Steven G. Percifield--author

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Steven G. Percifield  Author and consultant
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Liberalism and conservatism:
the ironies of reversed roles

Dear Chris and Greg:

It was great getting together last week. I especially enjoyed our debate regarding the current administration’s “progressive” (your words, not mine) policies.

After pondering our discussions, I felt a need to fulminate.

 “Liberal”—at least as it applies to politics—is generally accepted as meaning not being limited to established ideas or values, rejecting dogma, or being reform-minded; as such it is progressive, suggesting a brighter future. What’s not to like about that?

Founded upon a revolution and based upon an aversion to power, the founding of our nation was the most liberal undertaking in history up to that time. Power, as it existed then, was concentrated in the hands of church, government and the privileged few into whose laps this power fell. Limiting the power of church and state, our revolution and the creation of our constitution changed all of that.

 “Conservative” on the other hand, is considered to mean supporting the status quo, favoring existing values or tending to oppose change. As such, it suggests a lack of progress or a moribund state. Is there anything desirable about that?

During the times of our revolution and the creation of our government, “conservatives” would have been those people who favored the extensive powers represented by the established church and expansive governments that then existed.

 While “conservatism” is linked to a known, existing situation, liberalism points to something unknown—its only requirement is moving away from what exists.

 There is a valid reason for considering the above: words are defined by their times. Words' meanings evolve and change. Yesterday’s liberalism is today’s conservatism because yesterday’s liberal changes (if worthwhile and widespread) become tomorrow’s status quo. It is not without amusement (and a sense of irony) that I observe that the opposite is also true, even if counter-intuitive. Can yesterday’s conservatism turn into present day liberalism?

Today’s “liberals” are moving further and further forward  in directions that, at the time of our country’s founding, would have been considered regressive; control of the citizenry by a sprawling government whose tentacles extend into almost ever facet of life; control over a huge and ever-increasing portion of the national commerce; confiscatory taxes removing more and more of the seeds of commerce from individual control; attempts to control the “thoughts” of the population by exerting added control over the mass media.

 But this present day “liberalism is not just limited to those who define themselves as “liberals” or Democrats. Witness the efforts to turn religion into a political force which occurs very visibly among evangelicals ascribing (so they claim) to “conservative” ideals, many (probably most) of whom identify themselves as Republicans.

 The labels Republican or Democrat, conservative or liberal, are really meaningless in the long term as their definitions change with the times. Principals and ideals, however, are as permanent as life itself.

 Our form of government was originated upon the ideal of freedom. The guiding principal was that individuals, unencumbered by governmental control, had a greater opportunity to succeed and excel.  

This freedom to excel carried with it the corollary ability to amass wealth and power—a widespread human desire. With so many creating personal wealth, our economy became a veritable dynamo of commerce and creativity. The result was the building of wealth, the sum of which became the largest the world had ever seen. Wealth, however, is not dormant—it is either invested in the creation of more wealth or spent in the obtainment of its possessors’ individual desires. In either case, the wealth adds to commerce and the overall size of the economy. The wealth of all, directly or indirectly, is expanded by creating additional opportunities for participation in it. But wealth also creates something else: disparity between those with it and those without it.

Our government at this time, under the guise of caring for and protecting those who have not attained as much wealth as others, is hell-bent for leather to gain greater and greater power by controlling our welfare, our economy, our wealth and the individual efforts which have produced them. State-mandated regulation of our lives, the state’s usurpation of our wealth by ever-greater taxation, its deficit spending without regard to long-term economic consequences, and its redistribution of wealth through various welfare systems, all contribute to a decline in individual liberty, a reduction in individual initiative, an increase in the power of the state, and the erosion of the individual freedoms upon which this country was founded and by which it grew and prospered.

Under the guise of today’s liberalism, we are regressing further and further toward the all-powerful state (and the diminished power of the individual) that our founding fathers shed blood to overcome.

The conservatism of our times is indeed the liberalism of the founding fathers’ times.