Is society fragile or resilient?: Conservatives and liberals disagree

Matt K. Lewis Senior Contributor
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There are a lot of differences between liberals and conservatives. At a simplistic level, we might say that liberals trust government more than conservatives (who tend to be skeptical of it). Or we might talk about conservatives favoring lower taxes and a strong national defense, etc.

Digging deeper, we might observe the tension between equality and liberty — or about how conservatives value tradition and evolutionary change, as opposed to “utopian” theories. But what we rarely discuss is the differing views of society — more specifically, whether or not society is fragile.

This is fundamental. If we view society as being held together tenuously, that worldview has consequences. We will be very careful not to upset the delicate balance — and we would surely want to test things before making any sort of radical change.

Conversely, the belief that society can take anything we throw at it — that it is strong and resilient — leads to radically different conclusions, including social engineering. (These differing worldviews help explain how two otherwise similar atheists might still come to dramatically different conclusions regarding public policy matters.)

In his new book, “America-Lite,” David Gelernter — professor of computer science at Yale and contributing editor at the Weekly Standard — addresses this point, arguing that progressives

have learned that one must always be careful, cautious, conservative in making any change to the natural environment. Even the smallest change, innocent and seemingly benign, can have bad consequences in the long run. So how can [progressives] be so tone-deaf to the human ecosystem, also known as “society”? Why doesn’t it occur to them that changes to this delicately balanced system must also never be reckless or blind?”

As Gelernter notes, it is perhaps ironic that one side of the philosophical divide is obsessed with preserving our physical, worldly ecosystem, while giving little thought to society — and the other side stresses preserving our cultural, spiritual, and societal landscape, while arguing that Mother Earth is very resilient.

Matt K. Lewis