Are You a Conservative or a Liberal?

The following article originally was published June 8, 2009, by Grand Junction’s Free Press.

The recent Tea Party in Grand Junction arose in response to increasing government intervention in the economy. It was a spirited event, attended by old friends and people from all social and economic backgrounds.

The Western Slope Conservative Alliance held a follow-up rally, where the word “conservative” echoed through nearly every sentence. Unfortunately, nobody seemed to use the term with a common meaning.

What does it mean to be a conservative? Many of the same conservatives who claim to support free markets and liberty also endorse economic protectionism, censorship, welfare spending, corporate welfare, immigration restrictions, prohibitions of various substances and activities that violate nobody’s rights, abortion bans, and so on.

Liberalism, one might think, has something to do with liberty. Yet today’s liberals endorse political economic planning on a vast scale. They typically want to forcibly redistribute more wealth, impose controls on private property, and impose more “enlightened” forms of censorship.

Many of today’s conservatives and liberals find common cause in the belief that politicians should largely control your life.

Economist and freedom fighter F. A. von Hayek said, “Conservatism, though a necessary element in any stable society, is not a social program; in its paternalistic, nationalistic, and power-adoring tendencies it is often closer to socialism than true liberalism…”

Russian immigrant Ayn Rand, known for her strong anti-socialist, anti- communist views, wondered, “What are the ‘conservatives’? What is it that they are seeking to ‘conserve’?” She wrote, “If the ‘conservatives’ do not stand for capitalism, they stand for and are nothing; they have no goal, no direction, no political principles, no social ideals, no intellectual values, no leadership to offer anyone.”

Yet smug liberals who mock “backward” conservatives have more than a thing or two to learn themselves. They could begin by reviewing Thomas Paine’s discussions with Edmund Burke regarding the French Revolution, mob law, and the rule of the masses.

Self-proclaimed liberals might also review Thomas Jefferson’s Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, with its emphasis on natural rights, free speech, and freedom of religion.

Hayek was as critical of liberals as he was of conservatives, writing that “‘liberal’ has come to mean the advocacy of almost every kind of government control. I am still puzzled why those in the United States who truly believe in liberty should not only have allowed the left to appropriate this almost indispensable term but should have assisted by beginning to use it themselves as a term of opprobrium.”

Rand was yet more severe: “The majority of those who are loosely identified by the term ‘liberals’ are afraid to let themselves discover that what they advocate is statism. They do not want to accept the full meaning of their goal; they want to keep all the advantages and effects of capitalism, while destroying the cause, and they want to establish statism without its necessary effects. They do not want to know or to admit that they are the champions of dictatorship and slavery.”

Rand also wrote, “The basic and crucial political issue of our age is: capitalism versus socialism, or freedom versus statism. For decades, this issue has been silenced, suppressed, evaded, and hidden under the foggy, undefined rubber-terms of ‘conservatism’ and ‘liberalism’ which had lost their original meaning and could be stretched to mean all things to all men.”

Or, as a local friend (Roger) summarized, “If we cannot succinctly and accurately define what distinguishes a conservative from a liberal, the label is meaningless.”

If you call yourself a conservative, what is it that you are trying to conserve? The massive welfare state built up in the 20th Century? A religious conception of law? The tradition of encroaching political power?

Or if you fancy yourself a liberal, are you trying to liberate bureaucrats to oversee our lives?

We suggest that conservatives busy themselves with conserving the founding principles of our nation, the ideals of life, liberty, property, and the pursuit of happiness free from political interference.

Likewise, liberals should liberate people to run their own lives and control their own resources, according to their own judgment, free from political controls.

In either case, the proper purpose of government may be summarized as the protection of individual rights, which in the economic sphere means the establishment of capitalism.

We appreciate the perspective of economist George Reisman, who argues, “To the extent that present conditions departed from [capitalism, its defenders] would be radicals in seeking to change present conditions. To the extent that conditions in the past had approximated laissez-faire capitalism, they would be reactionary in seeking to reestablish such conditions. To the extent that present conditions were consistent with laissez-faire capitalism, they would be conservative in seeking to preserve those conditions.”

We really don’t care whether you call yourself conservative or liberal. What we care about is whether you defend or undermine individual rights.