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Conservatives vs. Liberals: Two Paths to Power

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

The ferocious fight over the Obama budget exposes some of the deepest differences between liberals and conservatives, contrasting not only their goals for the country but their desires for themselves.

All human beings feel a drive for power, but leftists and right-wingers express that urge with opposing (and often irreconcilable) strategies. They employ very different means in pursuit of power in part because they seek distinctive ends: at the most basic level, liberals want enhanced control through political authority while conservatives crave greater sway through accumulation of personal wealth. Understanding the true nature of this distinction clarifies the most polarizing political disputes that currently divide the country.

The liberal preoccupation with governmental control characterizes every major initiative of the Obama administration. The reflexive response to the financial crisis is to blame it on insufficient regulation and to demand an instant expansion of bureaucratic authority to deal with the emergency. The left places its faith in governmental institutions, and even though most leftists will never personally involve themselves in politics or the bureaucracy, they support and trust those who do.

For instance, recent polling shows that big majorities of Americans want government to require more fuel efficient cars. Of course, the countless sincere citizens who demand such regulations could easily purchase high-mileage vehicles without waiting for some new federal policy, but the demand for sweeping regulations shows that many Americans trust bureaucrats more than they trust themselves.

Thoughtful liberals defend this deep-seated yen for government supervision by affirming that they feel no pressing need for Washington to regulate them, but they do want more rules and bureaucracy to rein in the destructive excesses of their greedy, irresponsible, selfish neighbors. In other words, leftists seek greatly enhanced power for those they consider enlightened and generous and broadminded—best exemplified, of course, by President Obama himself. They seek vastly increased funds for these wise, steady, philosopher-kings who guide the federal government, and sharply decreased money for the wealthiest, most productive private citizens (and, for that matter, for private charities). They believe that society will benefit greatly if progressive leaders define new goals in health care, energy, education and every other field, rather than relying on the often benighted impulses and preferences of the public at large. The great unwashed may enjoy “American Idol” and “Dancing with the Stars,” but if the feds pump enough taxpayer money into PBS, maybe the culture commissars can facilitate the appreciation of higher things. In view of the painfully high cost of health insurance, tens of millions of Americans choose not purchase it – though many of them clearly can afford it. In response, progressives want to force them to get government insurance whether they want it or not, and plan to bill them (and everybody else) with increased taxes. In short, liberals seek power and influence over their fellow citizens by means of a more energetic and intrusive government, with the belief that everyone will benefit from more supervision, regulation, and social workers to administer the new agenda of compassion.

While liberals seek to advance their values and priorities with more bureaucracy and federal spending, most conservatives yearn for a different sort of power: the control and privilege and security that comes from the accumulation of personal wealth. Right-wingers want above all to take care of themselves and the people closest to them – family, co-workers, friends, and fellow members of churches or other affinity groups. Conservatives generally feel less concerned about the welfare of strangers than they do about the fate of those who are close at hand, though they understand that personal success also brings benefits for the whole society. A flourishing business creates new jobs, and those workers can use their paychecks to stimulate the entire economy. Conservatives distrust bailouts, stimulus packages, welfare programs and redistribution of wealth because such initiatives reward the sort of behavior that right-wingers would never want to encourage personally.

The power that conservatives most fervently desire involves self-sufficiency: the ability to control your own circumstances and your future, without depending on government or charity. Accumulating wealth – or at least putting together some modest savings – insures that you’ll be well-treated more effectively than any governmental regulations or guarantees.

The contrast between the liberal and conservative pursuit of power gives the left two big advantages in politics, while providing the right with an even more substantial edge in terms of personal happiness.

In politics, the liberal focus on influencing government and controlling the status of other people allows the left to claim the mantle of superior compassion. Because leftists talk more about the welfare of strangers, they portray themselves as more idealistic and more concerned with humanity at large. By contrast, the conservative emphasis on private institutions – businesses, families, churches – is often derided as selfish and insular.

The left enjoys a second built-in political advantage: because of its emphasis on the importance of public life and governmental activism, the most ambitious and gifted people in the progressive community will often choose politics as a higher calling. Conservatives, with their preoccupation with the private sector, will much more likely choose to emphasize building families, businesses or communities rather than constructing electoral careers.

This means that those observers who perceive superior political ability on the liberal side of the spectrum are probably correct. Moreover, it’s a structural imbalance, and not a temporary aberration – a reflection of the fact that the left sees government as a source of enlightenment and accomplishment, while the right views government as a locus of corruption and potential tyranny. It’s not surprising that those who look on bureaucracy and political power most favorably will choose disproportionately to involve themselves in those pursuits.

Conservatives, meanwhile, enjoy a mirror-image structural advantage when it comes to personal happiness. It is obviously much easier to control your own circumstances than to secure the welfare of society at large. It’s inherently more possible and more satisfying to influence yourself and your intimates than to impact millions upon millions of utter strangers.

In other words, it’s easier to change yourself than to change the world. It’s therefore only logical that conservatives would report far higher levels of contentment and personal happiness than liberals, according to Syracuse University’s Arthur Brooks (author of “Gross National Happiness”), and everyone else who’s studied the subject.

Both conservatives and liberals pursue power, but the left wants to influence other people and society at large while right-wingers want enhanced control over their personal circumstances. That contrast may give liberals the edge in many political scraps, but conservatives will still have a better and more satisfying time in the process.

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