What Divides “Liberals” And “Conservatives” Is The Central Question Of System Purpose

The framework I’m hanging my hat on, so to speak, is “systems’ thinking.” A systems’ thinking problem solving framework is neither Conservative, nor Liberal. It is scientific. What divides individuals who consider themselves “Conservatives” from those who consider themselves “Liberals,” more than anything, is how they answer the central question of how system purpose should be defined.

The United States itself can be seen as a system, and the general question, both Liberals and Conservatives need to answer, is, How can this system, known as America, be made to work? But, made to work at what? The first question to guide any system analysis is: What is the aim and purpose of the system? I gave my answer to the question, about aim, over a year ago, when I wrote: “How Can The System Known As The United States Be Made To Work To Provide “Liberty and Justice For All”?

My assertion that system aim should be “liberty and justice for all,” I imagine, might label me as “Liberal.” Someone who considers him or herself “Conservative” might define the aim of the system in other terms — maybe, instead of fulfilling the vision of “liberty and justice for all,” for example, rather, fulfilling the vision, as they understand that vision to be, of the founding fathers for individual liberty — as expressed in property rights or shown in freedom from governmental interference, etc.

Liberals and Conservatives simply have different views of what the purpose of the system should be.

A discussion, for example, on abolishing the progressive income tax system, conducted by Liberals, would center on whether or how or to what degree, such a change would add or subtract from the overall liberty and justice of individuals in the system. A discussion on whether tax rates on the rich should be increased would be based on the same criteria.

A Conservative might object and heap scorn on the notion that the founding fathers would have approved of “the power of the majority to steal from the minority.” But, the question as to whether the founding fathers would have approved of a progressive income tax is a useless distraction. It’s useless to argue about things that can’t be changed. And the 16th amendment is not going anywhere. So-called Conservative views often seem an expression of a wishful thought that the last 200 years of American history somehow never happened, and that the aim of the system should be the same as that of the founding fathers.

This is 2010, not 1810, and 18 yr. olds, and the unpropertied and women and blacks can vote, and, I believe, the proper way to frame the question that should determine our political discussion is: Can our system be made to work for the common person, be made to work for the common good? Can we make the system work to produce a government for the people?

The idea of a government by the people, for the people, is opposed to the reality of a government by special interests, for special interests. A government chosen via an authentic and robust democracy would be quite different from the government we have, one chosen via antidemocratic and corrupt processes.

There needs to be consensus about the purpose of the system, if there is ever to be any coherent dialogue as to how the system can be made to work. If the purpose of the system is not “liberty and justice for all,” then what should it be?

This entry was posted in M Bock. Bookmark the permalink.

17 Responses to What Divides “Liberals” And “Conservatives” Is The Central Question Of System Purpose

  1. Eric says:

    There needs to be consensus about the purpose of the system, if there is ever to be any coherent dialogue as to how the system can be made to work. If the purpose of the system is not “liberty and justice for all,” then what should it be?

    The libertarians are pretty big on, uh, liberty.

    They tend to be skeptical when folks who support anti-smoking laws and redistribution of wealth through taxes give lip service to “liberty and justice for all.”

  2. jesse says:


    What do you believe to be the definition of liberty? How about the definition of justice? What you continually argue for is the attainment of neither liberty or justice. You want increased government control…expressly not liberty. You want people to not have the wealth for which they work so that it may be given to others who did not work to create it…expressly not just.

    What you mean is “social justice”…for that I refer you to “Law, legislation, and liberty, Volume 2, The Mirage of Social Justice”, F.A. Hayek, Routledge, 1973.

    A small excerpt (just in case you don’t read the book): (social justice)…”does not belong in the category of error but of nonsense, like the term ‘a moral stone’.”

  3. Mike Bock says:

    Eric and Jesse — The key part of the pledge, “liberty and justice for all,” it seems to me, is the phrase, “for all.” To me, “for all” implies a social contract to which, when we say the pledge to the flag, we all agree. And so, since the emphasis is on “liberty for all,” and “justice for all,” then we need to think in terms of what is the definition of “liberty,” what is the definition of “justice,” that could possibly apply to every citizen, and, more to the point, should apply to every citizen.

