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Conservatives vs Progressives

July 21, 2011

Over the years my interest in politics and the desire to understand the differences between political parties has grown steadily. The first direct encounter in my life of anything political would coincide with those of other children of same age at the time. At the end of the primary school years the students are encouraged to take a three day excursion to the Australian capital and begin to learn more about the way the government functions. At the time little information sunk into my brain. A red room here and a green room there, was the take away from the experience. The same trip promised us snow, which metaphorically blanketed everything and made it dull in comparison.

In a round-about way my interest in politics began of those taking place on foreign soil. The land of the free and the home of the brave as its own citizens like to proclaim; I am of course referring to the USA. In part it was due to the dominance and power the country exerted on the world. That cliché line that goes, when America sneezes Australia catches a cold, is very true in many respects. The other reason can be said to be of necessity; the heated and passionate topics of conversation I was reading online were entwined and enveloped with US politics. The topics may have been global i.e. stem-cells, but it became clear from the posts, the subjects were inseparable from politics. To understand the attitude and the policies that are directing something like stem-cells it’s important to understand who supports/opposes the issue and why they do so.

The aim of my post is to construct a simple representation as I see it, which outlines the key differences between conservatives and progressives and how they differ on various issues. However I will stress that the takeaway from my post is that people cannot be classed as simple cookie-cutter caricatures that are placed on one side or the other.

Different historic periods and different countries have defined the two terms in alternate ways. I will concentrate on the current period in time and how the terms are used in Australia and the US.

The definition I have adopted for conservatives, sees the maintenance of traditional institutions and supports, at the most, minimal and gradual change in society. Encouraging or enforcing what is considered as traditional values or behaviours that may be rooted in historic or religious forms. On economic matters someone who favors free-market policies such as free trade and opposes business regulations.

A progressive would be defined as someone who advocated changes or reform through governmental action in relation to social issues. They would be of a conviction that governments must play a role in solving social problems and establishing fairness in economic matters. Regulations and government influence on various aspects of the economy is regarded as a means of achieving a fairer society.

Having said that, the two broad themes will be explored in more detail:

1. Economics and market influence

What role if any does a government play in controlling the economy, the influence on businesses and regulations impacting individuals? Conservatives favour laissez-faire, free market, which means as little government intervention as possible. That is why taxes in general are detested more by conservatives. People and businesses are a better means of determining how their earned money should be spent, the argument follows. While a progressive would say that higher taxes ensure more programs e.g. maternity leave payments, subsidized health services for the poor etc are provided. Taken as a whole progressives favour government intervention and tend to favour more regulations which they argue guarantees a fairer playing field for all. Progressives for example are more in favour of unions, which are seen as a way to give individual employees more say in what conditions they will be working in. Conservatives dislike unions in general due to, in their minds, the detriment they have on the freedom of trading & profitability of the business.

A recent example that prompted the debate over government intervention occurred in the US in the middle of the global financial crisis. As companies and banks were failing left right and centre, the US government came up with bail-out packages in the range of hundreds of Billions of dollars to buy up the debt of some of those failing companies and prevent then from going belly up. Free-market proponents were enraged as they saw those actions as a clear violation of market forces. If the companies cannot survive by themselves then they shouldn’t exist, something else will spring-up to take its place, was the prevailing belief among anti-government interventionists. The opposing view was for the government to take some form of action to ensure that a ripple effect will not occur around the world as so many large institutions have already disappeared overnight.

Finally another major example of the difference between progressive and conservative opinion can further be extracted from the above example. How should a government react when the economy is experiencing problems? As the financial crisis spread, the US as well as the Australian unemployment rose, the ability to borrow money became more difficult as institutions such as banks were avoiding risky customers, consumer confidence dropped and people were spending less. Less spending meant businesses had a drop in sales and had to let-go of more of their staff, and so the cycle increased. The response of the US and Australian government was to stimulate the economy. Kevin Rudd at the time announced all sorts of programs ranging from new school projects, free insulation, as well as a shiny $900 cheque in the mail, in order that people continue to be employed and spend their money breaking the unemployment cycle. Similarly the Obama government responded with a number of stimulus packages and projects to avert an explosion in jobless claims. The prevailing view in most modern governments is that some form of response from the government is required for smoothing the business cycles and fluctuations in the market. Conservatives are in favour of less intervention and smaller or no stimulus packages. Rather the belief is that the governments meddling with the markets in the first place is what caused the problems. If the government didn’t attempt to place so many restrictions on the economy then the market will work it self out and come to an equilibrium. Giving people tax-cuts as a way to have more money to spend is one of the favoured responses by conservatives.

2. Role of the individual and government

How much social influence should a government exert on the lives of its citizens? Another way of rephrasing it, is how much personal freedom is given to individuals. The question encompasses many points of contention among people and as you will see is not straight forward. Some of the hot issues currently debated in Australia are banning labelling on cigarette, same-sex marriage, religious head-coverings, legalization of some narcotics and euthanasia to name a few. An American specific issue that has shown to draw battlelines between supporters and opponents is mandatory healthcare. Opponents of  Obama administration reform of the healthcare laws in the US argue that it’s wrong to force someone to purchase insurance, stating that healthy people shouldn’t have to take-on the burden of people who choose to chain-smoke etc, while advocates say that by everyone sharing the risk healthcare is farer and cheaper. Healthcare is a huge topic in it self and I may talk about it separately in the future.

