With the Federal election now well underway, it is time to turn the spotlight on some of the competing visions of the two main political parties. This essay will examine some of the philosophical distinctions between the two parties, outlining some of the broad differences found between left/liberal parties and conservative parties.
But first, several disclaimers. What is written here is very much a broad-brush approach, really examining two competing political visions. Not everything discussed here will necessarily fit in every respect with the Labor or Liberal/National parties and their platforms. And given space limitations, what is said here will of necessity be somewhat broad and in outline form.
Also, as in many Western nations, often the two main parties of left and right find themselves looking more and more similar, as they both seek to stake out the middle ground, or develop much more centrist approaches to policy and governance.
Thus this is more of a generic framework with which to think about the two main political options, and how and why the major parties may differ on some key values and beliefs. The greater visions of left and right, in other words, will be explored here, in the hope of shedding some light on why Labor and Liberal believe what they believe, and do what they do.
Two Opposing Visions
There are many ways I might tackle this subject, but I will limit myself to drawing upon the insights and perspectives of one important American writer. The man happens to be a conservative economist and social commentator. Yet before one is tempted to dismiss him out of hand, it might be pointed out that he is also a Black-American. While most American blacks of course tend to side with the left, this man thinks that the right is the best side to be on, all things considered.
I refer to Thomas Sowell, the author of around 40 important books on many topics, such as economics, race, political philosophy, education, and international relations. Of course his perspective is not perfect or unassailable, and there obviously are other ways of viewing these issues. Nor is his position necessarily all that unique. In many respects he simply reflects and reinforces the traditional conservative worldview, and has sought to flesh it out both on the broad scale and in particular details.
I wish to concentrate on only a portion of his output. Indeed, I only own 13 of his books, and I just want to speak to three of them. But these volumes really offer an incisive way to contrast the two main competing political philosophies. The three volumes I address are: A Conflict of Visions (1987); The Vision of the Anointed (1995); and The Quest for Cosmic Justice (1999).
Sowell argues that the left and right operate from fundamentally different premises. These premises really amount to differing worldviews, with differing ways of looking at the world, man, his predicament and possible solutions. Thus the foundation, or vision, on which political ideas are built is hugely important.
The two main visions Sowell discusses are what he calls the constrained and the unconstrained visions. The constrained vision (the conservative worldview) acknowledges that there are limits. There are limits to human nature, limits to what governments can do, limits to what can be achieved in a society.
The unconstrained vision (the radical or leftist worldview) tends to downplay limits. Mankind is seen as more or less perfectible; social and political utopia is to a large extent achievable; and evil is not endemic or inherent in the human condition, and therefore is able to be mostly eliminated.
The conservative vision tends to reflect the Judeo-Christian understanding that mankind is fallen, is limited, is prone to sin and self, and cannot produce heaven on earth, at least without the help of God. The left-liberal vision, by contrast, tends to see the human condition as innocent, malleable and perfectible, and tends to think that utopia on earth is achievable under the right social conditions.
Edmund Burke may best exemplify the former vision, and the American Revolution one of its main fruit. Rousseau may best exemplify the latter vision, with the French Revolution a key expression of it.
Prudence and caution describe the first; radicalism and change the second. But these big picture themes have been discussed by others. What is of help is when Sowell provides specific examples of how these competing visions play themselves out in the social, political and economic arenas.
The American Situation
Consider the issue of poverty. Both sides are concerned about the poor and their plight. But they differ on the causes and the cures. The conservative vision, reflecting the Judeo-Christian worldview, seeks to distinguish between the deserving and undeserving poor. That is, some are poor due to no fault of their own, but may be victims of exploitation and injustice. But some are poor by choice, that is, they are lazy, irresponsible, refuse to work, and so on. The Old Testament was clear about helping the deserving needy, while it chastised the undeserving poor. And even Jesus offered some realism to the debate when he spoke about the poor as being always with us.
The leftist vision, by contrast, tends to think that every problem can simply be solved by more government intervention. Instead of seeking to distinguish the various reasons as to why people become impoverished, the general response is to increase government spending, implement more programs, and increase government bureaucracies.
When the US declared war on poverty in the 60s, all these responses took place. Yet over the next several decades, instead of a decrease in poverty, there was in fact an increase. Indeed, not only did the ranks of the poor in fact swell, but so too did the number of people dependent on government largesse. Indeed, the whole problem of welfare dependency and a corresponding unwillingness to work was simply compounded.
Take the related problem of illegitimacy. The conservative vision recognises that government solutions alone are not enough. Cultural, moral and spiritual considerations also must be taken into account. Thus emphasis on things like abstinence and self-control are part of the overall conservative position to reduce such things as teen sexuality and teen pregnancy.
The leftist vision again looks to expanding government programs and increased spending. Lacking a more realistic picture of human behaviour (one that takes seriously human sinfulness and selfishness), it takes a much more optimistic view of things. Simply provide more sex education, more condoms, and a more value-free climate, and things will be just fine.
Unfortunately the latter vision triumphed in political and social circles in the US. Thus there was a huge increase in comprehensive sex education courses throughout America from the 60s onwards, and a huge increase in funding for “family planning” clinics and the like. The belief about sex ed was that the more and the earlier, the better. Thus so-called safe sex education was introduced even in the kindergartens.
And the result? The very opposite of the intended outcomes. Teen sexuality rates soared. Teen pregnancy rates skyrocketed. Abortion rates increased. Sexually transmitted diseases rapidly expanded. And when confronted with such lousy results, the elites simply said that more money, more programs, and more condoms were needed.
An Australian Example
Let me here just quickly provide one Australian example. Consider the way the two main parties approach the issue of illicit drugs. The recent Government report, “The Winnable War on Drugs,” produced by a House of Representatives committee headed up by Bronwyn Bishop (and recently reviewed on this website) offers a good example of some major differences of vision and policy.
The majority report, produced by all the Liberal Party members (and one former Labor MP, now an Independent), argued for a harm prevention strategy. Recognising the shortcomings of human nature, they believe that people should be deterred from getting on to dangerous drugs in the first place, and helped to get off if they are already hooked. In an important issue like this, a strong just-say-no approach is preferred to weaker approaches. And that has been shown to be very effective indeed in nations such as Sweden.
The minority, or dissenting, report, written by all three Labor members on the committee, baulked at this idea, and argued that harm minimisation is the way to go. This approach says that people will always take drugs, there is not much we can do about it, so let’s teach drug users how to more safely use illicit drugs. It is a counsel of despair, and it is an approach that does not take seriously human responsibility or will power. It is a defeatist approach, which reflects a libertarian, amoral approach to such issues.
This one example demonstrates how the competing conservative and leftist visions are played out in specific policy issues. It shows how in many ways the two main parties rest on quite different and competing worldviews and visions.
In summary, let me return to Sowell. He provides numerous other practical examples of how a faulty vision results in faulty programs and faulty consequences. He makes it clear that there really are two quite different worldviews which translate into quite different policy responses to most issues.
Of course neither Sowell nor I claim that only one vision, philosophy or set of policies is perfect, while the others are not. No one political philosophy or platform will be without fault. Yet we can judge the two main visions, and look carefully at the outcomes produced by them.
Ideas do have consequences. And all political parties and policies are based on various sets of core beliefs and values. It is important that those core visions are critically assessed, especially in terms of the fruit they are producing. Sowell argues that on the whole, the conservative vision, being much more closely grounded in reality, will usually produce better outcomes for those intended to benefit by them, than those of the leftist vision. I tend to agree.