Liberal Morality

By Bill Meulemans

Some basic differences between liberals and conservatives derive from their differing conceptions of morality – a difference that comes out clearly in a simulation game led by the author.

Simulation games can teach us a lot about politics and ourselves. Not long ago I organized a simulation game to be played with a group of men who were community leaders in a medium-sized American city. I had no idea that the game would reveal the basic differences that separate liberals and conservatives in meeting real-life problems. It clarified how each side sees a situation in which liberals want to lead in the people to a “better place” even when the people don’t want to go.

The game was designed to illustrate the problems of poor people who wanted to improve their ghetto-like neighborhood by pooling their resources, getting involved in community action projects, and generally providing hope – despite the depressing circumstances of hardcore poverty. Each player drew cards that decided their individual fate. The different cards had an immediate impact on their life chances – they lost their jobs, had their welfare payments cut, got evicted from their apartments, or flunked out of school. Included in the game was the enticing chance to engage in crime that might solve some of their personal problems, but would cause the neighborhood to be infested with illegal drugs, increased street crime, and more of the players being arrested and sent to jail.

As the game progressed, players began to see that the odds were stacked against improving the neighborhood, and individuals turned to anti-social behavior as a means of survival. The simulated society became a more dangerous place as crime rates rose and individual players lost control of their future. Frustration turned to anger as players were pitted against each other for the scarce resources. Community action projects were abandoned because it simply didn’t make sense to work together for long-term community improvement.  Folks felt increased isolation as the simulation degenerated into a crime- ridden situation that went steadily downhill.

There were eight people playing the game, but two of them stood out. First was the mayor (a Republican) who owned a successful local timber products company.  He was a solid conservative political leader who was the first to catch on to how to succeed while living in extreme poverty.  It wasn’t long before the mayor rose to become a crime boss by threatening low level criminals. At the end of the simulation he was skimming ten percent off of all the illegal drug sales. He bought off the police and generally adjusted very well to the severe circumstances. 

The second person of interest was the editor of the local newspaper (a Democrat) known as a “crusading liberal” in real life who supported local schools, defending civil liberties, and measures to increase cooperation between city and county governments. But the editor had a problem: he couldn’t bring himself to engage in criminal behavior. He continued to support community projects that failed miserably because other players would not support programs that didn’t help them in the short run. Everyone else in the simulation (the other six players) adjusted to a life of crime in the game despite the fact that all of them (in real life) were law-abiding, upstanding members of their real community. There was one physician, an attorney, and four owners of local businesses. None of them had ever considered engaging in crime.

After the simulation ended we had a debriefing session to discuss the dynamics of the game. Seven of the eight players (excluding the editor) spoke of how they had to change and adapt to new circumstances as their lives were impacted by “terrible conditions” in the ghetto.  The mayor was quite proud of himself as he spoke of how the situation “out on the street” evolved and he applied “pragmatic strategies” to survive.  The seven of them agreed that they learned something about how frustration could cause a person to break the law. But the editor of the newspaper was very quiet. He sat in a corner chain-smoking and was obviously frustrated by the simulation. Finally he spoke up and said he had taken a “moral stand” in the simulation to help everyone else even though no one would work with him. The editor said he couldn’t do the “wrong thing” even if it were only a game. It soon became clear that he personally couldn’t let go of his “crusading spirit” because he said, it would have been “immoral.”

The most intriguing part of the debriefing session was an unplanned, lengthy discussion about morality in politics, and how sometimes liberals wanted to lead the community to a “better place” even when some in the community didn’t want to go.  The editor confessed to being frustrated in his real life when individuals in his city voted against school levies and refused various reforms because it would raise taxes.   He confessed that liberals were probably doomed to frustration because “doing the right thing” is often unpopular. In his words, people on the left have a special burden because they feel empathetic and responsible for “everyone’s welfare.” The editor said he never really understood people who didn’t “feel a responsibility” for the entire community.

The mayor interrupted by saying, “I hope you don’t mean to suggest that conservatives don’t care. We do feel a clear obligation to help people, but we believe that they should be responsible for their own lives.”  He went on to say that he didn’t really see a great moral problem in the simulation because people need to be free to react to situations with pragmatic responses.  The mayor added that he never really felt personally “devoted” to real life projects that involved everyone, and he couldn’t understand why some people (like the editor) got so “hung up” on issues like improving city/country cooperation. The mayor laughed when he talked about the simulation, “I could see that being a ‘do-gooder’ wasn’t going to work so I did what I had to do.”