    How these terms are defined really depends on how our system of representational democracy chooses to define them. One possible definition is that “liberty for all” means that every citizen will be free from government oppression. But one possible definition of “justice for all” might be that every citizen is guaranteed adequate health care, or every citizen is guaranteed three weeks of paid vacation, or whatever.

    How should we as a society define “justice,” how should we define “liberty”? –These are great questions to consider.

    Had we been hungry peasants in feudal Europe, and not allowed to hunt the bounty of game found in the forests of the nobles, obviously, we would have had a big complaint about our lack of liberty and justice. The nobles, of course, from their point of view, would have thought their liberty to their exclusive rights as just, and, as ordered by God.

    But eventually, the liberty of the nobles had to be trimmed so that average people could have greater liberty. The nobles who lost privelege, I’m sure, thought they were treated without justice.

    There has been an evolution, over time, as to how a democratic society should think about these important terms. The founding fathers thought it was just that only those with property should be allowed to vote. Now, our democracy defines voting as a right for every citizen and would see the denial of that right to vote as a denial of justice.

    But, here in the United States, this evolution of democracy seems stalled. The fact that ours is a very weak democracy is probably the best explanation as to why our society seems so far from fulfilling the vision we hold for it, of “liberty and justice for all.” Only a vital democracy could deliver on such a promise, and our democracy is far from being vital.

    Ultimately, a healthy and vital democracy should lead to a society where ordinary citizens have more rights, more freedom, more justice, more security. Yes, in a vital democracy, you lose your liberty to blow smoke in a public restaurant. But, because your liberty is curtailed, the atmosphere is healthier for everyone. You lose your liberty to keep all you earn and instead, you have a big chunk of your wealth confiscated so I can have my government guaranteed three week vacation. But, you still have plenty left and you have the privilege of living in an advanced, well ordered and peaceful society. And the wealth you accumulate, in fact, ultimately becomes much greater in a harmonious, cooperative society — as compared to the wealth you might have accumulated in a divided, competitive society.

    Can we envision an America in, say 2030? Continuing leaps in productivity will mean that we will have the capacity to produce untold wealth, more than enough for everyone, and, in fact, a bounty for the entire world. Can we have a system that will allow us to fulfill our potential? Every system must be built around an aim. The challenge for our political system is to produce the leadership that will help us to begin to cooperate and work together so that we can reach the aim that everyone will benefit, so the goal of “liberty and justice for all” will be fulfilled in new measures of bounty.

  4. Rick says:

    Mike, this post smacks of elitism. You state: “But, here in the United States, this evolution of democracy seems stalled. The fact that ours is a very weak democracy is probably the best explanation as to why our society seems so far from fulfilling the vision we hold for it, of “liberty and justice for all.” Only a vital democracy could deliver on such a promise, and our democracy is far from being vital.”

    I, for one, am glad that the “evolution” of democracy is stalled. I do not share your vision, which would necessarily result in the elite bureaucrats making decisions I don’t want them to make. (Such as how much of my wealth they will confiscate.

    If your vision were to come about, America would be far less materially abundant than it is now. Bureaucrats would be making decisions about all aspects of our lives. (Consider the proposed ban on sport fishing.) The rights of snail darters and other unimportant species will be superior to that of humans. Freedom of Speech for conservatives will be significantly reduced “for the greater good.” In short, I don’t want to live in a society built around your aims.

  5. Rick says:

    BTW, See Thomas Sowell’s A Conflict of Visions which points out how liberals and conservatives differ in their visions.

  6. jesse says:

    Words have definitions. Justice means impartiality before the law. Justice is done by removing the governmental coercion spoken of in feudal Europe. Justice is done by treating all people equally with regard to the protection of their fundamental, innate, negative rights. You can not be just and steal from the rightful owner. The rightful owner is then violated. I again ask (as I have asked in previous posts), why is slavery wrong?

    Who is to provide the healthcare? Doctors should do it for free? Is that justice for Doctors? We should all be stolen from based on the ability to pay and it should be distributed based on the need. Hmmm…that sounds like something I know. “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need.” Hmmm…I wish I could remember who said that before you, Mike. Can anyone help me?

