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Liberalism VS Conservatism: tendencies, not philosophies
Posted by: Jon Henke on Friday, May 26, 2006

Andrew Sullivan and Jonathan Chait have some of the best bite-size, genuine (i.e., non-caricatured, non-contrived) descriptions of liberal and conservative philosophy I've read.

Jonathan Chait, on Liberalism:
Liberals may favor expanded government in many cases, but that view is based entirely on the belief (correct or not) that it will produce certain practical benefits.
Andrew Sullivan, on Conservatism:
[C]onservatism is fundamentally rooted in skepticism about the human mind and its capacity to change society. So it's basically resistant to large-scale change, but, on the rare occasions that such change happens, is necessary and turns out okay, conservatives can live with it. Our skepticism is not absolute or ideological; it's temperamental. Our belief in markets, for example, is not based on some idea that markets produce the most wealth. It's based on the idea that markets devolve decision-making to the most personal, immediate level and so tend to minimize the risk of big, bad decisions, made by fallible, distant brains.
They are not so much coherent, descriptive philosophies as they are a collection of generalizations and tendencies.
Neither of their descriptions can explain the entire taxonomy of liberal or conservative policies, but that is precisely the political beauty of liberalism and conservatism qua political philosophy. They are not so much coherent, descriptive philosophies as they are a collection of generalizations and tendencies. That's why they work.

Philosophically coherent or politically useful. Pick one.

It's the same principle that results in "Generic Democrat" polling higher than "President Bush" during the '04 campaign, but actual Democrats losing to him. Political philosophies are more effective when they are only vague vessels that voters can fill with their own specific tendencies.
libertarians are waiting until they can hitch a ride directly to 101 Locke Street, Libertopia, USA.
Libertarianism, on the other hand, is, at its core, a specific moral philosophy and therefore much more specific and constrictive. Liberals and Conservatives are hitchiking "roughly that way". . .while libertarians are waiting until they can hitch a ride directly to 101 Locke Street, Libertopia, USA.

In any event, I wrote more last year on the original Chait column that inspired this exchange...

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"Liberals may favor expanded government in many cases, but that view is based entirely on the belief (correct or not) that it will produce certain practical benefits."

If Chait could show Liberals voluntarily shrank governmant when it failed, he’d begin to have a point. Example, the howlings cries from the left when Clinton "triangulated" on welfare reform. Where was the left’s approval?

"libertarians are waiting until they can hitch a ride directly to 101 Locke Street, Libertopia, USA."

That I’d agree with, as long as he only means capital L lebertarians.

There’s a quibble I can’t put my finger on concerning Sullivan’s statements.

Yours, TDP, ml, msl, & pfpp
 
Written By: Tom Perkins
URL: http://
When I read that liberalism is a moral philosophy and conservatism is resistant to change and has no trust in government I’m left with the feeling that today’s liberals are really conservative and today’s conservatives are really liberal.

I’m a conservative on abortion. I want less government intervention.
Jon is a liberal on the war. He believes that the government’s use of force will produce certain practical benefits. I’m a conservative on the right to die. Government should have no role in that. Jerry Falwell’s liberal moral philosophy doesn’t allow him to agree with me. Conservatives object to warrentless wire taps, government sanctioned torture, and the suspension of anyones rights. Liberals trust the government to be overall on the right side of things. To only use those powers as needed, to do overall good things.

I could go on. Perhaps the whole political debate is using terms coined for a different era. Maybe Liberal and Conservative have become meaninless terms.
 
Written By: cindyb
URL: http://
Well CindyB, as the posting says they are tendencies, but you also may confuse "political" and "philosphical" here, too. Draw a 4 cell grid, the top marked Philosphic Liberals, the Side marked Political Liberals. Philosphic Liberals probably adhere more closely to Locke, Smith, Mill, Hayek and the like and have focus on the individual. Philosphic Conservatives question Man’s rationality and place a greater emphasis on the "group" than the person.

I and Ted Kennedy are probably Philosphic Liberals, but he’s Politically Liberal and I’m listed Politically as Conservative. I’m beginning to see that Buchanan is more and more philosphically AND politically Conservative.

So when we say "Conservative" or "Liberal" we really need to distinguish which sort of Liberal or COnservative we’re talking about. It helps me see the differences in folks, by placing them in their boxes, so to speak.

 
Written By: Joe
URL: http://
Cindy is right, definitions do change over time. I liked Sullivan’s description of conservatism, but I didn’t like the description of liberalism as being so pragmatic. It is an axiom to me that anyone on the left is more idealistic than pragmatic. Conservatives are split about 50/50 on ideologues and pragmatists, while Libertarians have been in the past notoriously idealistic.
That is why I am comfortable with the term Neo-libertarian. I am more practical minded than most libertarians. But that is also somewhat conservative because like Sullivan’s definition, it is fundamentally conservative to be in favor of change only when it has been demonstrated to actually work better than the current situation.
 
