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Conservatism, Liberalism

What is Rick Perry Talking About?


One of the most quoted passages from Rick Perry’s book Fed Up!: Our Fight to Save America from Washington is this:

We are tired of being told how much salt to put on our food, what kind of cars we can drive, what kind of guns we can own (and) what kind of prayers we are allowed to say

Conservatives tend to agree with this idea, and liberals tend to challenge it on the basis that there aren’t any government programs that directly “tell” us any such things.

What’s going on here?  How can the two sides have such different takes on what Perry is saying?

The differing views on Perry’s ideas are clues about the psychology behind conservatism and liberalism.  So the larger questions, really, are 1) What are conservatism and liberalism?, and 2) Does the answer to that question help us to make sense of the differing views of the Perry quote? 

The latest social science research has given us new insights into the answer to the first question, with the result that the answer to the second question is “Yes.”

What is Conservatism?

Conservatism is the morality which is built on all five moral foundations, as illustrated in this 19 minute video on TED.com:  The Moral Roots of Liberals and Conservatives

I believe that moral foundations are much more deeply ingrained in us than the video might lead one to believe.  I think they determine not only what we think about morality, but also how we think. I believe that moral foundations are not only the building blocks of our moral constructs (as described in the video), but they are also the color-receptors of our moral eye, and they are the cognitive tools we use to construct the moral and political arguments with which we defend our own ideas and attack the ideas of the other side. And finally, I believe that, through all of these things, moral foundations define the scope of our reality, and by extension, of the possible. In short, moral foundations define our moral and cognitive “vision” in every sense of the word.

As the video illustrates, social science research reveals that the conservative vision “sees” the full spectrum of human nature.  I believe that this perception, this vision, of human nature leads to an unblinkingly honest grasp of it, and thus to several of the “Recurrent Conservative Assumptions and Predispositions” that are described by Jerry Z. Muller in the opening essay of the book Conservatism: An Anthology of Social and Political Thought from David Hume to the Present, the first two of which, as listed by Muller, are “Human Imperfection” and “Epistemological Modestly.” Of the former, Muller says “Conservative thought has typically emphasized the imperfection of the individual, an imperfection at once biological, emotional, and cognitive.” Of the latter, he says “Conservatives have also stressed the cognitive element of human imperfection, insisting upon the limits of human knowledge, especially of the social and political world.” (page 10). I agree with Muller, but I disagree with the conventional wisdom that this means conservatism takes a pessimistic view of human nature. Rather, I believe that the five-foundation, full spectrum perception of the conservative morality yields a realistic view of not only what is (i.e., our reality) but also of what can be (i.e., the possible).

Recognizing the fallibility of human thought, conservatism mistrusts reason alone as the basis for policy initiatives, preferring instead to use reason in combination with a relatively much heavier dose of the wisdom gained from experience.

Because of the complexity of human society, and because of the limits of human thought, memory, and knowledge, reason alone is really, really bad at predicting the most likely outcome of any policy initiative. But all that complexity it already built-in to experience; the outcome of every past initiative is much easier to know. Even though reason may be insufficient to explain why things happen the way they do, we can usually see from experience that whenever we do X we get Y. As the Founders said, “Experience is our surest guide.”

[NOTE: I believe this interpretation of conservatism diverges from the conventional wisdom. Conventional wisdom maintains that conservatism is about resisting change and maintaining the status quo of customs, traditions, and institutions for their own sake. I believe this is a misinterpretation of conservatism; one that, in spite of his other insights about conservatism, even Muller is guilty of. He uses some form of the word “institution” somewhere on the order of 140 times in his essay. It’s not about institutuions!  It’s about respecting experience as represented by institutions.

This may seem to be a small distinction, but I personally think it is huge. If more people understood conservatism as what I believe it really is, which is a respect for, and defense of, the collected wisdom of the ages gained through direct human experience, rather than as something it is not, which is an unreflective defense of custom, tradition, and institutions, then more people would understand conservatism, and the political divide might be just a little bit smaller.]

And last but not least, I think it follows from the full-spectrum perspective of humanity that conservatism tends to be focused on society as a whole, as well as on the individuals within it because, metaphorically speaking, a healthy hive is a prerequisite for healthy bees.

What is Liberalism?

