Some interesting new studies purport to show physiological differences between the brains of those identified as liberals and conservatives. Related studies say that the characteristic differences between the two have to do with openness to new things, alertness to danger, need for consistency, willingness to tolerate unpredictability, desire for certainty, and so on.
I wonder? I just returned from a joint clergy conference with the Episcopal Dioceses of Olympia and Spokane – the wet side joining the dry side, the west side joining the east side – the two sides separated by the Cascade Mountains. Here on the dry, east side, I am a fairly obvious liberal. Were I on the wet, west side, most people would consider me a borderline conservative. Maybe driving over the pass causes brain structure anomalies. If true, one would be well advised to wear one’s aluminum foil helmet on the trip.
I know nothing about the efficacy of these various studies, and am not much interested in finding out. But I am interested in the way liberals and conservatives use language to talk about the common good. Both say that they are vitally interested in the common good. Each seeks policies to promote it. But I think they mean very different things.
Conservatives appear to see the common good as derived from maximizing the rights, privileges of individuals to exist as free agents bound together only by the merest of government needed to provide the flow of commerce and a reasonable degree of safety. Persons are responsible for the consequences of their decisions, and bad decisions need not create public obligations. It’s not so much a matter of the greatest good for the greatest number, which has little concern for whatever might be good for various minorities. It’s more a matter of the greatest good for those who believe that they have control over resources and processes, and intend to keep it that way. Conservatives do not form a coordinated bloc so much as they appear as a mosaic of individuals who are wiling to be collaborative only insofar as collaboration does not require surrender of individual identity.
Liberals appear to see the common good as a condition of the entire community, all of its members and each of its members, taken as a whole. Individual rights, privileges and personal responsibility are a part of that, but not preeminent. The greatest good for the greatest number can never be allowed to overwhelm what might be good for minorities. Persons and groups having control over resources and processes do not have an inherent right to that control, but enjoy it temporarily as (my word) stewards accountable to society. Government, of necessity, represents the public arena where what the common good is, is worked out. Liberals do form a coordinated bloc, but it is for the purpose of debate, not action. Action requires more collaborative effort than they can muster for more than brief surges.
If that is true, liberals and conservatives can be equally concerned about particular public issues, and equally dedicated to the public good, and never come within range of genuine conversation. They use the same words with such different meanings. The cores of their beliefs about what the common good is are in very different places, and seldom articulated in ways that the other can, or is willing, to understand. The product is mutual anger and distrust.
I don’t believe it was always that way, and am not sure why it seems so now. Several years ago, during the previous administration, I wrote a piece suggesting that we might be on a course to become a second rate nation with a second rate economy providing second rate jobs for most of our people. I think we might still be on that course because the current recalcitrant divisiveness of the public debate leads that way.