Conservative Champion of Liberalism

Posted: 05/16/11

Some of the greatest champions of liberal politics have been conservatives. In 1940, Churchill, a conservative, led Britain alone against the Nazis and did more to protect liberal values than anyone else in the last century.

But the best example is America’s own founding. When it was written, the Constitution was a liberal document, protecting the rights of common men and women against British tyranny. Yet, the founders didn’t believe they were progressives. They believed they were conservatives — conserving what they understood to be their true birthright of liberty in the Anglo tradition. They were conservative liberals.

0014_ron_paulHistorically, conservatives who protect liberal values have risen at times of crisis. Today, history is rhyming with itself. America is in a crisis and the conservative who can keep America safe for liberal values happens to be called Ron Paul.

A Ron Paul presidency would represent a massive shift away from the old Left vs. Right paradigm that has prevailed for a century. What would it mean and how could it happen?

The fundamental difference between Left and Right is not one of political philosophy. Rather, it is this: the Left is a politics of goals (how things should be) while the Right is a politics of outcomes (how things, in fact, operate).

Let me explain. The fundamental assumption of the Left is that policy is good if it directly enforces good goals. The secondary assumption is that well-intended policy (i.e. with good goals) generally produces good results. Since the political Left experiences itself as “good,” it naturally sees its opponents on the right as “bad.”

This feeling on the Left lies at the root of its fundamental distrust toward the Right.

However, this feeling on the Left is largely mistaken. The moderate Right (including Constitutionalists, but excluding neocons and the religious Right who, just like socialists and communists, wish to use government to impose their own moral vision on society) does not seek for government policy to enforce social good, because the moderate Right doesn’t believe that government is an effective mechanism for achieving it. Since this belief about the way the world works (rather than any goal) drives the politics of the Right, those on the Right are more likely to see their opponents on the Left as “wrong” than to see them as “bad.”

Put simply: to those on the Left, the Right is bad. To those on the Right, the Left is wrong.

This fundamental asymmetry between Left and Right is the clue to how they can come together: Conservatives can maintain their belief that traditionally Liberal methods don’t serve liberal outcomes, while still validating the intentions of liberals; and liberals can continue to insist on their good social goals (intentions) while acknowledging that the conservative claim that government is an ineffective means of achieving lasting social good is reasonable — and does not make conservatives any less concerned with fairness, social justice or any other social good.

Since President Wilson, America has enlarged government, instituting huge, well-intended social programs.

Along with extensive militarism, these programs have bankrupted us. Reasons include the following:

1) Government planning is as crude a mechanism in the West as it was in communist states.
2) Politicians are less clever than they think they are.
3) Greater government reach provides greater opportunities for corruption.
4) All policies have unintended consequences.
5) Laws are not passed with any means of termination if they fail to achieve their well-intended goals; nor can their effects be easily reversed.

After a century of government engineering of society, the jury is in: policy-making without Constitutional constraints has brought us to a point of undoing the very good our policies were designed to achieve. For example, Medicare is unaffordable and welfare is sustained by a system of printing money that simultaneously supports big banks and inflation, making average citizens poorer, increasing the need for welfare and reducing the buying power of the welfare checks… and so on, in a vicious cycle. Liberals and Conservatives can agree that these outcomes are unsatisfactory.

Responsible Liberals clearly need a new approach to improving society, but they need not throw out their baby of good intentions with their bathwater of bad policy-making and government intervention.

Consider the following from Milton Friedman:

In my opinion, a society that aims for equality before liberty will end up with neither equality nor liberty. And a society that aims first for liberty will not end up with equality, but will end up to a closer approach to equality than any other kind of system than has even been developed. Now, that conclusion is based both on evidence from history, and also, I believe, on reasoning, which — if you try to follow through the implications of aiming first at equality — will become clear to you. You can only aim at equality by giving some people the right to take things from others. And what ultimately happens when you aim at equality is that A and B shall decide what C shall do for D.

Many Liberals consider Milton Friedman a political opponent, but this free marketeer not only acknowledges that a truly liberal value, equality, is a social good: he suggests that attempts to achieve social good should be evaluated not against ideology, but against the only thing that matters — historical results.

Evidence suggests that Milton Friedman’s above quote was correct. Try substituting the following into his final sentence above, and you’ll see.

A = Treasury, B = Federal Reserve, C = American taxpayer and D = Goldman Sachs.


A = state legislature, B = public union, C = state taxpayer, D = public workers.

Today’s great challenge for the responsible, moderate Left is to realize that its opponent is not the moderate Right. Rather, the moderate Left and Right have a common enemy, which is all those with an interest in an illiberal political establishment that wants to impose its will on society (always for our own good, of course) at the expense of individual liberty and, usually, prosperity. This enemy comes in many forms, including neocons, the religious Right and socialists.

Once moderate Liberals and Conservatives see that they don’t differ fundamentally in moral sensibility but share classical liberal values (small “L”), and that a century of data show that a century of massive government intervention has failed when judged by its own stated (and Liberal [capital “L”]) goals, America will be free to realign politically from the old Left vs. Right to the new classical liberal vs. illiberal.

It’s already begun, and it is showing up in Rasmussen’s polls, the “real” tea party and the massive support of Ron Paul among the young.

This wholesale political realignment is exactly what Ron Paul represents. A vote for him in 2012 will be a vote against the old political order of Left vs. Right and for classical liberal values. And you can’t have the second all the while you’re stuck with the first.

Like me, Liberals won’t agree with Paul on all issues, such as abortion, but that doesn’t matter: the whole point of Paul’s America is that people (and states) are free to make their own choices, and the rest of us are free to disagree with them, and make our own.

And that is the only true liberalism worthy of the name.

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