Thomas Sowell has done wonderful work in describing the fundamental difference between liberals and conservatives. He describes it as the difference between an unconstrained vision of man and a constrained vision. The French revolution was a model of the unconstrained vision, and the American revolution was a model of the constrained vision. In the former, all you have to do is issue soaring declarations about the rights of man, and in the latter what you have to do is build a Constitution that doesn’t trust anybody.
This is why progressives gravitate naturally, easily, instantly, into demands for “solutions,” for solutions must be had, and they never think of the price tag. Conservatives naturally think in terms of “trade-offs”—if we want this good, we must surrender that good. Progressives strike conservatives as being in the grip of “magical” thinking, and conservatives strike progressives as being hidebound and reactionary, unwilling to budge for anything.
Consider the “pony platform” of Vermin Supreme, perennial candidate and performance artist, wherein he promises a free pony to every American. I saw a reporter ask him how he was going to pay for that. “No, no,” he said. “they’re free.” Compare this to the instinctive conservative sentiment of Lord Falklands—“when it is not necessary to change, it is necessary not to change.” Unconstrained. Constrained.
Someone might object to my use of Mr. Supreme’s platform, when it is so obviously supposed to be a joke. Right, but it is economically indistinguishable from free health care and a $15 an hour minimum wage. If people don’t have health care coverage, you think of the “solution” of giving it to them, and you don’t think of the trade-off. If the recipient doesn’t pay for it, someone else does. Who is that? Should we take it into account before we do anything?
This basic divide affects how we think of everything, including things like human rights and freedoms. The progressive thinks of “rights” as “solutions” applied to “needs”—a right to affordable housing, a living wage, affordable health care, and so on. Here is the problem—the person without—and let us craft legislation that will apply the solution to the person with the problem. Who is going to pay for that? No, no. The ponies are free.
If the right is to “free chocolate milk,” then if someone has a right to free chocolate milk, then someone else has an obligation to provide the free chocolate milk. For the progressive, those issues of obligation are always put in the background, and when referred to at all, they are covered over with words and phrases like “contribution,” and “fair share.” When the conservative applies the language of rights to chocolate milk, he does so by saying that the government must refrain from interfering with the manufacture, distribution, and sale of chocolate milk. In this scenario, no one is forced to do anything — except to leave other people alone. Because the conservative thinks in terms of trade-offs, he minimizes the actual trade-offs. Because trade-offs never occur to the progressive, all the trade-offs and hidden consequences multiply, like the frogs of Egypt.
One final comment, indicating a theme that will need to be developed later. How is it possible for those with the unconstrained vision to go in for the heavily constrained Malthusian vision that comes with their standard “fright-of-the-decade” techniques? Right now it is climate change, but in the past it has been the population explosion, pollution, etc. Limits, limits, limits! Well, except for the government, the purveyor of all the magic solutions. There we never hear about any limits.
And on the flip side, why is it that a number of the advocates of the constrained vision—such as myself—are also postmillennialists, who believe that “eye has not seen, ear has not heard, nor has entered into the heart of man, what God has prepared for those who love Him” (1 Cor. 2:9). There is a real “the first will be last and the last first” kind of approach here.
Edmund Burke fully embraced the constrained vision, as do I, but I can imagine real difficulties in explaining to him the apparent unconstrained mechanisms I have for communicating this shared vision of ours, as compared with his quill pen. I mean, as soon as I click on the button that says “publish,” within seconds somebody in New Zealand, 19 hours ahead, can start reading it. And, as I have reason to believe, 459 visits to this site from New Zealand have occurred over the last month, I would need to explain to him how I knew that.
But how did we get all this progress? By not being progressives.
There is a knot to untie here. Before I was postmill, I used to wonder why all the most trenchant and incisive criticism of how screwed up our society was came from postmillennialists. And since then I have had occasion to wonder why it is that the pessimistic eschatological vision, which holds that everything was supposed to fall apart, was tenaciously clinging to the status quo. Those who believed everything was getting better provided the most insightful analysis of how everything was falling apart, and those who believed everything was falling apart were providing arguments for keeping things the same. There is a deep structure here, but always remember that life is funny.