Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Conservative and Liberal...Liberal and Conservative

These words are really meaningless to me except in the sense that they represent the titles that we place on people. We say, “You are a Conservative!” But, what does that mean? I am just labeling someone much as I name something a “Hummer.” “You are a Hummer.” What does that mean? Calling someone a Liberal now means something different than calling someone a Liberal in the 1950s or calling someone a Liberal in the 1910s. And you hear people call themselves “Classical Liberals.” It is a name with varied meanings and when you start modifying the label you know that the title has lost any specific meaning.

A conservative person, to me, is someone that either tends to hold on to what is, or, is someone that doesn’t like to take risks. Conversely, a liberal person is one that is open to many different ideas or is more willing to take risks than is a ‘conservative person’. But, a conservative person or a liberal person is not a platform or a dogma or an ideology. When we move these terms into the realm of titles everything becomes confusing.

I have worked with a lot of people in the world of Information Technology, both in teaching at a major university and in working with young entrepreneurs that are attempting to develop the next “big” thing. In this area, people have gotten away from the terms conservative and liberal and use such terms as adaptive and innovative. These terms possess similar meanings, but get away from some of the baggage of the other terms. A person that is conservative seems to be holding onto the past whereas a person that is adaptive knows that change must take place but wants the change to be slower, moving only when there is real justification for the change. A person that is liberal seems to be open to many different possibilities whereas a person that is innovative is someone that attempts to put a new idea into practice. From this we can see that with this terminology it is easier to discuss a continuum of behavioral tendencies running from adaptive to innovative than to just speak of the two extremes. Thus, it is better to say that individuals are more adaptive than others, or, less innovative. It is not appropriate to say that individuals are either adaptive or they are innovative.

Clayton Christensen, who has written a great deal on technological innovation, has distinguished between innovations that are sustaining and innovations that are disruptive. Here the idea is that all change is innovative in nature. However, a sustaining innovation is one that tends to improve the performance of what exists. It can be ‘discontinuous or radical in nature’ or just ‘incremental’, but, the key factor is that sustaining innovation is change that remains within the existing paradigm. A disruptive innovation, on the other hand, is one that changes how things are done rather than just improves them. A disruptive innovation is a change that introduces a different paradigm. Within this framework it can also be seen that one innovation might be more sustaining than another innovation…or more disruptive. We have once again gotten away from the extremes and have established a continuum.

Why do we need to move away from the liberal/conservative labels? We need to move beyond the liberal/conservative labels because they are very, very misleading. For example, to say that someone is conservative may be something entirely different than to call someone Conservative. And, this is true of the distinction between liberal and Liberal. Why?

For one thing, I don’t believe that most of today’s Conservatives are conservative! In many cases, I find that leading conservatives are more innovative than they are adaptive and that many of the programs that they are presenting or are promoting tend to be more disruptive than they are sustaining. The same thing can be said of Liberals and the programs that they are presenting and promoting.

An example comes to mind. In the early history of the United States, Washington’s first term in office, we see the break occurring between Alexander Hamilton and his supporters and Thomas Jefferson and James Madison and their supporters. The former group was labeled Federalists while the latter group, who later became the Democratic-Republican Party, was originally called the Anti-Federalists. The rivalry between the two parties became rancorous and bitter. The difference was not, in my mind, between conservatives and liberals, but was between different pictures of the world that were more innovative than adaptive and were more disruptive than they were sustaining. This is why the divisions between the two parties were so great.

In the early stages of the battle, Jefferson and Madison attempted to link the Federalists with England and with monarchy. Since the Federalists were attempting to create a stronger central government that overcame the difficulties experienced in the original confederation of states, it seemed a natural defense of the more decentralized confederation to accuse the Federalists of wanting to return to the English model of government and even to create a monarchy. Hence, the Federalists were conservatives as opposed to the more liberal Anti-Federalists. Since a war had recently been fought for independence, these were fighting words…and so the battle was engaged. Emotions ran high.

The Federalists, however, were not conservative…they did not really want to return to the English model. As Benjamin Franklin said, something new had been created. But, there were two visions of what this ‘new’ should be. The Federalists saw a world that included finance and manufacturing and trade (international as well as domestic) and in such a world they believed that there needed to be more power lodged in a centralized, national government because there were just some things that a loose confederation of states could not handle. The Anti-Federalists saw a world of farmers and small businesses that were free and independent of these less civil pursuits. They believed that a more decentralized government would better serve the people. Thus, there was a battle of two world-views.

I believe that the same type of situation exists today. I don’t believe that either the Conservatives or the Liberals want to keep the existing structure. The United States is going through a period of transition and there exists (at least) two world-views as to what the future should look like, and it is not the America now in existence or the America of the past. In this sense, what the Conservatives and the Liberals want, in their own way, is innovative and disruptive in nature. The Conservatives do not want to conserve and the Liberals are not liberal in the sense of being ‘open-minded’ about what should take place. They both have a vision and their visions diverge rather than converge…hence the rancor and bitterness of some of the debate.

Where does this leave us? If we take the earlier experience as a guide we can conclude that this division will not be resolved soon. In my interpretation of past events, the Federalists had an immediate victory and a relatively strong, centralized government was formed, much to the benefit of the United States. However, the Democratic-Republican Party controlled the Presidency and the Congress for a lengthy period of time beginning in 1800 and won many battles in the 19th century. We still, as a nation, from time-to-time, long for the idyllic America, the one composed of small farms and small businesses. The heritage of this past still lingers with us. Yet, one can argue that the United States that evolved is really more ‘Hamiltonian’ (see New York Times columnist David Brooks) than it is anything else.

If this is the case and the conflicting world-views continue to do battle we must adjust our mindsets and perceive the situation as it is and not as a battle to conserve or liberate the country, but as one in which there are (at least) two perceptions of how the government should be structured. I, personally, don’t have any suggestions at the moment as to what these world-views should be called. All I know for sure is that they should not be called Conservative and Liberal.

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