Liberals, meanwhile, imagine society as headed towards utopia. Since crime is on the decline, police are more likely to cause trouble trying to assert their authority than they are to protect people. Because we have more than we need, it is more important that jobs are safe and fulfilling than productive. And because we have everything we need, we can focus our energy on more distant and longer-term concerns: the environment, eradicating inequality, etc. Liberals are oriented not towards Surviving but Thriving.
With the caveat that this is of course a spectrum rather than a dichotomy and that many people are inconsistent, acting sometimes in one way and sometimes in another, I think Alexander does a good job of describing some conservatives and some liberals, but his thought experiment has some problems as well. One of the biggest is that he omits a particular kind of conservative from his framework, the kind I’d call the neoclassicist.
Some conservatives, thinking that civilized society is hanging by thread, do not react by acting as though civilization is already crumbling and becoming either a military state or acting like roving bands of zombie-hunters, but by acting as civilized as they possibly can. Think of C. S. Lewis’s The Last Battle, where the protagonists insist on acting honourable despite the approaching apocalypse, or G. K. Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday, where the protagonists fight anarchists by not being anarchists. In order to keep civilization from crumbling, these conservatives double-down on tradition, on etiquette, on the arts, on philosophy and science and other intellectual pursuits. In Battlestar Galactica, Commander Adama suggests that the fleet must do more than survive; they must also act such that they deserve to survive. So Survival is important to these conservatives, but they can only Survive by Thriving. Anything else isn’t Survival.
But they still wind up being very conservative. Because civilization depends on being super-civilized, they won’t tolerate many breaches of etiquette. Moreover, they can be very hostile towards different value systems. Civilization, after all, relies on everyone being civilized, so you cannot tolerate your neighbour’s polyamorous relationship or your daughter’s anarchist politics. Conformity is as necessary in this view as in Alexander’s conservative view, but Alexander’s Survivalists will allow certain standards to slip in order to react to the apocalypse which the neo-classicists won’t tolerate, since those slippages would result in the apocalypse. And changes or experiments in culture are potentially dangerous things, since they might turn out to destabilize the whole foundation of that culture; it’s not only art that is held to fairly conservative standards, but also social forms. If you allow same-sex marriage, the very idea of marriage would change, letting polygamy, incest, bestiality, and pedophilia in the door. Examples of neo-classicists include C. S. Lewis, G. K. Chesterton (as I implied above), Edmund Burke, the contemporary conservatives who tend to quote those people (see many of the writers for First Things and the American Conservative), and of course Alexander Pope and the other 17th-century neoclassicists I’m naming the whole group after.
(17th-century neoclassicists, roughly speaking, adhered to the following six principles: 1) Reason and judgement are the most admirable human faculties. 2) Decorum is paramount. 3) The best way to learn the rules is to study the classical authors. 4) Communities have an obligation to establish and preserve social order, balance, and correctness. 5) Invention is good in moderation. 6) Satire is a useful corrective for unreasonable action, poor judgement, and breaches of decorum.)
And, by the same token, I think Alexander describes certain liberals quite well, but I wouldn’t consider my own position well-described by his spectrum. Even if society is headed toward utopia, we clearly aren’t there right now. Acting as though we live in a utopia is a fantastic way to prevent a utopia from happening. So I would notice that some liberals might act like we’ve already arrived at utopia, but a more considered liberalism works towards making that utopia happen. The first sort of liberal is, ironically, less inclined to change than the second, because if you think you’ve achieved utopia, why bother changing anything? However, if utopia is possible but not yet attained, you have to work hard to get there: it’s from this more considered liberalism that we get anti-racist activists and ardent environmentalists and so forth.
Possible glossary, bearing in mind that this does not describe all of the political landscape by any stretch:
Survivalist: a kind of conservative who, believing that civilization is hanging by a thread, acts as though the apocalypse has happened or has started. Think right-wing US gun nuts or al-Qaeda.
Neoclassicist: a kind of conservative who, believing that civilization is hanging by a thread, acts as civilized as possible. Think Edmund Burke, C. S. Lewis, or Eve Tushnet.
Thriver: a kind of liberal who, believing that society is headed towards utopia, acts as though society is already a utopia and therefore sees little point in challenging the status quo. Think… Hollywood celebrities, mostly?
Radical: a kind of leftist who, believing that society is headed towards dystopia, acts to prevent dystopia by tearing out the parts of civilization pushing it that way. Think Marxists, Christian anarchists, or David Suzuki.
Caveat 1: This is all just a reaction to Slate Star Codex’s framing. I’m not sure how useful it will wind up being, and I don’t expect to think of people or movements primarily in terms of the glossary I’ve offered. This is no more than an offering, no more than one way of colour-coding the thoughtscape.
Caveat 2: I have not read enough of Slate Star Codex to know whether Scott Alexander has already addressed the conservatives I’m calling the neoclassicists. From my skimming, he does an excellent job showing some things that are terribly wrong with what I’m calling the survivalist viewpoint, but I don’t see much about the differences between neoclassicism and survivalism.
(Thanks to Leah Libresco for linking to Scott Alexander's post in one of her own and thus drawing it to my attention.)