Since that day, I’ve thought a lot about how the conservative mayor and the liberal editor acted, and how an allegory such as that simulation can delve deeper into explaining how liberals and conservatives might see the morality of supporting programs that might be “good” for society, but unpopular with most of the voters.  Perhaps the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) is a prime example.  Liberals enthusiastically put together a program that enabled about 20 million Americans to gain health insurance through a program that conservatives strongly opposed. So what drove President Obama and the Democratic Party to launch a program that was so risky? Liberals were not set to profit from the program economically or even politically. They lost their congressional majority two years later in 2010 and never recovered during Obama’s term of office (2009-2017). Leaders on the left knew they were taking a huge political gamble by pushing through a program that proved to be unpopular.  So why did they do it?

And perhaps just as importantly, what motivated the Freedom Caucus of the Republican Party to fight Obamacare? They also were also driven also by a sense of morality. As a matter of principle, these conservative Republicans could not vote for a government program that took away the freedom of individuals to accept or reject a government-run health insurance program.  They objected strongly to the idea that “health care was a right.” They contended that just because health care was important – didn’t mean the government should make health insurance mandatory.  From their point of view, they stood firm on a political principle.  

Liberals were motivated by a sense of political morality in providing a program that they thought people “needed.” Progressives at all levels told stories about how people couldn’t afford medical care, and how many ordinary folks filed bankruptcies because they couldn’t pay their medical bills – the liberal sense of empathy went into overdrive. You may remember the dedicated look in Obama’s eyes as he defended Obamacare. He seemed to be motivated by something that he believed in, but something that brought him many sleepless nights. Obama, like the newspaper editor, was thinking about those who would benefit.

But Obamacare is just the tip of the iceberg. The morality issue comes up in nearly every social welfare/civil rights issue on the books. Think Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, food stamps, abortion, affirmative action, same-sex marriage, integration of schools, Head Start, and most anti-poverty programs.  The issue of morality comes into play on every program.

Liberals (like the newspaper editor) are committed to these kinds of programs because they believe in the original purpose even while they are criticized for waste, mismanagement, and questionable goals. People on the left often appear to be inflexible when they are not willing to abandon their original purpose. Conservatives, on the other hand, are more flexible (like the mayor) and are more pragmatic as they adjust to the reality of a situation.  The left is caught in the role of protecting humanistic goals, while the right enjoys the role of appearing to be more sensible and practical. Both stand by their moral principles. Maybe the editor was right – maybe empathy is a burden.

Morality is not something that can be proven; it’s an abstract concept in the individual’s conscience that motivates them to “do the right thing for the right reason.”  The liberal sense of empathy is difficult to explain, but it comes up every time people on the left talk about the folks that have been left behind. Morality for them is all about putting themselves in the shoes of those who have the least. Programs like these have only limited success, but liberals are willing to accept that situation because they have a different moral mission.

But conservatives have morals too. From their perspective it is “immoral” to undermine the human spirit by turning people into “wards of the state.” They argue that everyone has challenges in life like getting sick, losing their jobs, or not saving enough to retire, and that individuals will learn a more important lesson in life if they have to take personal responsibility for their own welfare.  The traditional point of view is that government does not make people better by giving them things they do not deserve. Conservatives focus on the waste of a poorly designed, expensive program that never should have been enacted. But people on the right usually save the word “morality” (in a positive sense) when discussing religious or ethical concepts, of serving as an example to children, or behaving in an honest way that strengthens the family, and the country. Conservatives are not just into cutting programs for their own self-interest. They believe that people have the potential to take care of themselves.

Neither the left nor right is inherently wrong, but they certainly have a different vision of morality. Most conservatives and liberals don’t understand each other. Folks on the right tend to get angry when they see a program they see as unnecessary or ill-conceived, while people on the left are dismayed when they hear critics say that everyone is on their own. Both are like ships in the night that pass each other in the dark without appreciating how and why other side applies a different set of moral standards to governing the nation.

Note:  Bill Meulemans is the author of a forthcoming book, Insidethe Left and Right: Why the Political Divide?