In spite of these seemingly conflicting views, liberals and conservatives agree on certain points. No one wants government to waste money. Where they differ is on what they define as wasteful spending. No one embraces socialism as the goal of government. Where they differ is in how much government should provide. Everyone wants to pay less for health care. Where they differ is on how to achieve that objective. No one wants government over intrusion in their lives. Where they differ is on what each defines as intrusion and what are essential rules and regulations. Everyone believes there should be opportunity. Where they differ is on how it should be provided and by whom. Everyone wants accountability, but differ on what that entails.
Each perspective is labeled conservative or liberal, but those monikers have a political connotation that ignores the real basis for these very different viewpoints. The conservative perspective is based on a more ego-centric view of society. The conservative views themselves as responsible for their own well being, for taking care of themselves, for providing for themselves and thus object to government interference in that process, taxing them to give to other people or telling them what to do. Many liberals feel those who support conservatives are often supporting a position contrary to their own interests. However, what they fail to understand is their comfort with the ego-centric perspective of conservatives. The liberal perspective is based on a more socio-centric viewpoint. Liberals see themselves as part of society, as dependent on society to provide the critical opportunities for success and achievement. Progressives understand people must work and be productive to provide for themselves. However, they see their ability to be successful as critically dependent on whether society provides them and others the opportunity for that success and achievement.
The conflicts arise when people attempt to understand problems or offer solutions to them from this limited perspective of society. Government is costly and big. However, does that automatically make it wasteful and "too big"? Government has written more laws, rules and regulations that limit our freedom to do as we please. However, does that mean most of these rules, laws and regulations are unnecessary or overly intrusive? Government does provide direct support to some in society (elderly and poor) from the taxes they collect from others. Does that mean the only purpose of this support is to rob from the rich and those who work to pay for those who don't?
Limited perspectives provide limited solutions to problems. Those with a more ego-centric view for example support competition as the mechanism for solving problems or reducing costs. Is education not working? Just increase the competition in schools by support of voucher programs. Is government too costly? Just subcontract out government services and functions. Is money needed for a "public function or institution"? The solution is to increase user fees to pay for the increased costs (tuition, libraries, public transportation, etc). Those with a more socio-centric view favor higher taxes and greater regulation as the mechanism for solving problems. Everyone should have health care so let's increase taxes to pay for it. Everyone should have access to a College education so let's raise taxes to pay for it. The greed on Wall Street can be addressed by passing new laws and regulations that will stop the abuses. We need to improve roads, schools, public transportation so let's increase property taxes to pay for them. This doesn't mean any of these solutions are necessarily incorrect or poor answers to the problems. What it indicates is a limited perspective produces a limited range of solutions to social problems or issues. More important, limited perspectives can make it impossible to understand other solutions except from that limited vantage point.
What is most disconcerting is the polarization created by this rhetoric. This results in attaching unwarranted and denigrating labels of those with opposing views. Thus, liberals are variously described by conservatives as socialists or communists, bleeding hearts or supportive of tax and spend policies. They are people who have never met a government program they didn't like and just want to tell others what to do. Liberals are typically described as godless. Meanwhile, conservatives are variously described by liberals as rednecks, selfish and uncaring. They are people who are only interested in the rich and wealthy. They are racists, bigots or fascists depending on their position towards various issues of race, specific groups or foreign affairs. They use religion to justify their positions. This social conflict prevents people from understanding the optimal solution instead of the solution that just "feels right" to them. The hate and anger this process generates closes off discussion and any real understanding of the problems and issues we face as a society.
Conservatives suggest we need less government and more personal responsibility and that is absolutely true. Greater personal responsibility is one of two factors that could reduce our cost of government. The other is increased efficiency and effectiveness of government. If parents would take on greater responsibility for the success and social indoctrination of their children it would help. The lack of civility; respect for others; setting of goals; delaying rewards; community involvement; and honor and honesty are certainly areas where individuals need to embrace greater responsibility. That would improve society and decrease the need for government to address the consequences that arise when people are less responsible, more selfish and greedy. Unfortunately, telling people they need to be more responsible and getting them to be more responsible are not the same.
Liberals suggest we need more government to deal with the abuses and excesses of irresponsible individuals in society and that is absolutely true. Trust is a critical aspect of living in society. Members of society must have confidence and trust in others in our society. Members of our complex and inter-dependent society cannot function effectively if they have to worry about how untrustworthy or dishonest all the Bernie Madoff's in our society are. It is government that ensures that safety, security and trust we depend on to function effectively through its creation and enforcement of rules, laws and regulations that limit the damage and abuse caused by others in it. The more Bernie Madoff's there are, the greater the cost of government to address the problems they produce by damaging our trust and confidence in others. Imagine the consequences if everyone pulled all their resources out of the stock market tomorrow because they had no confidence in any of the people who managed their money and you gain some appreciation for the importance trust has in our society. Unfortunately, it is counterproductive to write rules, laws and regulations that attempt to eliminate or reduce all risk of abuse or that attempt to make an imperfect society perfect.
An important difference exists in these personal perspectives with regard to how opportunity is viewed and this creates one of the greatest sources of conflict between them. Ego-centric individuals see opportunity as something inherently present because of the existence of society. They see success is a result of taking advantage of opportunities that basically exist because society is here. In a society with only a loose collection of individuals who provide nearly everything for themselves, that view is fairly accurate. However, in the highly inter-dependent and inter-connected society that exists today, that is really an over simplification of social opportunity. Socio-centric individuals see opportunity as something created though investments by society (education, transportation, public libraries and energy, communication grids, judicial, public safety, etc.). Consequently, socio-centric individuals want to ensure everyone has an equal opportunity and access by investing more tax resources to ensure that outcome.
These differences in viewpoint necessarily produce differences in how these polar opposites view taxes and their purpose. The ego-centric individual sees taxes as something that takes away their resources and thus should be kept to the absolute minimum. The ego-centric view is that taxes take from the wealthiest (they do) to give to the poor so they don't have to work (which is not really true). It is interesting to note the vast majority of the resources for the two largest social programs in the US (social security and Medicare/Medicaid) do not come primarily from the wealthiest taxpayers, but from specific taxes on the lower wage earners in the US.
Socio-centric individuals see taxes as a means to use the accumulating wealth within society to make investments that increase the opportunities for others in society. The socio-centric view is that taxes help to facilitate greater opportunities for more people. No one in society (poor or otherwise) can eat; drink or cloth themselves with the opportunities society provides. Thus, providing opportunities is not socialism, but rather social investment for the purpose of facilitating individual success. Opportunities allow people in society a greater chance to use their talents in ways that generate greater resources for them and greater benefits to society if they are willing to work and take advantage of those opportunities. The more opportunities there are in society, the greater the chance for success and the greater the overall increase in social wealth. However, this assumes the resources used to provide greater opportunities are not squandered, or expensive opportunities are not provided that have little social impact.
Anyone who doubts the benefits of this greater inter-dependence, inter-connected and complex society has only to compare the array of opportunities that are available to people in today's world versus what was available 100-200 years ago. That inter-dependence has allowed our specialization, improved our comfort and expanded our lifespan. However, it automatically reduces our independence and ability to do everything for ourselves. Society is really a mixed bag with some ego-centric and some socio-centric needs. The biggest mistake is a failure to recognize the relevance of both these views in addressing the problems we face. No single viewpoint can provide all the answers and a limited perspective produces limited and not necessarily the optimal solutions we seek as a society.