When we think about liberalism and conservatism, we often think about the political ideologies that they are associated with. I would like to take a step back and try to deconstruct these concepts into the fundamental forces that create them. Understanding these forces and their role in building societies can help explain why existing structures are the way they are.
Let’s start with some definitions (from dictionary.com)
Liberalism — Favorable to progress or reform, as in political or religious affairs.
Conservatism — The disposition to preserve or restore what is established and traditional and to limit change.
What does this mean?
At the most fundamental level, conservatism is a force fighting to keep the existing system, while liberalism is a force pushing for changes to the system.
Order and Chaos
You might think liberalism and conservatism are unique to human societies; however, the forces that create them are the same forces that make up every system in the universe; order and chaos. Conservatism = Order = maintaining the existing pattern. Liberalism = Chaos = changing the existing pattern.
Order and chaos are critical for the development of every existing system, even life itself.
Life on Earth:
The evolution of life on Earth is a constant battle between order and chaos.
In life, conservatism would be the existing genetic code, providing a clear set of instructions for building a system that has proved successful through natural selection.
Without conserving a majority of the genetic code from one generation to the next, the creation of complex life would be impossible. Every iteration of the organism would be completely different.
Liberalism in biological life is represented as the genetic variability that allows for change from one generation to the next. Genes are tested with every iteration of the organism — some mutations increase probability for survival/reproduction of the organism, making them more likely to be passed to the next generation.
Without liberalism (chaos) in life, our evolutionary stage would still be stuck at the first organism. Every iteration would be an exact clone; mutations, variability, and evolution would be impossible.
Societies are just systems. A human is a collection of cells working together from a set of rules; a society is a group of humans working together by following a set of rules. Liberalism (chaos)and conservatism (order) are both critical to building a functional society.
A functional society works by evolving systems through the implementation of ideas that improve survival odds and promote growth, while maintaining existing structures that work.
A fully conservative society cannot adapt to change, only functioning within the parameters of the current system. If all of our ancestors had been conservative, our societies would have never evolved. No inventions would have been accepted and everything would remain as is. If liberalism stopped during the hunter/gatherer stage, we would still be there today. Progress and innovation require liberalism, openness to new ideas.
By my definition, a fully liberal society could not exist. If there are ANY rules in a society that are worth conserving, conservative forces are needed. If every new idea and way of life is supported and good ideas are not implemented into the culture or laws of the society, progress could not be made. At the very minimum you would adopt a common language and set basic rules for trade. Retaining ideas/systems that work is critical to evolution of societies.
A Society that Works
A perfect society is impossible, the same way that a perfect song cannot exist. A song needs a basic structure (conservatism), but would be terrible without deviating from that structure (liberalism). Although there is objectively good and bad music, a consensus on the perfect song could never happen. Additionally, if you keep playing it repeatedly, it will become boring and you’ll eventually want to hear something else.
A system can only be evaluated by whether it can accomplish a specific objective. A society that values individual freedom and equality will be structured differently than one that values expansion and world domination.
From an evolutionary perspective, the only consideration for whether a society is good or bad is whether it has survived or not.
You Are a Function
You are not your cells. You are not your atoms. You are not what you eat. Your cells are continually being replaced, but you never stop being you. A human being is simply a function, a set of rules that creates order and maintains a specific structure that is optimized for survival.
Likewise, a society is not the sum of its members. All of the founders of the United States are no longer living, but the language, laws, and culture can pass on from one generation to the next.
A system is information, a set of rules that is used to organize physical things. This can be applied to atoms, cells, organs, organisms, and societies.
The Key to Immortality
The goal of a system is to live forever; liberalism and conservatism are key to immortality.
Species don’t always have an expiration date. Organisms may always die, but as stated above, an organism is a function. An organism is a set of rules that organize cells to maintain a structure. Although an individual organism will always die, immortality of the species lies in its reproduction/future generations. Most of the code is conserved, but there is some variability, which can lead to positive adaptations that reduce risk of extinction for the species. Eventually, if the species does not go extinct, the genes of future generations will change to the point where the species becomes unrecognizable.
Societies also don’t have an expiration date. The individuals in a society will die, but the structure that holds the individuals together does not have to. To become immortal, the system needs to adapt to change. Keeping the rules that work, while making changes to adapt and survive. Eventually liberalism will change society to the point where the culture becomes unrecognizable. Think about America when it was founded vs. what it has become today.
Specific economic systems are not directly related to liberalism and conservatism. The rule is simple: liberals will always push for systems that allow for change and support new ideas, while conservatives will always push to maintain existing rules and structures.
Today in the United States, liberalism is associated with the Left. Although capitalism and free markets were initially a liberal belief when the country was founded, many liberals believe that the capitalist system is oppressing the individual. Corporations have gotten so powerful and healthcare has gotten so expensive, that individuals have lost their freedom and are unable to make change or have social mobility.
Supporters of unregulated free markets are now called classical liberals, who are often considered conservatives. They are pushing to conserve the existing system, and capitalism is the economic system in our society.
However, I believe that if we lived in a communist/socialist economic system and a powerful tyrannical government was infringing on individuals ability to make change, liberals would be supporting economic freedom, as the founders of our country once were.
In my opinion, all economic systems eventually fail. They all start with a dream of freedom from oppression, but eventually a social hierarchy forms that becomes oppressive to the people. It doesn’t matter whether the oppressor is a dictator in a communist regime or corporations building monopolies through government corruption.
Liberal ideas transform our society; they create a more equal, just, and free world. However, transforming a society carries some risk. You can see this in the many failed communist revolutions that promised a more equal society, but eventually led to an oppressive dictatorial regime infringing on individual freedoms.
Additionally, the scientific method isn’t followed when implementing policies and systems in a society. There are way too many variables to conduct an experiment with a decent level of confidence on the effects that an idea has on society as a whole. Think about the effects of social media. The idea of a fully connected world seemed like a no-brainer. Nobody predicted how it would cause addiction, radicalization of individuals, and the spread of misinformation.
If we ever want things to get better, we need liberalism, but change isn’t possible without a little bit of risk.
Are you a liberal or a conservative?
Figuring out whether someone is liberal or conservative is not that difficult. If you think the current system works, you’re a conservative; if not, you’re a liberal.
- New generations will be liberal. Young people dream of a better future.
- Older generations will be conservative. Over time, you build your principles; ideas are less flexible as you age. Adopting a different worldview is more difficult as you get older.
- The wealthy will be conservative. If the system is working for you financially, why would you want to change it?
- Disenfranchised Minorities will be liberal. Why would you want to keep a system that is oppressing you?
- The poor will be liberal. Why would you want to keep a system that is keeping you poor?
- Conscientious people will be conservative. If you are careful and diligent, you are more likely to want to keep things the way they are.
- Creative/Artistic people will be liberal. Dreamers and will always be liberal. Creative people see the world through a different lens and are less likely to follow structures.
Societies are just systems; they are created and evolve through the same laws that govern all systems in our universe — order and chaos.
Every growing society will have liberals and conservatives.
We need liberals to build a better society; without them, things would never improve. Conservatives are like parents; they are not always right, nor will they be supportive of everything we do, but their advice might save us from doing something really stupid.