to make sure that all voices are heard and can find their place in society, not merely conform to the ideals established by some ruling elite. Thus, the purpose of liberalism in this context is to promote democratic ideals and protect democratic institutions. Broadening the voter base, protecting voting rights, reducing the influence of money in politics, reducing gaming of the system by gerrymandering, protecting privacy and the freedom of association, protecting freedom of speech and the right to protest, protecting civil and human rights, promoting transparency of government institutions, and other causes that maximize democracy are all liberal causes.
Openness and acceptance vs. tribalism and parochialism
The long, great trend of the human race has been towards peace and acceptance. This is not to say that it has not been, and continues to be, a bumpy and bloody ride. But it is not outlandish to believe, as I do, that the world is a freer place today than it was a thousand years ago, when most of the world’s governments were in the grip of monarchies and theological autocracies.
Durable peace requires acceptance. It is contrary to the state of uniformity and jingoism required by tribalism and parochialism. Humanity may be a world-spanning species, but it is not a world-spanning tribe. There are a great many differing viewpoints, ideologies, beliefs, interpretations, and desires, reflecting all the variations of human themes considered and yet considered. The world is just too big a place to expect everyone to adhere to the same ideology, and since tribalism and parochialism lead to war more often than not, it is in the best interest of our species to learn to agree to disagree. Thus, the collective good is maximized through openness and acceptance, and the purpose of liberalism is to promote an atmosphere in which people of all walks of life can strive for peace and well-being. This may be the most ideological of the four categories, but I believe it sums up the essence of liberalism: to simply strive to be better.
Countervailing the power of capital, encouraging the common good, promoting and protecting democratic ideals, and striving for peace provide a framework through which liberalism can keep humanity on the road to a better world. This will be the framework I will use for discussing ways by which we can improve the human condition and, simply, strive to be better.