The World

[as I find it]

Essential Debate

It was recently expressed to me that the essence of the American debate between “conservatives” and “liberals”1 is something like this:

Conservatives believe that

  1. People should be free to “stand on their own two feet,” that is, to pursue their own goals, interests, and activities with the least number of hindrances; and
  2. When people are free to stand on their own two feet, they will provide the compassion and care for one another that they require (and probably be happier and more prosperous besides).
  3. As a (perhaps paradoxical) corollary, if they are made to provide this care for one another, through regulation or other impositions on individual freedoms, the quality of the care declines and it becomes ineffective, insincere, and a haven for corruption and inefficiency.

Liberals, on the other hand, believe that the best way for society to provide care and a happy life for its members is to impose laws and regulations that institutionalize this care, instead of allowing people the freedom to provide it personally.

Now, I think this characterization of the debate is based on a misunderstanding, but it is a misunderstanding that is very common and often propagated by people on both sides. After all, the idea that people should be free to pursue their own interests and activities is the original liberal idea. I want to examine this expression of the debate, in order to help correct that misunderstanding.

Simply put, the misunderstanding here is that “liberals believe that society should force its members to care for one another” through the enactment and enforcement of laws and institutions that provide for that care. The implication is often made that this means that “liberals” do not accept premise (1), and that they therefore do not believe proposition (2) will follow with its attendant happiness and prosperity. Instead, a liberal world is one like that described in proposition (3), where the benefits that society gives to its members are at best half-hearted and impersonal.2

Liberals — insofar as they are properly described by the term — do not really believe that the path to a happier and more caring society is through greater constraints on individuals. To characterize a “liberal” this way is to confuse him with a fascist, which is something like confusing the North and South poles. On these grounds alone, criticism of liberals for bringing about the society described by (3) is undeserved.

This dismisses the charge too quickly, however. It is true that people who identify themselves as “liberals,” or at least as against conservatives, often support the creation and funding of institutions designed to care for the less fortunate members of society, and it is also true that some of these institutions have been inefficient and costly, and have failed to accomplish all of the objectives they were created for. (There are a variety of reasons for this, not the least of which is that in the American political system, anyone who wants to accomplish anything generally has to make tremendous concessions and compromises in order to see it pass in any form.) Furthermore, it is true that some of these institutions have been implemented in a way that they placed greater constraints on some individuals (e.g., through higher taxes and complicated regulations), even if they succeeded in reducing constraints on others. So does the charge that liberals want to improve society by reducing individual freedoms have some merit after all?

I do not believe it does. The problem here, the real essence of the debate if there is one, is not that conservatives believe people should be free to “stand on their own two feet” while liberals don’t. Both believe that they should have the freedom to pursue their own ends; that is the common premise of liberalism (see note 1). Rather, the difference between the two positions is in the gritty details of what it means to have that freedom.

I see two related questions here, both of which contribute to the difference in perspective. First, in the abstract, how are individuals’ freedoms secured? Do laws and regulations always mean fewer freedoms for some particular individual, or can they promote them? Second, and more concretely, whose freedoms are we talking about? If there is a tradeoff between one individual’s liberties and those of a group, what criterion decides who to restrict, and who to give liberty?

One way to characterize the difference in perspective in terms of these two questions, then, might be as follows: conservatives believe greater freedom is usually obtained in the absence of laws and regulations, while liberals believe that greater freedom can be achieved (on the whole) by instantiating new laws or regulations. Correspondingly, conservatives believe that it’s wrong to trade an individual’s liberties for those of a group, while liberals take a more utilitarian approach, and believe it is better to restrict an individual if others gain more freedoms than that individual loses. This explains, for example, the conservative obsession with deregulating industry, even when it is patently clear that an industry will trample the liberties of its customers in the absence of regulation. It explains liberals’ eagerness to implement a progressive income tax, and to spend the levied funds on social programs that should give liberties to those who previously had none. And it explains why conservatives believe liberals “want to take away your freedoms,” and why liberals believe conservatives “just want to get away with their greed.”3

If I’m right, and these two questions are the major ones at stake in the political debate between American “conservatives” and “liberals,” then answering them sensibly is an important task for the improvement of society. Without going too much into an argument either way (I’ll save that for another post), I would offer the following points:

  • It is patently true, and should be recognized by both sides, that greater freedom can be achieved by imposing laws on the members of a society. The whole purpose of the U.S. Constitution is to legislate the boundaries of individual and governmental freedoms to the further end of granting the widest freedoms possible to its citizens. Doling out freedom is a coordination problem: by giving as much potential freedom as possible to every individual (i.e., implementing anarchy), you reduce individuals’ practical freedom on the whole (because people will not feel free to walk about, say, if others are free to kill them without penalty). Legislation can and does help solve this coordination problem, and hence it is wrong to assume that it necessarily does (or does not) reduce individual liberties. What’s needed is a distinction between legislation that successfully solves a “liberty coordination” problem, and legislation that merely restricts all parties.
  • The question of whether it is better to stick to a principle of never limiting individuals’ freedoms or to restrict some individuals if it results in greater freedom for a greater number — of austere individualism or pragmatic utilitarianism — is a hard one, probably without any good general answer. But if a general answer can be given, it should probably take into consideration that societies are organizations of citizens, not just collections of them; and this indicates that a society ought to do what’s best for its citizens collectively, because that’s what social organization is for. If it is better for the society that more individuals have greater freedom, then the utilitarian answer seems more promising.


[1] As I have mentioned in earlier posts, I think these terms may not be the best labels for the people who hold the beliefs I am talking about. In American culture, they refer to two rather minor sub-branches on a tree of related ideologies that can all be grouped under (Western) liberalism. I will continue to use these terms throughout the post with the caveat that they are being used in a very limited way. The purpose of this is to promote understanding among my limited audience and to avoid being long-winded, as phrases like “Western-style Politcal and Economic liberal” (i.e., a “conservative”) would tend to do.


[2] It is worth pointing out here that propositions (1) — (3) bear a dubious logical relationship. They have, roughly, the following form:

  1. should(X)
  2. if X then Y
  3. if not(X) then not(Y)

where X is “people are free to stand on their own two feet” and Y is “people are compassionate toward each other and provide the best care for one another.” The relationship between these propositions (as, probably, with all ethical propositions) is much more nuanced than can be expressed with a few simple logical operators; still, in this form, there are a few points worth discussing.

First of all, (3) clearly does not follow from (2), even if X is true; this is the logical fallacy of denying the antecedent. The truth of (3) has no logical relation to the truth of (2). Second, the relationship between (2) and (1) is not one of conditionalization: X, not should(X), is the antecedent of (2). Instead, (2) is usually taken as evidence for (1): if people really do take better care of each other in the absence of external constraints, then societies should minimize the number of constraints on individuals. (2) must therefore be independently justified (based on empirical facts, say — a tricky business). It is thus fallacious and circular to take (1) as a “fundamental principle” that somehow begets or supports proposition (2).


[3] Conceivably, this means there are at least two other perspectives that don’t get much attention in the culture wars: first, those who believe (like conservatives) that fewer laws mean more freedom, but also believe (like liberals) that it is better to promote the freedoms of a group than an individual if forced to choose; second, those who believe (like liberals) that greater individual freedoms can be achieved through laws and regulation, but believe (like conservatives) that it is wrong to sacrifice one individual’s liberty for the sake of promoting the liberties of others. I wonder if anyone ever stops to ponder who these people are, or why their combination of answers to these two questions are less common or loudly voiced.

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Written by whereofwecannotspeak

November 12, 2007 at 12:18 am

Posted in Ideas, Language

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