Posted by: Jordan | April 14, 2009

Just who are these liberals and conservatives anyway?

This is a question that has been of great interest to me for a while. Both the terms “liberal” and “conservative” are quite often thrown around as pejoratives; The Liberal being portrayed as unprincipled and hedonistic, and The Conservative as intolerant and regressive. The caricature Liberal promotes gay marriage, redistributive taxation, secularization, multiculturalism, high rates of immigration, increased foreign aid, a small military, internationalization, government regulation of markets, and individualism. The caricature Conservative promotes traditional family values, deregulation of markets, restricted immigration, military power, primacy of state sovereignty, and low taxes.

It’s possible to see some of the problems with the caricatures already, namely that there are numerous internal contradictions within each of these sets of beliefs. Depending on context, our caricature Liberal wants both increased secularization as well as state support for religious minorities. Depending on the context, our caricature Conservative wants deregulated global markets as well as restricted immigration. Moreover, most of us tend to agree with some mix of The Liberal and The Conservative positions — it is quite coherent to say that you support both gay marriage and deregulation of markets.

So where does this leave the ideas of modern liberalism and conservatism? (This is of course ignoring the etymology of both terms – classical liberalism looked a lot more like modern conservatism than it does liberalism, but I digress…) Are these utterly useless terms, referring to political ideologies that don’t actually exist? If so, why do we have political parties here in Canada that call themselves Liberals and Conservatives, and just what makes their platforms liberal or conservative? Why are these two terms tossed around as pejoratives so often if they don’t in fact refer to anything? If Liberals and Conservatives can coherently hold so many of the same positions, where is the true watershed point between these two ideas?

The answer to this, I think, is that it’s all about freedom. As I see it, the fundamental agreement between liberals and conservatives is that the primary goal of political society is to promote freedom. Where modern liberalism and conservatism diverge is on exactly what this means. Does promoting freedom entail the state providing only security and basic infrastructure so that citizens can live how they see fit? Or does promoting freedom instead entail the state providing certain goods (broadly conceived) to each citizen so that each person has an equal chance at success? The most staunch fiscal conservative will likely agree that taxation is needed for public goods like roads and sewage systems, yet will balk at the state-funded healthcare that the liberal sees as a basic necessity.

I believe that if we articulate the fundamental differences over this notion of freedom in modern liberalism and conservatism, we will then be able to trace a meaningful distinction between these two political inclinations. Perhaps more importantly, I think that when we trace this line properly, we will also see that many of the particular positions that are often held out to be liberal or conservative principles will end up being simply untenable, even on their own merits.

Looks like a project for the future…


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