Wednesday, February 28, 2007

"Liberal vs. Conservative" Misstates the Conflict

In response to Dennis Sander’s call for a conservative Euston Manifesto, Callimachus declares that there cannot be such a manifesto because there are no conservatives. We are all liberals now.

I completely agree that liberalism is the vastly dominant ideology of America and the rest of the West. George Bush, for all the spite he generates from the left, is a liberal. After all, only a liberal would believe so completely in mankind’s inalienable right to freedom. Only a liberal would try so forcefully to change the world.

Liberalism is the American philosophy. We yearn for change. Yes, there is and has always been an element of “let’s keep it the way it’s always been,” but from the loyalists to the segregationists, those people have continually ended up on the losing side of history. So, yes, Callimachus is right, we’re all pretty much liberals in the grand definition of liberalism.

But I think Callimachus is mistaken when he says the dichotomy has collapsed and, to paraphrase, we’re all just factions of the same philosophy fighting it out in the mud pits. The dichotomy is not and hasn’t for a long time been liberal vs. conservative. The dichotomy is collectivist vs. individualist. And that conflict is alive and well.

Why is there an odd convergence of rhetoric between many Western liberals and radical Islamists? Well, for one, both ideologies are fundamentally collectivist, believing in the community as superior to the individual. How about the American Right and Evangelical Christians? Both are fundamentally individualistic, whether it’s focusing on one’s personal relationship with God over community ritual or focusing on the free market over government control.

As with all labeling attempts, it’s impossible to put any one person 100% into any one category. But I think we are very much in a period where those who primarily desire a collectivist culture (whether that culture is based on Islam or socialist-tinged democracy) are facing off with those who primarily desire an individualistic culture.

One could easily argue that multi-culturalism is a modern addition to collectivist theory, a natural extension of the belief that we’re all better off the more we shun hierarchy and incorporate our whole community into one equal group. And one could also argue that much of the War on Terror is a product of the individualistic desire to place the protection of one’s own interests and livelihood above all other concerns.

Sure, you could pick this viewpoint apart, but there is truth at the bottom. I could go on and on with examples of collectivism on the left versus individualism on the right. But this is a blog post and brevity must be served.

I will conclude with the thought that there need not be such intense conflict in this dichotomy. Both collectivism and individualism have much to offer. Perhaps the struggle of our times is to find a way to balance the two without, in the process, sacrificing our greater liberal principles.

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Blogger Dennis Sanders said...


I think you and Callimachus are confusing the meaning of "liberal."

There are two ways of looking at this word: one is European, the other more American. If you mean the European sense, then I would agree that we are all "liberals," including myself. My hue of liberalism would be classical liberalism. The Euston Manifesto was not a "liberal" document in the broad sense, but a document of the social democratic left, which could be considered a subset of liberalism.

I don't buy that conservatism doesn't exist. What I am talking about here is a document for those liberals in the subset called conservatism or classical liberalism (someone like Calimachus) who would stand up and say "we are this" and that "we denounce that." The problem here is that we have people calling themselves conservatives that are basically spread hatred of gays, the lack of fiscal disciplne and other things that have shown a that conservatives or the GOP have left their first principles. Any document would spell out that we should adhere to those principles and not to what has been spewed from some leading "conservatives."

In short, we need this to basically says what it means to be a conservative.

3:16 PM  
Blogger Alan Stewart Carl said...


Actually, I think I'm much closer to your POV than to Callimachus'. I purposefully used liberal in the sense that Callimachus used liberal to point out that the word is losing its utility. As is "conservative." But there clearly is a left and a right and a bunch of in-betweens.

I would love to see a Euston Manifesto from the center-right that denounces the social conservative side of things -- it would really be a kind of neo-libertarian treatise. Individuality with a heart.

4:12 PM  
Blogger Dennis Sanders said...


That's good to hear. And you are correct, it would be a more neo-libertarian document.

Thanks for the encouragement!

9:03 AM  

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