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Of Liberals, Conservatives, Rationalists, and Moral Foundations


The world is pretty good; all we have to do is not ruin it.

Other people are opportunists who have no political views. Instead, they support policies in their immediate narrow self-interest. Politicians, at least those successful at the national level, have to appeal to so many groups with inconsistent views and goals that they cannot articulate rational positions. For this reason, it's a mistake to identify "liberal" and "conservative" with "Democrat" and "Republican," or even with any specific set of policies. Practical politics are too complicated to correspond to simple moral imperatives.

If you are among the rationalists, I think you have to concede that both rational liberals and rational conservatives have points. We do want to make the world a better place for everyone; we want to reduce poverty, oppression, and undeserved inequality. But we'd like to do it effectively, and without destroying civilization. Liberals judge that the gains from pressing our goals aggressively outweigh the risks, while conservatives make the opposite judgment. But neither one has much objective support for their views, or at least not much that could convince someone from the other side.

Moreover, I think both flavors of rationalist have more in common with each other than either does with people who join them on the left or the right, but for different reasons. For one thing, it's easy to compromise. We eliminate the most unsuccessful liberal programs that cause the most harm to conservative moral foundations, and push gently forward the most successful liberal programs that cause the least harm. This is pretty nearly the opposite of most proposals that are labeled "bipartisan" today, because they are not true compromises, but divisions of spoils among opportunists, divisions that both sides scheme to overturn even before agreement is reached.

Another point of agreement is that advancing liberal ideals without force -- that is, not through the government -- is an unalloyed good. All rationalists like freedom, equality, and charity; they just disagree about how much the government can advance those things without risking tyranny. Another unalloyed good is reducing the size and power of government without danger to freedom, equality, or charity. No rationalists like the use of force; liberals are just more willing than conservatives to believe force will not be necessary, and that if force is necessary, it can be applied surgically to produce the desired result with minimal violence.
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