Defending the indefensible: conservatives have no heart, liberals have no brain

“Defending the indefensible” is a series of posts where I write arguments for viewpoints that normally make me angry. Instead of “devil’s advocacy” style arguments, I wanted to give the most honest argument I could for the other side. Partly because I want to do my part to have some viewpoint tolerance and maybe encourage you to do so, too. Partly because I accidentally found that trying to write these actually makes me less angry towards these viewpoints, and I enjoy being less angry.

Previous posts in the series: against development, against government action on climate change

Anyway, I’ll get back to doing more straightforward ones soon, but this one is slightly different, because I’m not going to defend the claim as written. Here’s a post about what can be salvaged from “if you’re not a liberal before your 30th birthday, you have no heart. If you’re not a conservative after, you’ve got no brain”. I agree with it

We were talking about the aphorism in the title with Boris, and so writing against/in favour of it came up. This is often said with some age bracket (“If you’re not a liberal before x… if you’re not a conservative after x …” Man, the x’th birthday must be a dramatic time). Most often, it’s said by right wing people over age x in the tone of “you’ll understand that being right wing is actually smart when you’re older”. The people who say it may be implying that while it’s commendable to be left wing in youth, it passes with age. Let’s take a look at what that means! Here’s an example: time series of support for gay marriage by age group (this example might be not representative in some ways, but it’s also the easiest one to find the information on, so I’m going to use it). So what’s happened here? One possibility is that younger people changed their minds on the issue more quickly, whereas older ones changed more slowly. Another possibility is that very few people changed their minds, they just changed age brackets, and the oldest people who died were most against gay marriage whereas the people who came of age are most for. As Pew Research notes, in fact it’s a combination of the two mechanisms. You can tease out the information of which is more important from the data given, but we will not do so here. This is because either one is a good argument against the “you’ll grow up and see that my right wing ideas are correct” viewpoint. If the mechanism is “your positions will remain the same but their labels will change” then it’s not a very good argument against your positions. If instead the mechanism is “older people are slower at changing their minds”, then “being slower at changing one’s mind” is equated to “having a brain” and well then that’s just completely wrong.

I am in general greatly annoyed by arguments about that presuppose that conservatives, whether on economics or foreign policy or the environment, are the only “the adults in the room”. I am not going to write a defence of them, because I don’t think it’s an argument that’s ever made in good faith. It’s an attempt to poison the well — rather than discuss specific policy, you imply guilt by association. Are there stupid left-wing proposals pertaining to economics, or foreign policy or the environment? Of course! But that doesn’t mean that there aren’t serious people making smart proposals as well. I could very easily find a bunch of poorly thought out conservative ideas on any of those topics, which doesn’t in itself mean that conservative ideas on them are worthless. Right wing ideas are often more cruel, of course, and some people see “adultness” in being cruel (“making the hard choice”), but that’s backwards. Being cruel to others is a childish thing that we hope to grow out of with age. There is nothing commendable about “making the hard choice” when it’s other people that have to bear the suffering.

However, surprisingly, I do think there is something to be said for this aphorism if it’s separated from age and right and left wing politics. Don’t think of “conservative” and “liberal” as right wing opposed to left wing, but think of it as incrementalist opposed to radical, and I believe something very close to this. If you look at the world and say “well, things are pretty good, change isn’t needed” — then you need more compassion. However, if you take from that a conclusion like “break everything and rebuild it from the beginning to comport with my viewpoint” then you probably haven’t thought it through. In the words of this Erik Olin Wright essay on capitalism and anti-capitalism, (which I think is brilliant and has guided a lot of my thinking on politics), for example, if you don’t see the problems with capitalism, you have no heart, but if your solution is to “smash capitalism”, you have no brain.

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