Occasionally, a bit of academic research comparing liberals and conservatives makes its way into the popular press, and when one considers the influence of liberal ideology on college campuses and in the news media, it is not surprising that those reports are likely to cast conservatives in an unappealing light.
Usually, the left's claims are easily refuted by evidence. The claim that liberals are more "open-minded" than conservatives falls apart when one considers campus speech codes, the Fairness Doctrine and other liberal efforts to silence speech that does not suit their fancy. And the antics of the Occupy Wall Street movement have gone a long way toward dispelling the popular myth that liberals are more intelligent than conservatives.
But the latest finding to make headlines in this line of psychological research is more enlightening. A recent study by researcher Scott Eidelman and his team found that, when "effortful thought" is somehow disrupted, people lean toward conservative viewpoints. They note that liberals will likely resist the implication that conservative ideas might be natural reactions, and conservatives will likely resist the idea that liberal ideas require more brainpower. But, these findings, in a way, shed light on the very strength of conservative ideas, just not in the way that the left will likely spin them.
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A common liberal claim about conservative solutions is that they are "simplistic," and, no doubt, that is the spin the left will put on this study. But there is a substantial difference between "simple" and "simplistic" ideas, and that difference is the key to understanding the power of conservative ideas compared with liberal ones. For instance, the Pythagorean Theorem is simple, but it is far from simplistic. It took thousands of years for human knowledge to develop sufficiently to discover this simple theorem, and we enjoy the practical benefits of its discovery on a daily basis without ever thinking about the theorem or what it took to discover it. The theorem is simple; its significance is not.
Simple ideas often have complex foundations, and that insight is one of the pillars of conservative thought. In fact, just as wisdom can be described as simple principles that have been distilled from complex experiences, conservatism can be described as conserving the wisdom and the hard lessons of preceding generations. Edmund Burke described conservatism, in essence, as predispositions toward certain customs and values that are based on the accumulated lessons of our forebears. That is why conservatives insist that students should not only learn about our founding documents, but that they should also learn the historical lessons that gave birth to them.
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But – and this is where Eidelman's study becomes relevant – it is not humanly possible to recount, or even to know, the underlying history behind many of the cultural predispositions on which our way of life rests, but still we can safely assume that certain simple principles have a world of experience behind them. We might not know the detailed history of oppression that gave us our bias toward freedom of speech, for example, but the conservative impulse is to change the channel if we do not like a commentator rather than trying to take that commentator off the air. "Live and let live" sounds simple, but there is a world of wisdom in that simple prescription, just as there is wisdom in not tearing down a wall if we do not know what the wall holds up.
Of course, conservatives know the highlights of the history that gave us separation of powers among three federal branches of government and between the federal and state governments, but we do not feel the need to relearn the lessons of history with every new political whim coming from the left. Instead, we capture those lessons in simple predispositions. Conservatives assume that government has no business taking over private health care or favoring certain businesses over others, no matter how sweet the intentions. We may not always take the time or effort to describe the path from socialist good intentions to economic hell, but we know that such a path exists because of the experience of previous generations who have travelled it.
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Liberals, however, seem to truly believe that their new ideas are really new and, even worse, than they can somehow outsmart the lessons of history. As America teeters on the edge of fiscal and political ruin, conservatives hear the limping footsteps of Kipling's gods of the copybook headings as they come to teach once again the simple lessons our founders knew.