Liberalism is the morality which is built on two moral foundations, and eschews the other three (also described in the video). Liberalism is focused almost exclusively on caring for the bees (i.e. individual citizens) and protecting them from harm, maximizing their personal individual autonomy, and ensuring they are treated fairly. From the perspective of the two-foundation, bee focused morality customs, traditions, and institutions – the manifestations of human experience – place restrictions on the free will of the individual, and are thus often seen as tools of oppression, and therefore of harm.  Consequently, liberalism denounces those things (and thus the wisdom of experience) and instead places its faith in reason; the power of the human mind to overcome obstacles and solve problems.

How are these moralities manifested in political discussions?

The relatively narrow focus of the liberal vision, liberalism’s smaller two-foundation cognitive tool kit, and its faith in reason, taken together, all lead liberals to tend to take things too literally. For example, liberal atheists tend to “treat religions as sets of beliefs about the world, many of which are demonstrably false. Yet anthropologists and sociologists who study religion stress the role of ritual and community much more than of factual beliefs about the creation of the world or life after death” (1)  For liberals, “facts,” and “reason” alone, are the ultimate arbiter of truth.**

I believe that the liberal argument on just about any issue often follows this pattern of thought.  That is, I believe that liberals, on the whole, have a tendency to focus their arguments on the technical “facts” of the direct effect – in terms of harm, care, or fairness – of any particualr issue on specific individuals (or demographic groups of individuals).  Liberals tend to attack opposing views by identifying what they perceive to be the logical inconsistencies (sometimes perceived as hypocricy) within them, all the while missing the larger picture of the costs or benefits to society as a whole of whatever policy initiative is at issue. 

On the other hand, the full-spectrum conservative vision, conservatism’s use of “every tool in the toolbox,” (as mentioned in the video), and its faith in experience, all lead conservatives to tend to think and talk in terms of concepts. The problem with this approach is that concepts are much harder to communicate from one person to another person than are facts. 

When people try to communicate with each other from the perspective of different moral constructs the communication becomes even more difficult, if not impossible, with each person insisting that the other doesn’t “get it”; thus contributing to the polarization of the political divide.

If you ponder these ideas for a moment I think you’ll see what I mean. Look at the argument of each side on just about any issue and you’ll see, I believe, that conservatism tends to look at the forest, and liberalism tends to look at the trees. This is why we’re always talking past each other. One example of this, introduced  above, is how we approach religion. Liberals might say that since many things in the Bible, or in religions in general, are demonstrably false, then religions are also demonstrably false. Conservatives, on the other hand, might say that there’s more real truth in the Bible than in any collection of facts. Another example is abortion, where the liberal view tends to be focused at the level of the individual (i.e., the bees), arguing about keeping “your laws off my body.” The conservative rebuttal, on the whole, is that abortion on demand sends a terrible message to every person in society (i.e., the hive) about the value of human life, and in fact what it means to be human.

Which view is “right?” The one fixated on the “facts” of the trees, or the one that promotes the greater good of the forest?

Guiding Principles

Thousands of years of human experience prove  that the enemy of liberty is power. (2) Oppression occurs whenever power is consolidated and concentrated into too small of a group of people. This means, this requires, that in order to protect liberty power MUST be distributed in such a way that each center of power checks and balances the others such that no single center can overcome the others.

An important but often overlooked check on the power of government is the power that is in the hands of the people. Checks and balances exist not only within the government, but between the government and the governed. The power of the people to check the government comes in at least two very important forms. One of those forms is, of course, consent, via the ballot box. But there’s another form that is arguably even more important; the power of property ownership. The more property that is held and controlled by individual citizens, including how they choose to use it or dispose of it, the less power the government has available to it to coerce those citizens to bend to its will. Conversely, the more property that is under the control, or even the restrictions, of the government the less control, and therefore liberty, is in the hands of the people. 

What is property? Your property is your body, your ideas, your words, your actions, and anything that accrues to you as a result of those things. If you legally acquire some corn seeds and the use of some land and then you plant the seeds, tend the growth, and harvest the corn, then that corn is just as much your property as are the hands that yielded it. A person’s property is the sphere of influence over which he has dominion to the exclusion of all others, including, and even especially, the fruits of his labor. Liberty comes from ownership of property, or wealth. 

Property and liberty are two sides of the same coin.  The more of the former the government takes, restricts the use of, or otherwise exerts control over, the more it does the same to the latter, and the less power and liberty are in the hands of the citizens.   In this concept, I believe, lies the seed of of Perry’s complaint.

