Three Ways Conservatives Are Smarter Than Liberals

MSNBC host Chris Hayes says he appreciates parts of conservative thought. Here are three lessons liberals can learn from the right.

Over the weekend, liberal MSNBC host Chris Hayes revealed he’d been asked to sit on a panel at CPAC, an annual gathering of the nation’s most-known and most-committed conservatives. He ultimately declined the invitation—which may have been accidentally extended in any case—but offered his audience some reasons why he was tempted to accept the invitation.

Long story short: Conservatives actually have some good ideas. Here’s Hayes describing them.

Maybe because I’m a squish, or, in the immortal words of Abbie Hoffman, a liberal who won’t take his own side in the argument, I always want to find the important, redeemable, salvageable aspects of conservatism–a salutary caution about radical change, a skepticism of bureaucratic dysfunction and the perils of central planning, reverence for institutions.

This resonated with me. Between my writing for The Philly Post, and a separate weekly column I co-write for Scripps Howard News Service, I get a reasonable amount of negative mail from conservatives each week. One accusation I’ve received repeatedly is that I “hate Republicans”—and so any argument I offer can be discounted, since I clearly have a bias.

I do have a bias—I’m liberal—but I don’t hate Republicans or conservatives. (Though I can get plenty cranky at them at times.) Like Hayes, I think there are some areas where conservatives might actually be smarter than liberals.

• They’re often better at recognizing the law of unintended consequences: Simply put, the attempt to fix a problem can sometimes end up creating new, unanticipated problems that also need solving. You can, for example, make the case that the federal government’s decision to seriously start fighting wildfires in the last century actually ended up making wildfires … worse. In Boulder, Colo.,  attempts to rein in that city’s runaway growth have driven housing prices skyward—ruining some of the grassroots charm activists there were trying to preserve.

Conservatives aren’t perfect at applying this principle—see the invasion of Iraq—and sometimes it becomes their excuse to do nothing, but liberals would probably benefit from applying this insight a little more consistently.

• They’re often better at recognizing that big bureaucracies can become oppressive: Anybody who has dealt with L&I or the city’s revenue department in Philadelphia can probably offer an amen here, as can anybody who has tried to clean up a trashed city-owned lot. It’s why conservatives are against “big government” instead of better government—they believe, not without reason, that bigger government can create problems and badly affect individuals just because of the insidious ways bureaucracies tend to try to claim more power without offering ore accountability.

• They have an idea and stick to it: Recognizing there are several varieties of conservatism in this country, what most profess to have in common is a belief in the Founders, the Constitution, and limited government. (Again, they have a blind spot here when it comes to national security.) I don’t know that liberals can offer up such a pithy vision of their core beliefs—I remember, after the 2004 election, one notable lefty writer soliciting input into just such a project and failing, more or less. Lots of committee meetings would be probably be needed.

At the end of the day, though, I am a liberal—and Hayes spotlights part of the reason why:

But then sometimes, I kind of feel like conservatism and the Republican Party it largely controls is just the name we give for a variety of interests ruthlessly devoted to hierarchy and exclusion: keeping those people, whoever they might be, out.

I’m a liberal because, at the end of the day, liberals have tended to be on the side of liberty more consistently than our conservative counterparts, at least over the last century.

The conservative strengths I mentioned above also, taken to extreme, have rendered folks on the right blind and unable to react well when it came time to expand the rights of women, and then blacks, and now gays. In some cases, that blindness was seemingly willful. In other cases, conservatives woke up after 20 or 40 years and managed to fit those changes into their paradigm. I hope that continues to be true. But I also don’t wish to wait around on them.