Written By: kyle N
URL: http://impudent.blognation.us/blog
Let me also add, that it is probably more helpful to use the terms Left and Right.
 
Written By: kyle N
URL: http://impudent.blognation.us/blog
Joe wrote:
Philosphic Liberals probably adhere more closely to Locke, Smith, Mill, Hayek and the like and have focus on the individual. Philosphic Conservatives question Man’s rationality and place a greater emphasis on the "group" than the person.

I and Ted Kennedy are probably Philosphic Liberals, but he’s Politically Liberal and I’m listed Politically as Conservative. I’m beginning to see that Buchanan is more and more philosphically AND politically Conservative.
So Ted Kennedy, one of the slimiest politicians around today, "probably adheres more closely" to the views of traditional liberals like Hayek and Mill?

This is so absurd I’m hoping it’s an example of some very dry humor.
 
Written By: Manny Davis
URL: http://
No Manny, and being "Slimy" is akin to some folks use of "corrupt". It’s a nasty word, but doesn’t really address the issue. He can be slimy and STILL follow in the footsteps of Locke et al. in that his focus is on INDVIDUAL rights, albeit focussed on production, privacy and sexual orientation. I do not have to LIKE or respect Teddy Kennedy, but it does not change his fundamental orientation.
 
Written By: Joe
URL: http://
First, I have to register my usual gripe about the use of "liberal" in place of "democratic socialist". Check. Second, I have to say that if Sully thinks that most conservatives are fallibilists then my next question would be what colour the sky is in his world. In mine, most conservatives (like most lefties) are dogmatists who are quite fine with power when used for what they believe are virtuous reasons.

Third, libertarianism (in the broad sense) isn’t a moral philosophy. Rather than reinventing the wheel, I’ll direct you to this excellent essay by Will Wilkinson. You could, of course, be referring to some narrow sense of Libertarianism that basically includes only the kind of people who think J.S. Mill was a statist thug, but I don’t see why you’d want to do that.

Finally and most importantly, on my more optimistic days I think the barriers between those on the non-lunatic left and right are much exaggerated. In almost every serious political argument I’ve ever watched or been party to, the differences almost always boil down to differences in the assumed background of facts in each arguer’s brain rather than differences in moral intuition.
 
Written By: Matt McIntosh
URL: http://catallarchy.net/blog/
If Chait could show Liberals voluntarily shrank governmant when it failed, he’d begin to have a point.
Excellent point.
When I read that liberalism is a moral philosophy and conservatism is resistant to change and has no trust in government I’m left with the feeling that today’s liberals are really conservative and today’s conservatives are really liberal.

You could probably make a good case that liberalism springs from a moral philosophy, but I’d written that libertarianism is a moral philosophy. Classification is much more difficult today, I believe, because the categories really are blurring, people are accepting labels based on one or two hallmark positions ("you oppose abortion, therefore you must be a conservative", etc).

Plus, I tend to think there’s a distinct difference between "liberal" and "progressive". Once liberals got their programs in place, they would become conservatives. Progressives, on the other hand, would continue to press for social change. They are, essentially, the Trotskyists of the liberal movement. Permanent revolution and all that.
 
Written By: Jon Henke
URL: http://www.QandO.net
First, I have to register my usual gripe about the use of "liberal" in place of "democratic socialist".
Yeah, well, I’ve succumbed to the modern interpretation, at least for casual, public usage. I’d love to take back the word "liberal", but I’d love a lot of things. There’s no use fighting the tide on this.
Third, libertarianism (in the broad sense) isn’t a moral philosophy. [...] You could, of course, be referring to some narrow sense of Libertarianism that basically includes only the kind of people who think J.S. Mill was a statist thug, but I don’t see why you’d want to do that.
I’m well aware that libertarianism has political applications and that much thought has gone into the merits of those applications, but at it’s core, libertarianism is about the "non-initiation of force" maxim. That is a moral principle, with political implications rather than a political principle with moral implications.
Finally and most importantly, on my more optimistic days I think the barriers between those on the non-lunatic left and right are much exaggerated.
I do agree that there are probably compromises that could be broadly tolerable to the left, right and libertarians — excepting, of course, the most doctrinaire, beliigerent among all three groups — if (big if) they could be discussed in a non-political, non-antagonistic environment.

My own flat tax proposal — and our transparency, line item budgeting proposals — would be good examples of those. Objections to those proposals would likely come from the institutions affected, rather than voters.
 
