Tuesday, May 22, 2007


Is Liberalism a Religion?

My Conservative friends H, M, and R have charged me with having opinions that are not based on fact but are as firmly held as those of a devout follower of one of the great religions of the world. They quote Ann Coulter, who wrote something along that line about Democrats. Conservatives, or at least my three friends H, M, and R, believe that Liberal Democrats are so wrong about nearly everything that they must be members of some religion.

My first reaction to this charge was that it was just the usual prejudiced nonsense that Conservatives like to write and say about Liberals. Actually, it is Conservatives that seem to have opinions that are not supported by facts but instead are based on their ideas of what a just and fair society should be and how it should treat its members.

I thought some more. Then I realized that both Liberals and Conservatives base their ideas of a just, fair, and proper society on a set of moral and ethical values. Both Conservatives and Liberals have values. Values are moral ideas or ideals that don’t seem to be based on considerations of cost, efficiency, and proper allocation of scarce resources. They are based on tradition and on our notions of history. Some people assert that they are given to us by God.

Without going into a long discourse on the subject, I believe that morality and the ideas of how people in a society, whether it be a nation, a tribe, a family, or a working group, treat each other are very ancient and were firmly fixed in the minds of our distant ancestors before they decided to unite morality with religion. The most widely recognized moral or ethical rule is called the “golden rule:” Treat others as you wish to be treated. This rule covers a wide spread of moral rules, such as abstaining from stealing, murder, impregnating another man’s wife, and coveting. Liberals and Conservatives alike believe in this rule and try to follow it most of the time.

There is another moral rule that is a bit controversial. This rule states that the society, tribe, or group has to take care of its members. An injured member must not be abandoned. (Actually, this rule can be thought of as an example of the Golden Rule: if you are injured or in trouble, you would like the group to help you.) The controversy arises when this rule is extended to members of society who are poor, old, or disabled. Especially if the society exists in a region of scarcity, it is important that every member of the society pull his or her weight in the effort to provide food, shelter, clothing, and other necessities for everyone. Such a society may decide collectively that it can’t support those who can not work. Non-productive individuals are abandoned.

I think the application of this second rule forms part of the divide between Conservatives and Liberals. Liberals like me argue in favor of universal health care for all members of society. We argue that society should and can provide good medical care for everyone. Conservatives argue that the ideal of universal health care is unattainable. If medical care is freely available at no cost to the individual, many individuals will overuse it and the whole system will break down. Besides, individuals should learn to take care of themselves and live lives in which they avoid medical problems. Self-discipline to retain good health rather than free medical care for the sick is their approach.

So, back to the original charge: am I, a Liberal, following a set of beliefs like those of a religion or am I following logic, reason, and proven facts? Well, yes, I am. I believe in a society that nurtures and takes care of all its members. A certain amount of competition is good for people, but excessive competition leads to a rather ugly society in which a few winners dominate everyone else. At least that’s what I believe. Conservatives believe that too much nurturing, too much taking care of everyone leads to dependence and weakness. A society should be strong and its strength must come from strong, self-reliant members.

In my calmer moments, that’s how I see the difference between Liberals and Conservatives. Both have beliefs that they cling to. Both Liberalism and Conservatism are somewhat like religions.

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