It's certainly the case, as Armando and many others have pointed out, that liberals and conservatives see the legislative enforcement of values as having different scopes -- conservatives tend to want laws enforcing personal, private morality, while liberals want laws enforcing public, institutional morality. But I believe this is merely a symptom of an even deeper philosophical divide concerning the ultimate purpose of legislation:
Conservatives see legislation as a direct expression of their values -- sort of like a state-enforced personal code of conduct. It doesn't matter what effect a law has, as long as it embodies some sort of moral principle. Liberals, on the other hand, see legislation as a tool for actually realizing their values -- they judge laws by their effectiveness and expected consequences.
This is why liberals and conservatives have such different views on issues like contraception and affirmative action:
- Conservatives see restricting contraception as an expression of public disapproval towards promiscuous sex, while liberals see it as a cause of unwanted pregnancies and venereal disease.
- Conservatives see affirmative action as an assertion that people of different races should be treated differently, while liberals look at the ultimate outcome of a leveler playing field and greater equality.
- Conservatives see gun control as a claim that gun ownership is somehow inherently evil, while liberals see it as a potential tool to lower the crime rate.
- Conservatives see income and capital gains taxes as an attack on the morality of earning money and investing it, while liberals see them as the means by which government can provide public services.
- Conservatives see privacy laws as a license for personal depravity, while liberals see them as a check on government intrusion.
- Conservatives could care less about environmental regulations, corporate accountability, fair labor practices, etc., because these concepts have no analog on the level of personal morality. If a law doesn't encapsulate some personal moral belief, it has no point.
That's why conservatives don't particularly care that red states have higher divorce and abortion rates, or that the economy tanks under Republican administrations, or that their policies are destroying the environment -- because they don't judge laws by what effects they have. Their sole criterion is whether a law communicates some aspect of their individual value system.