Written By: Jon Henke
URL: http://www.QandO.net
Eh, I will continue my quixotic battle alone then!
...at it’s core, libertarianism is about the "non-initiation of force" maxim.
Then very few people are actually "libertarians"; certainly not either of us, and probably nobody this side of Ayn Rand. To use a personal illustration: I have a couple of friends who, if you made them take a quiz on their political positions, would come out looking basically indistinguishable from libertarians. But I have never seen either of them, not once, make an argument centered on the moral badness of coercion. (In fact they regularly bait libertarians using thought experiments where coercion is self-evidently the correct course of action.) But then what are they if they’re not libertarians? I have no problem if you want to use the word in this restricted sense, but then it behooves you to come up with a new label for people who are free-marketers on grounds of human welfare.
I do agree that there are probably compromises that could be broadly tolerable to the left, right and libertarians — excepting, of course, the most doctrinaire, beliigerent among all three groups — if (big if) they could be discussed in a non-political, non-antagonistic environment.
Yeah, but my point was meant to be a little broader than that. If you 1) can get people to forget about their political identities (big if is right) and 2) have the patience to tease out the background assumptions in people’s thinking, it’s remarkable just how much overlap there is in people’s moral intuitions. Conversations meeting both of these conditions are the only situations under which I’ve seen successful political "conversions". In fact, I think the kind of political labelling under discussion here is antithetical to that purpose (see #1).
 
Written By: Matt McIntosh
URL: http://catallarchy.net/blog/
Then very few people are actually "libertarians"; certainly not either of us, and probably nobody this side of Ayn Rand.
You think so? I think it’s much more widespread than that. To join the Libertarian Party, you must sign on to this statement:
I do not believe in or advocate the initiation of force as a means of achieving political or social goals.
(another, newer version of that page here) Most of the definitions I’ve seen for libertarianism rest on notions of "natural rights", which is a moral philosophy.

That said, there are absolutely a lot of people who call themselves "libertarians" without completely adopting that moral philosophy. And frankly, I DO wish there was another name for that group. Frankly, "liberal" would be best, because "libertarian" has been poisoned. But people—me included—like labels, so unless you have a better idea, I’m afraid we’re stuck with what we have.
 
Written By: Jon Henke
URL: http://www.QandO.net
Insofar as conservatives are against change, and abortion on demand is now legal, "abortion conservatives" don’t want to change this — but are called "liberal".

On an earlier post you talked about anti-Left folk. I think the better label is pro-Christian — I’d guess virtually all of the "Leftist" stuff your "anti-Left" folk are against are the anti-Christian things, including abortion, euthanasia, Ten Commandments, prayer in school, marriage only between different sexes.

Since America used to be a more Christian society, pro-Christians used to be more against change; now they are advocating more changes to go back. "Conservative" doesn’t capture this idea so well when it’s tied to against change. When it’s tied to some more static prior ideal, it does.

 
Written By: Tom Grey - Liberty Dad
URL: http://tomgrey.motime.com
Also, a huge number of L-libertarians are willing to initiate the use force to support "innovation" thru the force-based prohibition of sharing digital info — enforcing "intellectual monopoly rights" — monopoly, not property.

Real property has a zero-sum quality to it; land you own, I can’t. Digital info doesn’t. The benefit of innovation is said to justify the force. But seldom is the full cost of the force calculated in any methodical way.

I don’t believe innovation justifies the initiation of force against people who share.
 
Written By: Tom Grey - Liberty Dad
URL: http://tomgrey.motime.com
On an earlier post you talked about anti-Left folk. I think the better label is pro-Christian —
I think a better label for what you are describing is “Christianist”. Or if you don’t like that one, we could try “Dominionist”.
It’s gotta better ring to it that “pro-Christian”. Don’t ya’ think?

+++++++++++++++

Then very few people are actually "libertarians"; certainly not either of us, and probably nobody this side of Ayn Rand. To use a personal illustration: I have a couple of friends who, if you made them take a quiz on their political positions, would come out looking basically indistinguishable from libertarians.
Yeah, it’s hard to be a libertarian. ;)
Matt, I know what you mean. One of my favorite things to say is that I believe the majority of people are libertarians or at least have libertarian leanings. Because, well… you know, people basically want to be left alone.
The problem is always that everyone seems to have their own pet “there oughta’ be a law” peeve.

Including our gracious hosts Dale and McQ.
McQ believes that the government shouldn’t allow people of the same sex to be married.
Dale wants the government to force everyone here to learn English.

Clearly two ideas that don’t follow a libertarian philosophy. And they even use the word libertarian to describe themselves.

Labels are indeed a tricky thing. I like this idea to make up new ones. I guess I could be a NeoPseudoAnarchistCapitalistLibertarianLibertine.

Yeah that works.
Perhaps I should start a club. Anyone want to join?
 
