At its absolute core, the difference between conservatives and liberals seems to boil down to one thing: liberals believe that society can be fixed by grand architecture, while conservatives believe it can only be fixed by individual action.
Call it the difference between “top-down” and “bottom-up.”
Liberals believe that it is the government’s responsibility to put in place laws and institutions to coerce citizens to act in a certain way. Government can provide a framework to influence human behavior to benefit us all. A better society can be realized through community.
Conservatives believe that the only way to influence society in the aggregate is for individual people to take better actions that will organically combine to incrementally form a better society. Societal improvement is based on the foundation of the individual.
As would be expected, each side disagrees with the other:
Liberals believe that the conservative view is flawed because there are situations where no single person has any incentive to change – indeed, it is to their advantage to continue acting selfishly – so they have to be artificially incentivized via external legal and social structures.
Conservatives believe that humans are flawed by nature and will resist coercion. Inequalities will exist because humans have naturally differing levels of skill, ambition, and tenacity and should be rewarded as such. Attempts to architect results removes incentives and reduces ambition and achievement which makes society worse over time.
In A Conflict of Visions: Ideological Origins of Political Struggles, Thomas Sowell discusses the “constrained and unconstrained views.” He says, in part:
Visions rest ultimately on some sense of the nature of man—not simply his existing practices but his ultimate potential and ultimate limitations. Those who see the potentialities of human nature as extending far beyond what is currently manifested have a social vision quite different from those who see human beings as tragically limited creatures whose selfish and dangerous impulses can be contained only by social contrivances which themselves produce unhappy side effects.
Sowell argues that attempts of government to equalize the playing field just make the situation worse because natural human self-centeredness will cause the penalized group to resist and rebel. Citizens will resist social architecture.
In How Now Shall We Live?, Chuck Colson talks of the liberal trend towards utopianism, which is the quest for a more perfect society through human intellect without regard to basic human character.
Scientific utopianism…expands government control while gradually sapping citizens of moral responsibility, economic initiative, and personal prudence.
In Colson’s view, expansion of government causes dependence and encourages humans to look outside themselves for solutions to problems, when the ultimate solution is based in human character.
Related to this, Dennis Prager says, in this video from Prager University, that:
Conservatives believe that the way to improve society is almost always through the moral improvement of the individual. [...Liberals] on the other hand, believe that the way to a better society is almost always through doing battle with society’s moral failings.
There’s clearly a common theme: in the conservative’s view, society can only be fixed from the bottom up.
The liberal response to this aggregate point might be found in The Tragedy of the Commons, a 1968 essay (which has since become a generic economic theory) that says there are situations where no one person is incentivized to act unselfishly, and thus all will continue to act in their own self-interest toward mutual destruction.
The example from the essay is a group herdsmen keeping animals with access to a common pasture.
As a rational being, each herdsman seeks to maximise his gain. Explicitly or implicitly, he asks, “What is the utility to me of adding one more animal to my herd?”
Each herdsman gains from adding one animal, but the common pasture can only support so many animals. So while there is an individual gain, there is a common loss because the pasture will eventually be unable to support all the animals:
Adding together the component partial utilities, the rational herdsman concludes that the only sensible course for him to pursue is to add another anomal to his herd. And another; and another....But this is the conclusion reached by each and every rational herdsman sharing a commons. Therein is the tragedy. Each man is locked into a system tha compels him to increase his herd without limit–in a world that is limited.
In the liberal view, citizens are locked in an arms race with each other. If we act unselfishly to the betterment of others, we have no guarantee they will do the same. Thus, the world is full of selfish actors heading toward mutual destruction and it therefore needs external regulation and architecture to ensure we act in a way that prevents negative side effects.
To a liberal, government regulation is often the only way to force citizens to acknowledge that particular individual efforts are having a negative effect on society as a whole, and force collective change for everyone’s long-term benefit.
This is also represented by the economic principle of an externality:
[...] the cost or benefit that affects a party who did not choose to incur that cost or benefit. Economists often urge governments to adopt policies that “internalize” an externality, so that costs and benefits will affect mainly parties who choose to incur them.
Left unchecked, humans unfairly inflict externalities on others. Actions have side effects that negatively affect others, and this can only be curtailed by regulation and legal or social coercion.
So, at its core, the difference between Right and Left appears to come down to how one interprets human nature and the ensuing direction from which we approach our problems:
Bottom Up: Do we trust that human self-interest and the improvement of the individual’s moral compass will have a better impact on the world than attempts at social architecture?
Top Down: Do we attempt to manage human co-existence by guiding it from a communal perspective where the rights of the individual must sometimes give way to the rights of the community?
The answer to that question seems to be the heart of political conflict, especially in the United States.