  7. Stan Hirtle says:

    Justice means more than impartiality. Earthquakes are impartial. Which rights are innate (fundamental and negative too?) Kings thought they had innate rights, as did slaveowners. Why is slavery wrong? The slaveowner and the slave will have different views. Where do doctors provide healthcare for free, anywhere? Where aren’t doctors among the highest paid people? Maybe people involved in the finance industry and hedge fund owners and managers get paid more but they don’t contribute as much. Actually the “from each according to his abilities” quote is based on the Bible, Acts 11,29. One reality is that people live in communities in which they depend on each other. We are not individual independent units living off what we personally produce. This is true no matter how much social inequality and how much violence preserves the inequality.

  8. Eric says:

    Mike, would you use public schools to convey an ideology at odds with theCatechism of the Catholic Church? Or would you prefer public schools educate students about the differing views of Adam Smith, Rawls, and Hayek

    From wikipedia (“From each according to his ability, to each according to his need”):
    “In a higher phase of communist society, after the enslaving subordination of the individual to the division of labor, and therewith also the antithesis between mental and physical labor, has vanished; after labor has become not only a means of life but life’s prime want; after the productive forces have also increased with the all-around development of the individual, and all the springs of co-operative wealth flow more abundantly—only then can the narrow horizon of bourgeois right be crossed in its entirety and society inscribe on its banners: From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs!”

    The wikipedia article also quotes Acts in context.

  9. Eric says:

    Multiple choice: The author of the following quote is most likely to believe:

    1. School district borders between high and low socioeconomic communities should be removed
    2. All public school students should have an education which allows them to remove quacks, cowards, and crooks from elected office

    Quote: “Like every structure in society that confers benefits to individuals unequally based on race and class, we recognize that public education is part of a larger system with lifelong implications for both individual and group-based success. Our approach to education broadens the current understanding and dominant dialogue however that only those relegated to low achieving schools are harmed. We recognize through our work and scholarship that inequitable educational arrangements ultimately harm all members of society–socially, economically, psychologically and spiritually.”

  10. Eric says:

    I, for one, am glad that the “evolution” of democracy is stalled.

    Consider Ohio’s draft revisions to high school social studies:
    World History after 1750
    American History after 1877

    So kids learn the benefits of The Enlightenment and the shortcomings of the US in modern times. Would this train future voters to promote the further evolution of democracy?

  11. jesse says:


    “Justice means impartiality before the law.” In what universe is an earthquake a punishment of a legal framework? Do you think that nature can be “just”? Justice is only meaningful as it relates to mankind as a rational and purposeful being. Justice of a mountain lion, an earthquake or a plant, are all nonsense.

    The point of the line of questioning was that “health care” is produced. Meaning that costs exist. Meaning that doctor either provide their services for free or other people pay the cost. Forcing others to pay for you against their will is theft. Doing it with a gun or a “hanging chad” doesn’t change the act.

    Your thoughts about slavery being bad is “that slave owners and slaves have different views”…meaning that it is possible that slavery isn’t wrong? It is all relative? Different strokes for different folks?

    Did you actually read the verse that you quoted?

    “27During this time some prophets came down from Jerusalem to Antioch. 28One of them, named Agabus, stood up and through the Spirit predicted that a severe famine would spread over the entire Roman world. (This happened during the reign of Claudius.) 29The disciples, each according to his ability, decided to provide help for the brothers living in Judea. 30This they did, sending their gift to the elders by Barnabas and Saul.”

    This is not exactly the same thing as demanding that people provide their services at the point of a gun. This is people choosing to give based on division of labor.

    Also, do you not see any difference in choosing to join a group and having other people vote you into a group? Choosing to live in a communal society, where people are free to leave and being forced into a communal society against your will are drastically different.

    By the way, 2 Thessalonians 3:10 is a great one, if we are going to start quoting verses at one another.

  12. Stan Hirtle says:

    Justice has qualities other than impartiality. It is a term that is easier to use for its emotional content than to define, but impartiaity is only part of it.

