and Aunt Lisa? Well, she's somewhere in between.
Jonathan has thoughts about the nature of the difference between liberal people and conservative people.* He says that conservatives will always take economic growth if it harms no one, while liberals might not want such growth if it led to more inequality.
Another way to look at the difference, hardly new but nonetheless on my mind lately, is in terms of agency. Put crudely, conservatives tend to believe that where a person ends up in life is principally a result of his or her choices, while liberals tend to believe that it is principally a result of his or her circumstances.
Put succinctly, according to liberals we are products of our environment, while according to conservatives we produce our environment.
For example, this past weekend my grandmother lamented that President Bush's policy in Iraq had killed many of our finest young men. In a separate conversation, my grandfather talked about how the Iraq war displayed for one of the first times in history a professional army - in other words, one in which all of the the soldiers have aspired to be there.
A conservative might counter my grandmother by saying that President Bush did not kill these men, but that they chose to enlist in the army fully knowing that they might die. The conservative might go farther by saying my grandmother dishonors the memory of these men by denying that they chose to lay down their lives - calling them victims rather than heroes.
A liberal might counter my grandfather by saying that the choice anyone makes to enlist in the armed forces is constrained by his or her circumstances. In particular, those of lower socioeconomic standing have far fewer alternatives to the military available to them. To many, the possibility of being killed in Iraq may still be lower risk than the next best alternative. Calling what these people face a "choice" may be misleading - sure, the liberal might say, they made the best with what they had to work with, but what they had to work with was not much to begin with.
Another issue in which this narrative plays out is human trafficking. If you are not familiar with the issue you can read this little introduction I wrote at the end of last year. It's basically another word for slavery, or at least that's what advocates say.
Where a lot of controversy comes in is what you actually consider forced labor, and here is where liberal and conservative voices say different things.
Are prostitutes victims of trafficking? Most conservatives would say that in most cases, they're not. The discussion is once again in the language of choice. As one conservative viewpoint puts it, "...women are, in fact, capable of deciding for themselves what they do with their bodies and their time." Far from slaves, they say, prostitutes are prostitutes because they choose to be prostitutes. What's more, conservatives would argue that saying all prostitutes are victims unable to change their situation and thus needing rescue is arrogant, culturally imperialistic, and even dehumanizing.
Liberals would again point to constraints on choice beyond the women's control. Says this handbook, prostitutes "...use their agency every day simply to survive. But their agency is severely limited by the conditions and context of their lives..." Liberals also point to common histories of abuse and the young age at which many enter prostitution as evidence that circumstances are largely deterministic in these women's lives.
Naturally, these different viewpoints give rise to drastically different opinions on how best to address the problem, if you even acknowledge that there is a problem. For one, statistics like the ones thrown out in my article vary widely depending on what you consider trafficking, and policy discussion is heavily influenced by such statistics.
Within policy discussion, conservatives accuse liberals of trying to give an old problem (prostitution) a new name (trafficking) to push through legislation that they would not be able to if they used the old name.
As for the old problem, conservatives might note that prostitution is called "the world's oldest profession" for a reason. It may be lamentable or even deplorable, but it must be called the problem of human nature that it is. They would emphasize that attempts to work against it must be realistic, and branding it something that it is not is counterproductive.
Liberals would say that the age of a problem is a poor excuse for not addressing it. If human trafficking is a new name (the term originated around the 1990's), working against it is no less urgent. They would return to what they view as the root problem: the constraint of prostitutes' choice by circumstances beyond their control, almost the definition of slavery. Liberals would say conservative ideas of choice and prostitution vanish in the face of the experience of actual prostitutes. If prostitution were understood for what it is, they say, it would be possible to work significantly against it and help millions of oppressed women and children.
Such debate is by no means limited to discussions of prostitution. Very similar discussion surrounds other issues within trafficking, most prominently migrant labor. People in poor families often leave home for work elsewhere. This work often requires illegally crossing borders and often takes place in deplorable conditions. Are these people trafficked, even slaves? See above for the gist of the debate.
So there you have it. A great deal of the difference between liberals and conservatives can often be understood in terms of how much control people have in what they do.
Even so, such differences need not keep us from loving one another. After all, my grandparents have been happily married for 53 years. The rest of us should be able to get along.
*One thing I really dislike about the terms "liberal" and "conservative" as nouns is that, particularly in the case of the former, they are often used to dehumanize. It's easier to belittle your opponents (and their arguments) if you overlook their humanity, but there are fairer and more productive ways to have discourse.