What's the Difference?

by Doug Payton

It seems that these days too many people don’t quite understand the differences between the two major political parties. Far too often, in my experience, some folks think that the differences you hear about on Capitol Hill are simply nuances that aren’t worth bickering over, and if legislators would just put a little effort into it, they could reach a quick compromise and we’d all be the better for it.

This "can’t we all just get along" attitude towards politics is na´ve and results in poor representation; a mis- or non-informed voter elects an official, and the official acts as though the voter knew precisely what he/she stands for and acts accordingly. The voter then sees what the official is doing, and if it does not represent the voter’s attitude, then he/she believes that either the official is corrupt or is non-responsive. Assuming truthfulness on the part of the official, this would not be the official’s fault, it would be the voter’s. (Sometimes that assumption can’t be made, and when it can’t that is the official’s fault.) However, it is the voter’s primary responsibility to be informed, and much misinformation can be pushed aside if the voter takes this initiative, not just to gather information, but to exercise their voting rights. This means more than just pulling a lever or punching a card. These days, with 24-hour news channels and the increasing role the Internet is playing in news dissemination, it is very difficult to plead ignorance on political and social issues.

With this in mind, I would like to point out the major differences between conservatives (generally Republicans) and liberals (generally Democrats). They are drastic, yet they both purport to have the same destination in mind. But as I hope you will see, even the destinations are quite different.

(For you international readers, or those with a knowledge of historical conservatism and liberalism, I am speaking in terms of the late 20th century United States political landscape. I am aware that the definitions of these two terms can have different meaning in practice based on location and time period.)

There is a sweeping generality that is, for the most part, a good divider between the two: Conservatives want smaller government, liberals want bigger government. No doubt you’ve heard the words spoken by liberals outwardly agreeing with smaller government, but I’m referring to actions rather than words. One case in point would be Bill Clinton’s 1996 State of the Union address, in which the phrase "The era of big government is over" was followed by more and more new government programs. Another case would be Clinton’s outward support of a balanced budget, which he talked about for years but on which he took no action until the Republicans won majorities in both houses of Congress and started working on it in earnest. On top of that, once Clinton finally proposed a balanced budget plan, 83% of the cuts wouldn’t take affect until 2 years after he retired, so he wouldn’t have to make the tough choices, and his hopeful successor, Al Gore, could simply offer up budgets that ignored the plan once most folks had forgotten Clinton’s promises.

One must look at actions, and it is from this launching point that most actions by both parties can be explained.

Example 1 - Social Security: This is a classic Big Government program, and it was proposed by liberals. Conservatives at the time wanted to make Social Security voluntary. It makes sense that a program where you only get out what you put in wouldn’t require every working person in America to sign up, but that common sense idea wouldn’t work with a pyramid scheme like this, and liberals won the day. This mandatory, big government program has expanded beyond all expectations. While most programs of this sort normally bloat, this one has been remarkable. Today, if you want to receive a tax deduction for dependent children, they are required by the IRS to have a Social Security number by age 2. The government has found a way to have you branded and stored away in their computer starting from toddlerhood, by using a government program designed for retirement! Thank your friendly, neighborhood Democratic Party for this bit of Big Brother politics.

Example 2 - Welfare: At the time welfare was proposed, there were people that said that it would create a larger and larger bureaucracy, that it would balloon in size and scope, and that it would create a dependency on the government, robbing people of their dignity. Back then, those people were called mean-spirited, racist Republicans. Today, many people saying the same things are called caring, compassionate Democrats. It's a big government program that has done exactly what was predicted to its recipients; made them more and more dependent on the government to the point that far, far too many believe that the government has more responsibility for them than their own families or communities. And of course, those on it are more likely to keep that particular program in place by voting liberal.

Example 3 - Medicare: When an insurance company is paying your medical bills, who decides how to spend the money? Right, the insurance company. When the government pays the bills, who decides how to spend the money? Right, the government. In both cases, the decisions made by the bill-payers far too often go against even what your doctor knows is best. While catastrophic coverage is certainly something that most people need, putting the decision-making responsibility back in the hands of the people and their own doctors for other needs seems an idea that need not be debated. Yet, it's Democrats that push Medicare, and it was Republicans that finally got medical savings accounts passed which allow you and your doctor, and not a government agency, to decide how best to spend your money.

