One of the favorite quotes of conservatives comes from none other than the great statesman Winston Churchill, who said “a young person who isn’t a liberal has no heart, and an old person who isn’t a conservative has no brain.” This quote has become an interesting but perhaps underexamined truism. Perhaps Churchill was dead wrong about this.
First of all, for Churchill to declare such a dichotomy at all is suspect. It implies that liberalism is all heart and conservatism is all brain. Wouldn’t one think both heart and brain are necessary to weigh ethical issues and the public policies that might support them? But Churchill’s quote is even more problematic than this – because even if one accepts his dichotomy, it should be turned on its head. It is the young who are smart, and the old who have heart.
When you are young, being a conservative is easy. A young person is invulnerable. Their life stretches out before them interminably. If they are knocked down, they get right up. They don’t usually suffer infirmities. If their luck is bad, their luck will change. If they are weak, they will get stronger. There is time, and a world to conquer. Nothing bad can happen to them. If life is a laissez-faire, Ayn Randian, Hobbesian jungle – good! They will fight; they will win.
When you start to get old, your outlook usually changes. An older person is more likely to have realized that there may not be that big win. An older person may not get up as quickly when they’re knocked down. An older person may know how hard it is to get insurance coverage when they’re sick, or a job when their skills are outdated. An older person realizes that bad things can happen to you even if you work hard, and have the vision and integrity that a competitive society is supposed to reward. An older person knows the world isn’t always fair, and that maybe they’ll need help someday, in spite of everything they ever did.
It is time, pain and scars that puts empathy into the hearts of older people. It is time that takes away the arrogance that a young person might carry. It isn’t the brain that grows when people get old, it’s their hearts. The empathy and caring that comes from the heart – the last defense against bitterness and hopelessness – the heart.
Churchill was wrong on this quote, clever though it sounds. It takes heart and mind together to turn beliefs into policy. It takes the bleeding heart liberal working with the rigidly analytical conservative to take the challenges we face inside and outside America, and come up with solutions that will ease the ills of our time, and win hearts and minds, and build prosperity and freedom and peace.