I’ve finally figured out one of the major differences between liberal and conservative thinking. And you know what? They’re both right.
The difference is in individual versus societal responsibility. Every time one of my liberal friends or I post something on facebook about how much good certain social programs do, about how privilege is such a huge factor in success and failure, or how poverty affects people’s brains we get these infuriating comments about how “life is what you make of it” and “blaming other people for your problems gets you nowhere” and “the dependency culture is killing America”. And it’s so hard to understand because the effectiveness of these social programs is backed up by SO MUCH DATA. Like seriously, I’m not kidding you, I studied psychology at Stanford and have a Master’s Degree in Child and Family Studies. I know whereof I speak. Social programs work. Early childhood interventions works. Food stamps seriously help, people are not typically on them that long and abuse is actually very rare. Spending more on education helps; home visits for at-risk moms makes a huge difference; and giving the homeless housing IS ACTUALLY MORE COST-EFFECTIVE THAN CONTINUALLY POLICING THEM. It really is. Do the research. These programs help people, tons of people. And they are better for society--and the economy--in the long run.
So why aren’t conservatives on board? Especially the religious, who claim to be in favor of helping “the least of these”.
Because they are also right. Life is what you make of it. Blaming other people for your problems really does get you nowhere. Actually, the evidence for the dependency culture thing isn’t there—surprised me too. It turns out the most generous governments also have citizens with the highest work ethics. Seems that if you show people that they are valued first, they end up wanting to contribute more to society, not less. But anyway, back to business. As a personal philosophy, it is unbelievably destructive to believe that you are where you are and you will always be there because of your skin color, your upbringing, your gender, or anything else about you that you cannot change. One of the most important predictors of individual success is a person’s belief that through hard work and applied effort, they can get smarter, improve their life, and change destructive habits.
So, why don’t all us liberals jump on that bandwagon?
Before I answer, let me talk for just a moment about physics. Yes physics. See, there are two schools of thought in physics. There’s the large scale physics, such as classical mechanics, thermodynamics, relativity—which studies objects from grains of sands up to planets and stars and beyond, how they move and interact with each other. These are the physics you probably studied in high school – Newton’s laws, gravity, heat, etc. They all obey a certain set of rules, everything’s quite predictable and orderly.
Then there’s quantum mechanics. Stuff at the subatomic level. Turns out that on this tiny scale, things work differently. The laws that physicists have understood for centuries break down at this level. Really weird stuff starts to happen. Like observing something changes its outcome. I mean, like in ways that make you think time travel is possible. It is really freaky stuff. It’s not really important for this discussion that you have any knowledge of quantum physics, just understand that the way stuff works at the large scale absolutely does not apply on the subatomic scale.
Do you see where I’m going with this?
Both approaches work. Liberal approaches, when used to guide policy, really do work to improve people’s lives and they are actually more cost-effective in the long run on the large scale. But at the individual level that way of thinking really does break down. It doesn’t help at all. If you are counselling individuals, or if you yourself are not happy with your life at the moment, I cannot overstress the importance of individual responsibility.
How can these two ways of thinking be made into a cohesive whole? They’re asking the same thing in physics. The search for a unified “theory of everything” is a really hot topic. And it hasn’t been solved yet. And I don’t know what the answer is for politics either. How do you design programs that help huge groups of people without sending the message to individuals that it’s okay to blame their circumstances for their failures? How do you empower individuals without large programs that target specific risk factors? Shouting clichés about pulling oneself up by the bootstraps from the rooftops certainly isn’t the answer.
I think it must have something to do with a basic respect for human dignity. And in light of Clarence Thomas’ recent remarks about that subject, maybe that will be my next blog post.
On the other hand, maybe these ways of thinking are too ingrained for people to even listen to what I’m saying. But I hope that for a few of you out there, I can help bridge the gap, just a little.