Written By: PogueMahone
URL: http://
McQ believes that the government shouldn’t allow people of the same sex to be married.
In fact I’ve said I believe that marriage refers to one man and one woman and that I have no problem with civil unions for same sex marriages. I’ve also said it is an issue for the states, not the fed.

But hey, don’t let facts get in the way of a good rant, Pogue.
 
Written By: McQ
URL: http://www.qando.net/
Jon - Well, I don’t consider the LP or deontologist types in general to have a monopoly on the word "libertarian." That said, I don’t particularly like the word either and prefer to use "liberal." This does have the tactical benefit of having leftish people pay more patient attention to me than they might if I labelled myself differently.

Pogue - I wouldn’t delude myself into thinking that most people have "libertarian" leanings. What they have is a set of instincts that were designed for life in groups of 150 or less which do not scale well to the size of nations, and which can be leveraged in various directions depending on what sort of "folk theories" they have (implicitly or explicitly) about how the world works. I do think that given sufficient understanding of how the world works (economics in particular), people will be drawn toward some sort of classical liberalism or another — but most people, unfortunately, are very ignorant.
 
Written By: Matt McIntosh
URL: http://catallarchy.net/blog/
Liberals may favor expanded government in many cases, but that view is based entirely on the belief (correct or not) that it will produce certain practical benefits."

If Chait could show Liberals voluntarily shrank governmant when it failed, he’d begin to have a point.



These two points do not neccesarily follow each other. What if government has failed to accomplish a given goal, and yet there is no conclusive evidence that the end of said policy will not make the situation worse?
Second,
What if government policy has failed because it has been badly executed or badly designed, and yet government remains the only insitution capable of compelling the near-unanimous action neccesary to solve certain problems?

The first example is the real justification of neoconservatives’ continued interest in Iraq - the current policy has met some goals and is inarguably failing in others. Yet we stay because we’re not sure that leaving would improve the situation. It seems I’m the government-shrinking conservative and the necons would be the non-pragmatic liberals in this scenario.

Some obvious examples of the second situation include crime - we’ve failed to stop it, so why haven’t we gotten out of the business entirely? - and global warming.

—————————-
I agree with Pogue and some of the others above - there’s hardly any such thing as a true libertarian - you can convincingly argue that any real libertarian should be an anarchist. Don’t stop at just McQ and Dale Franks - look at Jon Henke arguging for government regulation to solve global warming!! This is libertarian-lite - essentially sugggestions that market mechanisms can be more often used in government policy - hell, that’s probably compatible with current liberal politics. A real libertarian would suggest that invdividuals would solve the problem on their own, period, or else de facto no one really wants to solve it and it shouldn’t be solved. As I understand pure libertarianism, there’s really no place for instititutional action at all.

Jon, I agree with you on global warming, BTW, being no libertarian myself. I intersect with libertarianism where it’s interested in complex incentive-based solutions to public problems - if you can still call it libertarianism at that point.
 
Written By: glasnost
URL: http://
Also, a huge number of L-libertarians are willing to initiate the use force to support "innovation" thru the force-based prohibition of sharing digital info — enforcing "intellectual monopoly rights" — monopoly, not property.

Real property has a zero-sum quality to it; land you own, I can’t. Digital info doesn’t. The benefit of innovation is said to justify the force. But seldom is the full cost of the force calculated in any methodical way.

I don’t believe innovation justifies the initiation of force against people who share.



Tom, I’m impressed by the simplicity and clarity of this statement. Quite honestly, it depresses me how most so-called christians I see are reflexively and unthinkingly pro-market in almost all circumstances. Most of the moral values expessed in Christian parables have a lot to do with sharing and very little to do with buying and selling.

As someone myself strongly believes that our current system of patents, trademarks and copyrights has jumped the shark and gone far beyond what its creators intended, I wholeheartedly agree with you.
 
Written By: glasnost
URL: http://
Jon - Well, I don’t consider the LP or deontologist types in general to have a monopoly on the word "libertarian."
Unfortunately, words are not objective reality; they do mean exactly what people think they mean — and people think "libertarian" means what the LP and libertarianisms most vocal advocates have been saying it means for a long time.
 
Written By: Jon Henke
URL: http://www.qando.net/
"What if government has failed to accomplish a given goal, and yet there is no conclusive evidence that the end of said policy will not make the situation worse?"

First rule of holes:

When you are in one, quit digging.

Yours, TDP, ml, msl, & pfpp
 
Written By: Tom Perkins
URL: http://
"Most of the moral values expessed in Christian parables have a lot to do with sharing and very little to do with buying and selling."

Which has nothing at all to do with what governemnt does, which is take and give at sword point.

Yours, TDP, ml, msl & pfpp
 
Written By: Tom Perkins
URL: http://

 
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