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Thursday, April 08, 2004

Same words, different meanings

Ezra has a good post on why conservatives have an inherent problem in running government when they claim to hate government. Of course, even though he uses a position advocated by the leaders and mouthpieces of conservatism now, he still gets a lot of "are not!" replies. But he's right. That is indeed what they say about government, that it is inherently wrong, that it inherently limits freedom.
What's confusing about the whole situation is that liberals and conservatives both agree with this statement, "Government is in the wrong when it denies basic freedoms." The contention arises because liberals and conservatives have very different models of what freedom is. Liberals tend to view freedom as the right to go about your life as you see fit unmolested. Conservatives tend to define it as the right of a man to have his authority over his own life and business go unchallenged. There are huge, gaping differences between those similar-seeming concepts.
Liberals are utterly confused by the fact that conservatives claim they want less government interference in their lives, but then turn around and support the government's right to push religion on the population, censor what they can see on TV, prevent women from obtaining abortions, or spy on its citizens to make sure that they aren't using illegal drugs. But generally conservatives answer that if you are already living an upright, authoritative life than these aren't impositions on your freedom. Freedom is the right of worthy, moral, ambitious men to wield authority in their own lives. That's why conservatives see business regulations as a restriction on freedom--productive, authoritative men's business is business. Telling a man how to run his business is tantamount to telling a man how to run his family.
Liberals tend to see freedom in terms of diversity and individuality. The most important rights are individual freedom and equal access, i.e., civil rights. Businesses must be restricted to secure freedom; businesses aren't people and don't have individual rights. However, businesses are quite capable of stomping other people's freedom in their efforts to earn a profit. Since liberals tend to see all people as having equal freedom, an employee is considered as free a human as the employer.
I hope that's not too confusing. Conservatives and liberals can have opposite views on an issue and each can see himself on the side of freedom and rights. But here's lots o' examples of what I'm trying to express here (not all liberals or conservatives will agree with every position, but it's sort of the standard position of each side I'm trying to get across):

Abortion/birth control. Liberals argue that women have the right to control their bodies. Conservatives see easy access to birth control as a deliberate attempt by meddling feminists to undermine their right to maintain control over their own families. That's why alot of states have laws stating that women cannot obtain abortions without husband or father consent.
Employee protection from discrimination and/or employer interference. Liberals think people have a right to make a living without having to submit their personal lives or histories scrutiny. That's why questions regarding age, marital status, etc. are forbidden in interviews. Conservatives see this as a restriction on a man's right to control his business, including his employees. Liberals see employers and employees as having the same rights, but conservatives tend to think that if someone is the boss, he has earned more rights.
Censorship. Liberals think a person has an individual right to express herself as she sees fit and that people have a right to read or watch whatever they like. Conservatives see censorship as the right to develop community morals and standards.
Business and pollution. Liberals think people have a right to live free of pollution and conservatives see government regulation on business as restricting a man's right to run his business as he sees fit.
Religion in government. Liberals think a secular government is best; by not favoring one religion over another or even religion over non-belief, than all people are free to make their own choices. Conservatives tend to think that if most people are religious and the government is of the people, it is by definition religious. They therefore tend to view people who want to get religion out of government as a immoral minority trying to impose their will on the majority.

In a way, liberals tend to be more distrustful of government because liberals tend to disfavor all authority. Conservatives favor authority, and they only dislike government when they feel it is being used by people who aren't or at least shouldn't be in authority positions to undermine the authority that they and their values have in their homes and communities.
In a non-democratic government, then conservatives tend to align themselves with the government automatically and it's progressives/liberals who are on the outs. But we are under a liberal democracy, where the government is legally required to protect people's rights and freedoms, in the liberal sense. So we have sort of an inversion of the "natural" order where authoritative conservatives dislike the government who limits their ability to impose authority and egalitarian liberals are defending their government because they see it as a powerful tool to preserve rights and liberties.

Pardon, I meant to point out a critical reference. The linguist George Lakoff made me realize exactly how stratified the metaphorical systems between conservatives and liberals have become in his book Moral Politics. Please read this book. You don't have to know much about linguistics to understand it. You actually don't have to know much about tropes or metaphors, because he writes to a larger audience who isn't familiar with grammar or linguistics and so he very carefully explains his terms. In fact, I can see people getting turned onto linguistics from this book. And it isn't boring to people who do know linguistics. It's a quick, about a day read. Thanks, Jake for keeping me in line.


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