On Being Neither Liberal Nor Conservative

By Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.
Ignatius Insight

The division of the world into "liberal" and "conservative" on every topic from politics to our taste in cuisine, clothes, or automobiles is one of the really restricting developments that has ever happened to us. If we are not what is considered popularly a "liberal," then we must, by some convoluted logic, be a "conservative," or vice versa. No third or fourth option is available as is usually the case in the real world. It has to be, we are told, either this way or that.

Such a view makes things very simple, I suppose. But it also reduces our minds to utter fuzziness. We are required to define everything as either liberal or conservative even when the two allowable terms of definition are not adequate to explain the reality that they are intended to describe.

Our political language is likewise amusingly confusing, especially when used to describe theological issues or currents. When I am asked whether I am a "liberal" or a "conservative," I reply that I am a "Thomist." Needless to say, Thomas, who was once considered a liberal Whig, is now considered a hopeless conservative, even though what he actually held defies such simple categories. In Thomas’s own methodology, the first thing he did was precisely to define what is a liberal or what is a conservative. He then explained why both, while containing some point of truth, were inadequate. Yet, it is almost impossible to escape this system of "either conservative or liberal," since whatever other category we use becomes merely grist for the liberal/conservative dichotomy. [...]

[...] Whether the notions of "liberal" or "conservative" themselves are, in content, stable and definite concepts or not is another–and not unimportant–matter. An economic liberal of the nineteenth century is a conservative economist today, but the ideas are roughly the same. The liberals of one age notoriously become the conservatives of the next. But without some criterion of judgment both notions may indicate mere change, not either decline or improvement.

Most social coercion today seems to come from those called liberal/left, not from those called conservatives, who are pretty "liberal" by comparison to self-designated "liberals." But then social coercion has always been a trademark of the left, which is overly anxious to improve things in this world, as, in their view, there is no other world or no other way to accomplish any improvement. So we find a certain impatience and restlessness in their agenda. The spiritual origins of totalitarianism are often found in a certain impatience at the slowness of the world to become what the ideologies tell us it ought to become.

Take another set of oft-heard words–"radical" or "revolutionary," for instance. Or take "dogmatic" or "reactionary." The first thing we need to notice is that each of these words has something fluid about it. What was once considered to be "liberal" can come to be called "reactionary." How so? Take, for instance, the Muslim practice of having four wives. In context, this precept should rather be stated, "having only four wives." It was a "conservative" standard. For this limit was originally conceived as a restriction–four, not ten or twenty. Who is more "liberal," the man with four wives or the one with ten? In this context, the really "radical" or "revolutionary" man is the one with only one wife. He is the one defying the culture. Yet, in a society of widespread divorce and infidelity, having only one wife is "conservative," if not down right primitive or reactionary, except for the fact that primitives never seem to have evolved the one wife theory. That came from Christianity, though it was in the logic of marriage itself.

That is to say, if most every one maintains that abortion, divorce, homosexuality, and so on are all right, it is a truly brave and "radical" view to think that they are not and to have reasons why they are not. After so much argument or controversy, we have to decide where we stand. If we think that the proper way to act is what was handed down to us, we are not "normal" citizens of this culture for whom the Decalogue can be changed, even by a pope, so they think. We go against such a view by holding that there are truths in every time. We are "liberal" or "radical" or even "revolutionary" over against the ingrained habits and established laws of our time, which do not reflect abiding standards.

There is, in the end, something beyond liberal and conservative. That is the truth of things according to which we have a criterion that is not constantly changing between liberal and conservative and, in the meantime, one that means nothing but what we want it to mean. Thus if we claim we are "neither liberal nor conservative," we announce that there are criteria that exist outside of our narrow way of thinking, categories that better define for us what we are and ought to be.

Sometimes you will realize that some of your ways and ideas of doing things are not much better than your competitor when your competitor is the first one to be given the opportunity to do things by his ways and ideas.

Competition becomes a negative thing when competitors aim their strengths and talents to destroy each other. When people work together for selfish ends, cooperation turns into a negative thing. But when competitors get their strengths challenged and their talents enhanced and come out accomplished in the end, competition yields its true spirit. And when people collaborate using their individual strengths for the common good, so desirable cooperation is.

Would it be possible for people to compete in order to cooperate? Competitive cooperation, or cooperative competition?