Example 4 - Block Grants to the States: A fine example in the opposite direction; Republicans working to reduce the size of the federal government by giving more autonomy and control to states in matters where it makes far more sense to bring local solutions to local problems. The states have always been the ones to administer the distribution of welfare money, but now they also have much more authority as to how that money is spent. The belief that a single federal solution to poverty will work everywhere in every situation is a classic Big Government liberal position, while common sense dictates that the closer you are to the problem, the better able you are in determining how to solve that problem. Predictably, Democrats fought the block grant effort that Republicans initiated, arguing that the states would not be able to properly allocate funds. This argument was at the same time laughable and arrogant (no reason could be given as to why state legislatures would be as foolish as argued, not to mention that many Congressmen were former state legislators), but it was a textbook example of Big Government advocates desperately trying to hold on to as much power as possible. These days, when people are concerned over the funding of a nursing home, they call their state representative, who may live in vicinity of the home, rather than their federal representative, who may be currently working out a trade agreement with an Asian country.

So how do you know when you have a big government program on your hands? One way is to see how its proponents defend it; honestly or not. During the Medicare & School Lunch debates, Democrats exaggerated to the extreme, claiming that the "cuts" the Republicans wanted to make would toss old people out on the streets and "starve" our schoolchildren. As the debate moved in to the realm of reality, it was discovered that there was plenty of waste in both these programs. In the case of the school lunch program, we found out that school systems were begging parents to sign up it even if they didn't need it because many other school subsidies are tied to the amount used in the school lunch program. Even Clinton's new proposed health care socialization, which would be administered through schools, would be tied to that amount. Of course, when you actually looked at the numbers, neither program was being cut. Republicans simply reduced the rate of out-of-control increases these projects were trying to pull in.

There is a vast difference in the approach to a problem between liberals and conservatives. There is also a vast difference in destinations. Conservatives want to release the people from unnecessary restrictions & requirements of a federal government, while liberals see each new problem as one which government, not people, can solve, and thus must take more money from the people. Conservatives do this because they believe that people will, generally, make the right choices with respect to their fellow man. Liberals, by their dependence on government for solutions, show that they have no faith at all that people will do the right thing.

Given these ideologies, the destination for conservatives--the ideal government--would be one that actually restricts its powers to that spelled out in the Constitution: justice, defense, inter-state commerce, etc. The rest would be local solutions to local problems. Would this mean different states could have vastly different laws concerning the same situations? Yes, but it would be a better representation of the people of the states far better than a one-size-fits-all solution on a federal scale.

With liberals, I'm not so sure that the final destination would be Communism, as some are prone to think. Instead, if we look at history, we see liberals swinging wide to the left ("Welfare for all!"), and then when the idea flops right on queue, the start sounding ever so slightly like conservatives ("OK, it needs a little tweaking."). But the cycle continues, because they refuse to look at history and see how such programs have worked (or didn't work, more precisely) in the past. Thus the ultimate destination with liberals given free reign would be political and social chaos due to their constant manipulation.

What I ask myself is, "What did the founding fathers intend for government?" The Constitution was drafted with a particular view of government in mind, and to abandon that view would put it at odds with the Constitution's assumptions and thus reduce its effectiveness at keeping our government in balance. Thomas Jefferson said, "When all governments, domestic and foreign, in little as in great things, shall be drawn to Washington as a center of power, it will render powerless the checks provided by one government over another and it will be become just as venal and oppressive as the government from which we separated." Liberals do exactly that; lift up Washington D.C. as the center of power in these Unites States. Jefferson obviously expected a de-centralized government for the most part, which is what conservatives in Congress are trying hard to return to, because it creates better representation.

George Washington said this:

"In all the changes to which you may be invited, remember that time and habit are at least as necessary to fix the true character of governments, as of other human institutions; that experience is the surest standard, by which to test the real tendency of the existing constitution of a country; that facility in changes, upon the credit of mere hypothesis and opinion, exposes to perpetual change, from the endless variety of hypothesis and opinion."

Liberal programs are often characterized by ignorance of history (e.g. "has this worked in the past?") and reliance on theory (e.g. "this should work"). Conservatives use history, tradition and experience as tools to form good policy; that idea is at the very heart of conservatism. George Washington would then agree that leaning too heavily on theory or hypothesis would lead to perpetual change, or chaos, in our political system, while reliance on history or experience would be a much firmer foundation on which to build a country.

With such great differences between conservatives and liberals, it's a wonder that more people don't really understand those differences. We do, however, live in a world of sound bites, quick news and tabloid trash, and in this environment it can be difficult to sort out the views from the exaggerations. Still, if you step into a voting booth, then it is your responsibility to do just that. But first you have to decide what you want. Select a destination, then select a candidate or party based on that rather than the feel-good policy of the week from anywhere on the political spectrum. If you don't, then you are creating your own chaos.

Return to "Consider This!"