Steve Benen has a good summary of a debate about conservatism and liberalism, whatever those two words mean. The starting point was a certain Daily Dish commenter noticing that, whereas conservatives were mostly interested in shrinking government, no matter the effect, liberals were interested in getting the government to provide certain services, not in growing government per se. It’s a good discussion, but there is one thing (from Jon Chait) that I don’t think I agree with:
The contrast between economic liberalism and economic conservatism, then, ultimately lies not only in different values or preferences but in different epistemologies. Liberalism is a more deeply pragmatic governing philosophy — more open to change, more receptive to empiricism, and ultimately better at producing policies that improve the human condition — than conservatism.
I’ve always been liberal, proud to call myself liberal, and if people who want fiscal sanity and a decent health care system think they should call themselves “progressive” instead, I’ll all myself a progressive instead. If there’s two sides and one of them is wrapped up in meaningless ideology and the other is at least somewhat interested in attaining practical goals, I’ll call myself whatever the practical side calls itself.
Right now, pragmatic people call themselves liberals and ideological people call themselves conservative. That’s painting with a broad brush, I realize, but it’s pretty much true. I’m not sure any of that has to do with liberalism or conservatism per se. I don’t know if it means that Burke and Bobo’s other idols suck and their liberal equivalents are awesome. But I do think that fact that conservative pundits talk so much about Burke and Hayek and (let’s be honest) Reagan, while liberals talk more about exactly how much large the stimulus should have been and how much money we could have saved with the public option…that is telling.
There are a lot of factors that have led to this. One is that regular, reality-based journalism is now thought of as liberal (maybe this started as a symptom, but it’s now a cause as well). Another is that ideology is more malleable than pragmatism. Pretty much anything the Koch brothers want to do can be described as “conservative” or “libertarian” ideologically, if you try. So there are political incentives to being completely ideological, even though it’s a disaster in terms of governing effectively.
Maybe I’m wrong, maybe there is some intrinsic reason why saying you believe in one nebulous philosophy inevitably leads you to be more impractical than saying you believe in another nebulous philosophy. But I’m skeptical.