The Conservative-Liberal Delusion?

A reader writes:

You’ve defined conservatism many times over the years as a “disposition.” The clip that you featured yesterday of Ted Olson on Fox News, defending his strong pro position on same-sex marriage, seems – to my mind – to be about as good an example of the true conservative disposition as one could hope for: principled, humane, calm, smart, broad-minded, pragmatic, courteous, inclusive and reality-based.

But the same could be said for David Boies, Olson’s liberal co-counsel partner and – since their days as opposing counsels in Bush v Gore – good personal friend.

So where exactly does the difference in “disposition” lie, in this case? It’s not in their positions on the issue, which are remarkable similar, if not identical. It’s not in their qualities of character, which are both exemplary. Is it possible that, at this level – the principled, humane, calm, smart, broad-minded, pragmatic, courteous, inclusive, reality-based level – there really is no difference between conservative and liberal? That once having ascended the peak to actual, functional intellectual, emotional and spiritual adulthood -- to human maturity -- the paths of liberal and conservative meet, as they say all spiritual paths do?

Maybe we are all both conservative and liberal all along. Ask yourself: if you won a new car on some game show, but could only have one of the following two options, which would you choose – brakes, or an accelerator? The answer, of course, is every car needs both, just as every person, and every polity, needs both brakes (conservatism) and accelerator (liberalism) – and hopefully, both in good working order.

So the seemingly endless fight between conservative and liberal in this country is endless because it’s a false choice, a fake war, ginned up by those who profit by that war. The real issue is not left or right. The real issue is maturity versus immaturity, selflessness versus selfishness, country versus party, disinterested truth versus power at any price. These are not left or right issues. These are developmental issues, issues of up or down, maturity or immaturity -- as both Olson and Boies so clearly prove by example.

Following Oakeshott, I have long believed that the liberal and the conservative strands in Anglo-American political tradition and discourse are complementary. Oakeshott sketched these two ways of seeing the world - enterprise association (collectivism at worst, patriotism at best) and civil association (selfishness at worst, individualism at best) - and believed the genius of modern European politics and the Anglo-American tradition lay in using each resource as befits changing circumstances. There are moments in a country's history when collective action is required; ditto when a resurgence of individualism is necessary. The question is judging when, a matter of prudential judgment that true statesmen or women alone can discern.

That's why I see no contradiction between backing Reagan and Thatcher in the 1980s and Obama today.

1980 and 2008 are very very different times. One was at the end of collectivist gridlock; the other comes at the end of a reckless indifference to government revenues, military prudence and foreign policy finesse. Right now, I think we need some infrastructure help, need some tax increases, need some adjustment downwards in defense spending, need a new realism in foreign affairs, because the times demand it. Maybe I'm wrong, but accepting the role both traditions play is essential to keeping the ship of state on a steady keel.

The point is balance. And oddly, I think, and wrote in Virtually Normal, that the arguments for including gay people as equals in our society are both liberal and conservative. And that's why it's so appropriate and even moving to see Boies and Olson defend this.

There's a right wing and a left wing, but only with both wings can we actually fly.