The words progressive and conservative have at least three distinct meanings: their generic definitions, the political ideologies to which the words correspond, and the lifestyles they imply. These are all logically independent of one another.
Politically, progressivism and conservatism refer to contrasting ideologies. In this context, the differences between them are rooted in questions about the role of the state. In the US, many progressives think that the government should provide welfare for its citizens, while conservatives think that private charities perform that function more effectively. Conversely, conservatives tend to favor the presence of US military overseas, while progressives take a more non-interventionist view. An American progressive may want the government to abolish its War on Drugs but implement a Green New Deal, while a conservative may seek the opposite. Progressives often favor minimum wage laws and rent controls, while many conservatives favor tariffs on international trade.
Part of the confusion hinges on the fact that the generic meanings of progressive and conservative have nothing to do with the political ideologies to which the labels correspond. When people first learn about politics, they often assume that progressives are the good guys. Who, after all, could possibly be against progress? Similarly, who would want to be a conservative, stuck in the past? But do progressive political ideas actually drive progress? Do conservative ones keep us stuck in the past? Not necessarily. The labels progressivism and conservatism are arbitrary, mere verbal shells. It is their content that matters.
If the generic meaning of these labels really coincided with their respective political ideologies, we should all become progressives. Then, assuming that we could take the reigns of government, our society would progress, by definition. But the truth is that it doesn’t matter how we label our ideas. They either help us to solve problems, or they don’t.
Take the issue of governmental regulation of the economy. With the interesting exception of Big Tech, conservatives tend to advocate no or little government oversight of the market economy, while progressives typically want government to regulate the food and pharmaceutical industries, among others. In practice, government regulations burden companies with rules by which they must abide, or face penalties. This creates additional costs and raises the barrier to entry for entrepreneurs. Launching and sustaining a business is difficult enough, and government restrictions render it much more so. The big players will almost always be able to afford the cost of new government regulations, but small companies cannot (this is why it is precisely the top companies who often clamor for government oversight). The increased barrier to entry means that fewer new companies, and, therefore, fewer new ideas, will be created. Therefore, government regulation impedes market innovation and preserves the status quo—quite the opposite of progress in the generic sense. Meanwhile, the politically conservative position of market deregulation promotes competition and innovation, as when Uber transformed the transportation industry, or when smartphones entered the communication industry. The creative disruption of the free market, often advocated by conservatives, is antithetical to conserving the status quo.
Some positions of progressives and conservatives do correspond to the labels’ generic meanings, but this is merely incidental. For example, progressives took the literally progressive position on gay marriage before it was the law of the land. Similarly, when American conservatives argue that their right to bear arms is protected by the Constitution, they are making a literally conservative argument—that their rights are enshrined in a sanctified, national document.
Conservatives sometimes say that they wish to conserve liberalism in its classical sense. But to the extent that the freedoms entailed by a classical liberal government have been eroded, they do not really wish to conserve them, but to revive them. And if a nation had never enjoyed the freedoms that conservatives demand that their governments respect, they would be calling for the creation of said freedoms. In short, conservatives often make a marketing mistake by confusing the generic meaning of their label with its political content.
In addition, one can also live like a stereotypical progressive and accept conservative political ideology, and vice versa. It is perfectly plausible to be a pot-smoking, tattoo-wearing hippie whilst advocating for small government, conservative principles. Maj Toure, founder of Black Guns Matter, by no means appears like a stereotypical conservative, and yet he tours the country, teaching people about their Second Amendment rights. Conversely, one can live a traditional lifestyle and simultaneously call for progressive, or even socialist, policies. The Christian labor movement, an explicitly socialist endeavor, published the first Christian socialist magazine in America in the late 1800s.
I’m a progressive because I’m for progress is an empty statement—nearly everyone thinks that they’re for progress. The real question is: do the ideas and actions that you advocate solve problems or exacerbate them? Similarly, I’m a conservative because I wish to conserve the ideas of the founding documents of the United States only makes sense if you already agree with said ideas and if you’re actually conserving them, rather than reviving them. The implementation of progressive and conservative political agendas does not necessarily cause progress or conservation, respectively. To determine the effect of any political action, one must understand economics and how government intervention affects people and their efforts to solve problems.
The label of an ideology, theory or belief system is irrelevant to its truth content. At best, a label is a shorthand indicator of content. At worst, it is a Trojan horse, containing a horde of mind viruses that spread by confusing the label’s generic meaning and the actual ideology behind it. This applies to any idea, government policy or theory. Consider the United States Patriot Act of 2001. Is someone who opposes this legislation unpatriotic? Does a critic of Black Lives Matter necessarily devalue the lives of black Americans? Critics of these ideas must overcome the common confusion between their labels’ generic meaning and the actionable content behind them. One strategy is to ignore labels altogether. Do not assume that progressive ideas necessarily imply progress, nor that conservative ideas conserve anything. Scrutinize the content of the ideas, and decide for yourself whether they survive rational criticism. Labels are nothing; content is king.