    There is no position on providing health care where doctors provide their services for free, and no system where that happens. The health care debate is full of political hyperbole about government takeovers, socialism and the like so we can do without that.

    I definitely did read the Bible verse from Acts, which describes the early Christian communities, before they became part of the government and the religion of empire. Obviously they were doing it voluntarily, but thought it was a better way of life more intuned with what Christians are to do, than the alternatives. If they saw how we live today, they would probably prefer what they were doing. The point is though Marxists ran with the line, that it really originated with Acts. Whether any end justifies violent means is another question. They obviously weren’t going to say greed is good so get whatever you can, or whatever the people in Goldman Sachs and hedge funds think. 2 Thessalonians 3, 10 says those unwillling to work should not eat. In our society those willing to work are often unemployed, a larger problem. Most of us get more bent out of shape about welfare bums who won’t work than financial elites that rip us off and wreck the economt. Why is that?Of course quoting Bible verses as one liners is not always helpful. You can justify genocide, rape and slavery quoting scripture. In fact it is probably easier to defend slavery with the Bible than to oppose it. The question is why do we today think slavery was wrong? (although really not enough to eradicate its social legacy from our society). Many people in the time of slavery did not, and saw a way to profit from cheap labor, perhaps justified by racism or just social darwinism, or even the workings of an all powerful God. The idea that we have societies that people are free to leave is oversimplified. Ocassional people immigrate to other societies, but as we know they are not always welcome. Like it or not most people are in whatever society and increasing class, they are born into, and the exceptions are more likely to help us be in denial about the rule.

  13. Eric says:

    While we rehash ideas from the last few millennia, Dayton continues to be a dying city. Perhaps these discussions could have occurred in high school, to better prepare enfranchised citizens to meet their civic obligations?
    How’s this for a text: Must the Law Always Curtail Freedom?

  14. jesse says:


    Words have definitions.

    Justice, in a legal sense, which is what we are discussing when we talk about the Constitution and the government, is defined as:
    1 a : the quality of being just, impartial, or fair justice or injustice…of these laws —Scott v. Sanford, 60 U.S. 393 (1857)> b : the principle or ideal of just dealing; also : conformity to the principle or ideal of just dealing
    2 a : the administration of law justice>; especially : the establishment or determination of rights according to law or equity justice> b : fair, just, or impartial legal process justice —G. Railroad Winters>
    Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of Law, © 1996 Merriam-Webster, Inc.

    Not much room to misunderstand that.

    Again, I am not saying that it is free. I am, in fact, pointing out that it has a cost. It must be paid for by someone or a collection of someones. Demanding that I pay for it is immoral. I don’t want it.

    I argue against government coercion.

    Are you now saying that government should not impede immigration? Welcome to the correct side.

  15. Stan Hirtle says:

    The definition of justice you and I guess also Webster give is incredibly circular. That is actually not all that surprising. Justice is one of those “I know it when I see it” things that means it is different things to different people. Is capital punishment justice? Or is it, as practiced, injustice?
    Did I hear Jesse say that he does not want to be made to pay for justice? That is immoral and maybe even unjust?
    A common expression of how people live to gether in a society, instead as individual self contained lone wolves on the other side of some frontier, is that one person’s right to swing their fist ends where someone else’s nose begins. Seems reasonable enough. Can we make that happen without at least some potential of coercion? Probably not. While we certainly need to limit the ability of government to coerce, and make sure that whatever coercion that exists exists to serve the needs of the many and not the few in power. But romanticized libertarianism, like romanticized anarchy, is something that can not really happen.

  16. Jesse says:


    I was discussing healthcare when I was talking about costs. However, the same logic is easily applied to justice. I should be free to subscribe to the justice agency of my choice and should not be compelled to prop up a system that is inherently corrupt and skewed against me. This was true of Jews in Germany and African slaves in America. People should be free.

  17. Stan Hirtle says:

    Private competing justice systems. We have that of course with “binding arbitration” so sommon in employment, consumer and nursing home contracts, but they are dominated by the wealthy repeat players who expect favorable results and are therefor not justice systems in any real sense. I’m trying to picture how competing justice systems would work, say if you were writing a science fiction story about it.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *