In my index Understanding American Politics I offer links to folks offering a number of ways of thinking about the difference between liberals and conservatives. I'd like to offer a little framework of my own.
Liberals and conservatives have different conceptions of what constitutes a good society.
For conservatives, a good society ensures that people who are moral and responsible prosper, while people who are immoral and irresponsible do not prosper, suffering consequences for their actions. Reward virtue; punish vice.
Further, conservatives generally take it that there is an obvious, natural, traditional form of society which produces this kind of good, if imperfectly. One might say that what conservatives seek to conserve is the good social order of their moral intuition.
For liberals, a good society provides for people's needs and allows personal freedom, and this depends upon equity. Liberal conceptions of personal freedom include both negative liberty (freedom from constraints) and positive liberty (resources which enable one to act). A good social order is one in which everyone is free and equal.
Further, liberals generally take it that there is no “natural” form of society; any social order is a deliberate artifice, created by people making choices about what values they want society to express.
To liberals, the conservative dream is wrong because its system of rewards and punishments is really the cultivation of inequality, and conservatives' naturalization of their vision of the correct social order is a rationalization of their preferences.
To conservatives, the liberal dream is wrong because its cultivation of supposed equality rewards vice and fails to recognize virtue, which makes liberals' attempts to engineer society doomed to result in catastrophe because they corrupt society's correct and natural form.
A conservative friend sharpened the point about “the obvious, natural, traditional form of society” in a discussion on Facebook:
Conservatives do understand the artifice of constructed civilization — we argue for Natural Law but not the State of Nature
Nicely put. To conservatives the correct social order is natural but not effortless — without devotion to the correct social order, conservatives believe we will devolve into barbarism.
In another context, I found myself saying this all again:
Crude as they are, I believe that the political terms left and right are not merely useful, not only meaningful, but reflect the most fundamental political question. Are people equal, or not?
A great many other questions depend upon this one, over which people will necessarily debate. What forms should society take, what norms and institutions? How best should we pursue that order? How shall we understand our current order? What precisely do we mean by “equality” in the first place? And so forth?
But that root question of equality admits no debate, if by debate we mean effort to persuade through reason. Jefferson calls equality “self-evident” because it is logically prior to the argument he is about to build in the Declaration. Equality itself he will not argue.
Because argument does not avail us. It is a deep moral question, deeper than persuasion. The answer other than one's own is unthinkable; to try to consider the alternative brings only increasing bafflement and disgust.
Are people equal, or not?
The left says yes, people are equal. The right says no, people are not equal.
In the United States, our political language calls for an affirmation of equality, and so conservatives obscure what conservatism means. Yes, people are equal, but choices must have consequences. Yes people are equal, but the heavy hand of government enforcing equality is tyranny. Yes people are equal, but the most “productive” people deserve the fruit or their efforts. Yes people are equal, but property rights are sacred, and some people happen to have more property. Yes people are equal, but we also value liberty, and must not trade liberty for equality. Yes people are equal, but the pursuit of equality leads to the horrors of communism.
Yes people are equal, but. So no, people are not equal, cannot be equal.
This is always there if you dig.