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By George S. MacDonell
Last week at dinner my son and his wife asked me to describe the liberal ideology and what modern liberals believe. In replying to this serious request I decided to draw on my seven years at both the federal and provincial government levels in my role as a deputy minister, or the chairman of a senior policy making department of government.
I once served directly under the prime minister of Canada and three provincial premieres. Two of these elected politicians where liberal and two were conservatives. And for good measure I’ll include
what I learned about a typical politician and what you can expect from them!
To do justice to this request, I went back to the history of the 17th century to study the origins of liberalism and the thinkers such as John Locke, Edmund Burke, John Stuart Mill and Spinoza who, 250 years ago promulgated the Liberal ideology, and changed the world. I also consulted a very current publication entitled “The Great Divide” written by Canadian William D. Gairdner who writes about the increasing differences and widening gap between Liberals and Conservatives in Canada.
The first thing to understand is that liberals are not stupid nor are they evil. Some of the most well meaning, decent, intelligent, educated, and successful people on earth are liberals and they are numerous.
There are many degrees of liberals just as there are many degrees of conservatives. People of both categories often find with deeper contemplation that they are not what they thought they were, and as time goes on many change their loyalties to favour a different view of the world and its ideologies.
According to the recent best-selling book “The Righteous Mind” written by Jonathan Haight, we all arrive at our political positions by deeply implanted intuition. This intuition is followed later by the use of our brains to find reasons for, and to rationalize, our intuitive reaction. In short, cognition follows intuition. In matters of politics we act purely on deep seated intuition and then we use our reasoning skills to justify our position. This intuitive response to what we see, hear and experience in our lives has been developed over millions of years of human evolution.
According to Jonathan Haight, Liberals and Conservatives arrive at their very different conclusions not by reason but by intuition. The problem with this is that both groups feel as if their perceptions are self evident truths and those who see things differently are wrong.
According to Gairdner, Canadian liberals and conservatives disagree about many things. A few of these main disagreements are about human nature, the purpose of democracy, freedom, and equality.
Haight, after extensive research, concludes that we are born to be righteous, but each of our cultures plays a part on what it is we become righteous about. He believes our human nature is shaped by five basic moral foundations as follows:
- The Care/Harm foundation evolved in response to the adaptive challenge of caring for vulnerable children. It makes us sensitive to signs of suffering and need; it makes us a despise cruelty and want to care for those who are suffering. 2.The Fairness/Cheating foundation evolved in response to the adaptive challenge of reaping the rewards of cooperation without getting exploited. It makes us sensitive to indications that another person is likely to be a good (or bad) partner for collaboration and reciprocal altruism. It makes us want to shun or punish cheaters.
The Loyalty/Betrayal foundation evolved in response to the adaptive challenge of forming and maintaining coalitions. It makes us sensitive to Signs that another person is (or is not) a team player. It makes us trust and reward such people, and it makes us want to hurt, ostracize, or even kill those who betray us or our group.
The Authority/Subversion foundation evolved in response to the adaptive challenge of foregoing relationships that will benefit us within social hierarchies. It makes a sensitive to signs of rank or status, and to signs that other people are (or are not) behaving properly, given their position.
The Sanctity/Degradation foundation evolved initially in response to the adaptive challenge of the omnivores dilemma, and then to the broader challenge of living in a world of pathogens and parasites. It includes the behavioural immune system, which can make us wary of a diverse array of the symbolic objects and threats. It makes it possible for people to invest objects and symbols with irrational and extreme values – both positive and negative – which are important for binding groups together. He shows how the different political spectrums rely upon each foundation in different ways. The left relies primarily on the first two foundations (care and fairness), whereas the right depends on all five.
At the conclusion of extensive research, it became clear to Haight that liberals are primarily concerned about the moral foundations of “care” and “fairness”. Liberals largely reject the foundations of “loyalty”, “authority”, and “sanctity.” Conservatives consider all five foundation are equally important. The author then concludes that liberals have a two-foundation morality and that is it is here that they differ from conservatives who have a broader moral foundation.
Neurological research also found differing liberal and conservative patterns in their respective brain waves. A brain wave study (EEG) showed that liberal and conservative brains react differently. This study show that their liberal or conservative brains when stimulated search for different kinds of evidence, and reach different conclusions. Examples of the type of stimuli that were used in the study of brain waves where sentences to which the participants were asked to respond, such as, “In the teenage years, parental advice should be heeded,” versus another sentence where the ending was “should be questioned.” Liberal’s and conservative’s brains reacted instantly with clear differences to these two different sentences.
To Gairdner, two of the important incompatibilities between liberals and conservatives are what they each believe about the nature of man, and about equality. Liberals believe man is naturally benevolent and good.
Conservatives believe that man is neither good nor evil but history shows that when humans start engineering human societies to meet some abstract plan the results are always evil. On the issue of equality liberals believe all inequalities, hierarchies, and inherited privilege must be ended by force of law. Conservatives believe hierarchies and inequalities are natural in a lawful and free society.
Liberals are equally alarmed and righteous in their criticism of conservatives who they see as moronic, mean, greedy, neanderthals living in the 10th century and much worse.
The good news is however that liberals and conservatives both have the same goals. Both want a successful, productive, growing, free society under the rule of law with equal opportunity and all of the benefits of democracy for all.
Thankfully we only disagree about the proper means to achieve our common goals. Calling each other names is both juvenile and futile – we must learn to be less combative and righteous and much, much better listeners to the views of those who disagree with us.
What can history tell us about how these completely incompatible difference of opinion have played out? The history of the last century, if it shows us anything, it shows us clearly that wherever the government of a nation has tried to force its ideology on its citizens, no matter how “equal” “fair” “just” “ideal” or “sacred” they were in their quest for some kind of a “perfect” society, it has always failed – and often horrifically.
These ideologies went under different names such as socialism, communism, fascism and radical Islam, but the methods were always the same – to use the power of the government to force citizens to be what the leaders of these ideologies thought their people “should” or “ought” to be.
A deep seated Liberal inclination to use the power of government to remake society so it matches whatever current version of “justice” strikes its promoters as attractive is what alarms Conservatives. This is because conservatives believe government must remain the servant of the people but never its master!
Nothing concerns conservatives more than the liberal belief that since man is born good and benevolent, by using the power of the state, society can be made “good” by man.
What about our politician? Aren’t they the ones who, as our elected paid servants, should be leading the movement to reduce the widening divide between liberals and conservatives? Surely they must be the most aware that a house divided against itself can never succeed. In my long experience as a government insider as it were with few exceptions I can report they simply are not concerned about our longer term future at all.
Nor are they interested in trying to agree on the compromises we can and must find to ensure our future success. They are interested in essentially one thing, and one thing only – and that is winning the next election.
To politicians, winning the next election is of prime importance to them because it means power, money, a bigger pension and ego gratification. I am sorry if this revelation about politicians depresses you. The truth is democracy as a political system is frustrating, discouraging and at times down right depressing until, as Winston Churchill said, “You consider the alternatives.”
To expect perfection of any political system or organization run by mankind can often be disappointing. Given the nature of any political system and its politicians and the ever widening gap between the left and the right, we citizens have a serious challenge. Our challenge is to narrow this growing debilitating divide and intelligently and respectfully ignore the extremists of both parties and insist upon finding a common sense compromise in our political affairs which is in the balanced best interest of all Canadians.
In the past 200 years both great Liberals and Conservatives like Laurier and MacDonald have build this great country from nearly impossible early beginnings and I am confident that if we work together we can continue on a path to greatness.
George S MacDonell
Wilfrid Laurier, William J. Topley
Sir John A Macdonald, Matthew Brady