The whole modern world has divided itself into conservatives and progressives. The business of progressives is to go on making mistakes. The business of conservatives is to prevent the mistakes from being corrected. (G.K. Chesterton)Thank goodness today is the last day of election season here in the US (ooh, it’d better be!). There are few things I find more distasteful than partisan politics. The truth is, I am constantly frustrated by the division between “liberalism” and “conservatism.” These can carry such a wide array of senses as to be almost meaningless, but as Chesterton playfully notes, they do highlight two conflicting and often mutually destructive tendencies. Particularly when it comes to society’s response to vice, “liberals” and “conservatives” (stereotypically speaking) tend to advance mutually exclusive approaches, neither of which seems to me to offer a real solution to the problem.
The trouble is that there is rarely a one-to-one correlation between risky behavior and actual harm. Though gambling or drinking can ruin one’s life if they become addictions, they can be harmless pleasures if kept in moderation. Though drug use can be extremely dangerous, not everyone who tries drugs is harmed by them. Though casual sex can lead to unplanned pregnancy or an STD, it often does not and many people will (obviously) do it no matter what the risks are.
Now society tends to take one of two basic attitudes towards such activities. On the one hand, we can try to add artificial deterrents to make them more risky and (hopefully) less attractive. “Conservatives” who take such a view will tend to take a firm stand on right and wrong, stress the worst consequences of failure rather than the potential mitigating factors, and call for harsher sanctions and punishments for offenders, ranging from mere social disapproval to legal punishment. On the other hand, we can try to reduce the natural risks artificially, so that those who do engage in such behavior will face as little harm as possible. “Liberals” who take such a view will tend to speak non-judgmentally, give as much information about mitigating factors as possible, and call for rehabilitation rather than punishment for those who fail. Of course, both groups want to reduce the amount of harm done, but one emphasizes the dangers as a deterrent; the other emphasizes how to avoid them.
I’m grossly stereotyping of course, and probably no one falls strictly into one category or the other. But these do seem to be clear and opposing tendencies in our society, and they lead to fairly predictable results, neither of which is clearly more compassionate and dignifying than the other. The conservative approach rightly emphasizes the fact that we all have a choice whether to engage in these behaviors, and will tend to reduce the number of people who choose them, but this comes at the cost of piling much more severe harm on those who do so anyway. Alternatively, the liberal approach rightly emphasizes compassion for those in need, and will tend to reduce the harm done to those individuals who fail, but at the cost of allowing (or even encouraging) much more widespread vice. The ideal solution, it would seem, would be to discourage such activities as much as possible while simultaneously offering as much aid as possible to those who choose them anyway, but is this even possible? People are not stupid, and the cheaper a pleasure is, the more likely they are to pursue it.
And so it goes across dozens of issues. “Conservatives” rail against “liberals” for enabling abortion, while “liberals” fire back that outlawing it will only drive people to back alleys. “Liberals” accuse “conservatives” of excessively punishing drug use, while “conservatives” respond that reducing or eliminating punishments will only make the practice even more prevalent. “Conservatives” decry “liberal” socialism for enabling sloth, while “liberals” dismiss “conservatives” for their lack of compassion for the poor and powerless, etc., etc. ad infinitum, ad nauseum.
And so, not only do we have to face the fact that neither solution can work on its own, but our current system ensures that we can rarely work together to find a better alternative that could work. And I’m skeptical about the whole enterprise. Don’t get me wrong, if politics is an evil, it is a necessary one. The problem is not in the attempt to limit harm—whether by liberal or conservative methods—but the delusion that better policies can actually solve evil, as though it were a bad sum on a balance sheet. But every political season it comes to the same thing: One side accusing the other of making things worse while claiming that, if only their own plans were put into practice, all would be well. But all will not be well (nor will all fall to pieces if the “wrong” side wins), because ultimately it comes down to our choices as individuals—to pursue virtue or embrace vice, to help the needy or ignore their plight—and no policy can make these decisions for us.
Virtue cannot be imposed from above, it can only be chosen on an individual basis, and vice can abuse any system, “liberal” or “conservative.”