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February 24, 2005

Liberals, Conservatives and Values

Gerald Dworkin: February 24, 2005

Jonathan Chait has an interesting piece in the current New Republic

The relevant part for my discussion is the following.

…conservatism, unlike liberalism, overlays a deeper set of philosophical principles. Conservatives believe that big government impinges upon freedom. They may also believe that big government imposes large costs on the economy. But, for a true conservative, whatever ends they think smaller government may bring about--greater prosperity, economic mobility for the non-rich--are almost beside the point. As Milton Friedman wrote, "[F]reedom in economic arrangements is itself a component of freedom broadly understood, so economic freedom is an end in itself."

We're accustomed to thinking of liberalism and conservatism as parallel ideologies, with conservatives preferring less government and liberals preferring more. The equivalency breaks down, though, when you consider that liberals never claim that increasing the size of government is an end in itself. Liberals only support larger government if they have some reason to believe that it will lead to material improvement in people's lives. Conservatives also want material improvement in people's lives, of course, but proving that their policies can produce such an outcome is a luxury, not a necessity.

Even if we confine our attention to the question of the optimum size of the government the issue is more complicated than Chait makes it out to be.  First, there is an issue of what is meant by the size of government, i.e. government expenditures, number of government regulations, nature of the regulations (administrative, criminal, civil), proportion of GDP collected by the government, etc. Second, liberals may also view government regulation as restrictive of freedom, and value freedom intrinsically. They may not view taxation as an interference with freedom –as some of the recent discussion of “it’s my money” and taxation shows. But they may.

Finally, if the issue is defined as simply size of government then, of course, for liberals that is not an end in itself. But if the issue is defined as something like the following—is it better that the poor be helped by private charity, or by contractual arrangements (self-insurance against poverty in retirement) , rather than collectively financed payments? —then this is not simply a matter of which system will do the job more efficiently. Liberals may believe that a society which collectively determines to provide this form of security is better (for that reason) than one which leaves it to individual charity or the prudence of its members.  In a similar fashion, some believe that it is better that blood be collected from volunteers rather than paid for—quite independently of whether such a blood supply is safer. All these judgments can be questioned. But one can also question whether freedom should be valued for its own sake. And Chait is wrong when he says “This preference for removing power from Washington is simply something that either you accept or you don’t.” It is harder to talk about what things should be regarded as ends in themselves rather than as means to accepted ends. But it can be done.



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