The epithet conservative or liberal is used to describe political and economic views and affiliations. The meaning of "conservative" or "liberal" could be different in different contexts - social, economic and political. They also differ in usage in different countries and over time.
edit Social Issues
In terms of views on social issues, conservatives oppose gay marriage, abortion and embryonic stem cell research. Liberals, on the other hand, are generally supportive of the right of gay people to get married and women's right to choose to have an abortion, as ruled by the U.S. Supreme Court in Roe v Wade.
With regard to the right to bear arms, conservatives support this right as it applies to all US citizens, whereas liberals oppose civilian gun ownership - or at the very least, demand that restrictions be places such as background checks on people who want to buy guns, requiring guns to be registered etc.
edit Economic Issues
Economic conservatives believe that the private sector can provide most services more efficiently than the government can. They also believe that government regulation is bad for businesses, usually has unintended consequences and should be minimal. So they favor a small government that collects lower taxes and spends less. Liberals believe that many citizens rely on government services for healthcare, unemployment insurance, health and safety regulations and so on. So liberals favor a government that taxes more and spends more to provide more services to citizens. Some good examples of this policy split are the Environmental Protection Agency (liberals think it's vital and some conservatives want to abolish it or scale down its role), and the Medicare and Medicaid programs: liberals want to expand the program and conservatives believe the government should provide vouchers so citizens can buy insurance privately.
In the early part of the twentieth century, liberals - especially those in Britain - were those who stood for laissez fair capitalism. In more recent times, however, the nomenclature seems to have reversed.
edit Political views
Political liberals believe that parties motivated by self-interest are willing to behave in ways that are harmful to society unless government is prepared- and empowered to constrain them. They believe regulation is necessitated when individuals-, corporations-, and industries demonstrate a willingness to pursue financial gain at an intolerable cost to society--and grow too powerful to be constrained by other social institutions. Liberals believe in systematic protections against hazardous workplaces, unsafe consumer products, and environmental pollution. They remain wary of the corruption- and historic abuses--particularly the oppression of political minorities--that have taken place in the absence of oversight for state- and local authorities. Liberals value educators and put their trust in science. They believe the public welfare is promoted by cultivating a widely-tolerant and -permissive society.
Political conservatives believe commercial regulation does more harm than good--unnecessarily usurping political freedoms, potentially stifling transformative innovations, and typically leading to further regulatory interference. They endorse the contraction of governmental involvement in non-commercial aspects of society as well, calling upon the private sector to assume their activities. Conservatives call for the devolution of powers to the states, and believe locally-tailored solutions are more appropriate to local circumstances. They promulgate individual responsibility, and believe a strong society is made up of citizens who can stand on their own. Conservatives value the armed forces and place their emphasis on faith. Conservatives believe in the importance of stability, and promote law and order to protect the status quo.
Liberals believe in universal access to health care--they believe personal health should be in no way dependent upon one's financial resources, and support government intervention to sever that link. Political conservatives prefer no government sponsorship of health care; they prefer all industries to be private, favour deregulation of commerce, and advocate a reduced role for government in all aspects of society--they believe government should be in no way involved in one's healthcare purchasing decisions.
edit Psychological traits
Jonathan Haidt, a University of Virginia psychology professor, has examined the values of liberals and conservatives through paired moral attributes: harm/care, fairnesss/reciprocity, ingroup/loyalty, authority/respect, purity/sanctity. He outlines the psychological differences in the following TED talk:
Haidt has also written a book, The Righteous Mind, based on his studies conducted over several years on liberal and conservative subjects. Nicholas Kristof, an avowed liberal, offered an unbiased review of the book and cited some interesting findings such as:
- Morality for conservatives includes three attributes that are not as highly-valued by liberals: loyalty, respect for authority, and sanctity.
- Research suggests that conservatives are particularly attuned to threats, with a greater startle reflex in response to loud noises. Conservatives also secrete more skin moisture when they see disgusting images, such as a person eating worms--liberals respond less emphatically.
- Liberals prefer dogs who are empathetic, not subservient; conservatives seek dogs who are loyal and obedient.
Liberals should not be confused with libertarians. Libertarians believe that the role of the government should be extremely limited, especially in the economic sphere. They believe that governments are prone to corruption and inefficiencies and that the private sector in a free market can achieve better outcomes than government bureaucracies, because they make better decisions on resource allocation. Liberals, on the other hand, favor more government involvement because they believe there are several areas where the private sector -- especially if left unregulated -- needs checks and balances to ensure consumer protection.
The primary focus of libertarians is the maximization of liberty for all citizens, regardless of race, class, or socio-economic position.