Progressives favour more social programs and believe that the government should be actively involved in providing for groups of people with certain needs who are disadvantaged, or have fallen on harder times. Unemployment payments, parental leave, public housing, medical payment, study assistance are a few programs that traditionally are more favoured by progressives. The belief is that the government should ensure that its citizens receive a care and support that allows people to escape the disadvantages they face. Conservatives tend to favour minimal funding from the government and rather see private institutions such as Red Cross, Salvation Army as a solution to the low-income populations. The underlying thinking is that people should be responsible for their own lot in life and that one has to endure hard work, diligence, and suffering to meet certain goals in life. Dependence on the government breeds laziness and discourages people from taking personal responsibility.

Finally there are a number of social issues that I have touched on earlier in my writing that divides the opinions of progressives and social conservatives and has even garnered the label ‘culture war’ in American public. Topics such as same-sex marriage, abortion rights, stem-cell research, drug legalization, euthanasia have a propensity to receive backing from progressives and are abhorred by conservatives. But why is there such a chasm of opinions on these topics?

Wide majority of people want to live in a better society and would want their countries laws and values to parallel their own. It’s dishonest to claim that one group or the other is willingly trying to destroy the country. Conservatives can be said to be traditionalists, as the name implies, they values tradition. That can mean religious or just long standing cultural. A conservative sees the preservation of values, customs and moral standards in the public as an imperative and thus should be defended by laws.  Progressives tend to put less emphasis on tradition and overall hold more liberal views of religious practises. Their support and motivation in changing some cultural practices and laws is for equality or empowerment of the individuals. Take same-sex marriage as a major issue currently bubbling-up in Australia as well as already becoming legal in some US states. Social conservatives see the practise as breaking away from traditional morality and social mores. The construct of a nuclear family that has long dominated the Western tradition is seen as the standard for which the society should model it self on. While progressives would respond that our society is fluid and develops over time resulting in the shift of opinions while the definition of what is acceptable or forbidden is not ridged. Thus the argument follows that marriage is a social construct and can be redefined to reflect the change in society as required. In both cases there is a call from the government to either uphold traditional values or for it to relax the current laws to permit the practises.

It is interesting to note that the so called culture-war issues reverse the levels of government involvement. The stronger involvement of the government to provide social programs supported by progressives and an end to the dependence on the state espouses by conservatives gets flipped around when it comes to the issues mentioned above. Progressives want the government to remove/slacken the laws allowing wider freedom for the individuals without interference while conservatives want the governments to take an active stance and uphold the laws or enact laws that advance traditional values and conservative morals. Interestingly conservatism correlates with tougher laws and longer sentences for wrong-doing. Each camp interprets that statistic as either being too easy on criminals, or being overly authoritarian.


Both progressives and conservatives believe in equality. However their definition of what equality is and how it’s achieved differs and is visible in their economic and social policies.

Progressives argue for substantive equality while conservatives prefer formal equality. Advocates of formal equality see each person the same and want laws to be across the board for all individuals. While proponents of substantive equality argue that not every individual is the same and so government policy should be aimed to create substantial rather than just formal equality. Affirmative action that gives certain minorities preferential benefits is an example of substantive equality. Granting a preferential school scholarship for an Aboriginal over a Caucasian student is one example of substantive equality that a progressive would say allows Aboriginal students who historically have been disadvantaged, to receive education that would help bridge the inequality in the society as a whole. A conservative would argue that its reverse-racism and that the society should strive to treat people equality with equal rules for all.

A side note, equality depends on the values that a person subscribes to. As mentioned above a religious conservative who objects to same-sex marriage bases their beliefs on a code of morality that prohibits certain actions that are divinely given and thus the whole topic becomes a question of what is right or wrong as opposed to equal or not.

Taxes and what constitute fairness and equality is another contested issue. Overall as mentioned above conservatives prefer minimal taxation; however some advocate a flat-tax that is identical across the board, from the very poor to the very rich. Progressives prefer a tax system that taxes progressively more as the income increases, and see higher taxes on the wealthy as a means to bring equality for all the people.

Labor vs Liberal

Having defined what constitutes a conservative and what constitutes a progressive, how does it fit into the Australian political scene? My personal view is that there is little difference in both the Labor Party and the Liberal Party, as they stand now. Both parties support many social programs such as Medicare, maternity leave etc while taking an active role in controlling the oscillations in the economy & supporting business interests. Finally both parties as a whole, share similar opinions on hot-button issues such as same-sex marriage, abortion, euthanasia etc.

There are some issues that shift the public in voting for one party over the other; a resent example is Work-choices that brought down John Howard. Overall the close alignment of the parties with a mixed bag of conservative and progressive policies places both in a centric, moderate position. Liberal senators tend to be more conservative than Labor and thus are more favoured by conservatives.

A side note; ‘liberal’ is used interchangeably with progressives in US politics. However the term ‘classical liberalism’ which is the name adopted for the Liberal party, and dated to the 19th century stood for individual liberty, limited government and unrestricted markets,  which are all now considered conservative positions.



After discussing the divergence of philosophies between conservatives and progressives I believe it’s important to remind the reader that the real world is complex and majority of people have a smorgasbord of opinions and beliefs that don’t all align to one definition. Labels and prejudices distract us from understanding and learning how people’s ideas develop and where they are coming from, when they advocate a position differing from your own. I would suggest the use of the label only as a shorthand definition.

Perhaps some beliefs are so fundamental and ingrained in people that there will never be a full understanding of each other. The best that people of diverging convictions can achieve is to learn more about each others and seek common ground.

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