Fact Checking the Perry Quote

I did a little checking on Perry’s lament. An article on Politifact.com examines his claims. (3) The article focuses on the salt issue, implying on the one hand that yes, indeed, Perry is right (in concept) because “The government intends to work with the food industry and health experts to reduce sodium gradually over a period of years to adjust the American palate to a less salty diet.” But on the other hand no, Perry is wrong (in fact) because the government “has not begun the process of regulating the amount of sodium in foods.”  In the end, Politifact rates Perry’s statement False. 

But that rating, of course, is only from the perspective of literal “facts,” and “reason,” and it ignores the underlying conceptual presupposition.   Politifact looks at only at the “facts” of the presence or absence of specific government rules and regulations, or statements by government officials (i.e., the trees) and does not even consider the conceptual framework that underlies them (i.e,. the forest);  namely, that it is the proper role of government to “work with the food industry and health experts to reduce sodium gradually over a period of years to adjust the American palate to a less salty diet.”  In other words, Politifact is considering the issue only from within the perspective of the two-foundation liberal moral construct. 

I think Politifact chose to discuss the salt issue and not the others because the others are fairly common and straightforward. We all know there are restrictions on gun ownership. The government has mandated fuel economy averages and safety measures on the automotive industry for decades, indirectly telling us, via regulating the auto industry, what kind of car we can drive. Over the years, the government has been steadily, systematically, eliminating religion, and prayer – from Christmas decorations to the Ten Commandments – from the public realm. In its efforts to avoid “respecting an establishment of religion” the government has been doing quite an efficient job of “prohibiting the free exercise thereof” in or on public property.  So, by these interpretations, in every case, the answer to the liberal questioner is “Yes, somebody IS trying to tell is how much salt to put on our food, what kind of cars we can drive, what kind of guns we can own (and) what kind of prayers we are allowed to say.”

Making Sense of it all

But all of that is just the same old arguments we’ve heard about the same old issues, and therefore beside my main point.  But at the same time, in a way, they make my main point because, in light of my descriptions of conservatism and liberalism, the Perry quote and the liberal reaction to it exemplify the conservative and liberal moralities.

Perry, from the perspective of the five-foundation, hive-focused, experience-based, conceptual-minded morality, via the examples of government manipulation and restriction of the material choices available to us regarding cars, guns, prayer, and food, is railing against the concept of government usurpation of power – and thus liberty – as well as against the mindset, or the morality, which leads to the idea that not only is the rightful role of government to take power in this way, but that it should do so, and proactively.  Perry is talking about the forest.  Guns, cars, salt, and prayers, are simply examples of, or metaphors for, the larger issue.

The liberal response, from the perspective of the two-foundation, bee-focused, reason-based, literal-minded morality, is taking Perry’s words too literally and is failing to make the connection between the examples and the concepts.  Since the technical “facts” are that there is no current government initiative that tries to tell you directly which car you can buy or how much salt you can sprinkle on your food, some liberals are befuddled as to what in the world Perry could possibly be talking about.


(1) Edge.org – Moral Psychology and the Misunderstanding of Religion

(2) See Chapter 3 – Power and Liberty: A Theory of Politics, from The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution, by Bernard Bailyn.

(3) Politifact – Gov. Rick Perry says the federal government regulates how much salt we can put on our food

Further Reading, all from the same author, but each with a fresh insight.

a. Edge.org – What Makes People Vote Republican?

b. Virginia.edu – When Morality Opposes Justice: Conservatives Have Moral Intuitions that Liberals May Not Recognize

c. Click here to request Planet of the Durkheimians, Where Community, Authority, and Sacredness are Foundations of Morality, by Jonathan Haidt and Jesse Graham from the University of Virginia


** The Argumentative Theory of Reasoning questions this assumption, maintaining that “Reasoning was not designed to pursue the truth. Reasoning was designed by evolution to help us win arguments.” The theory maintains that the things previously thought of as the common “faults” of reasoning, like motivated reasoning and confirmation bias, are actually examples of reason doing exactly what it is supposed to do, help us win arguments. Read more at Edge.org – The Argumentative Theory: A Conversation with Hugo Mercier 



  1. Pingback: What is Conservatism? « The Independent Whig - October 29, 2011

  2. Pingback: What is Liberalism? « The Independent Whig - October 29, 2011

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