Who favors more freedom, liberals or conservatives?

Release Date
May 11, 2011


Role of Government

Prof. Antony Davies analyzes the fundamental differences between liberals and conservatives. He then proposes an alternative method of viewing political issues, which looks at policies and their respective impact on individual freedom. Prof. Antony Davies concludes that the conventional liberal/conservative dichotomy encourages us to ignore first principles, and hence, overlook contradictory views.

Who favors more freedom, liberals or conservatives?
People like to divide economic and political issues into conservative issues and liberal issues. In fact the terms aren’t very useful. According to Webster, liberalism is a political philosophy based on the belief in the essential goodness of the human race, the autonomy of the individual, and the protection of political and civil liberties.
The definition for conservatism is a political philosophy based on tradition, social stability, and stressing its established institutions, preferring gradual development to abrupt change. These official definitions draw a picture of, in the case of liberalism, a society in which the government is subservient to the people, and in the case of conservatism, a society in which the people are subservient to the government. That seems to be contradictory from what we understand at a conventional-wisdom level of what it is that constitutes liberal issues versus conservative issues.
Let’s look at a few issues themselves. Universal health care: most people would argue it’s clearly a liberal issue. This is something that we associate with the liberal parties. The minimum wage, similarly, is a liberal issue. Reducing taxes is a conservative issue. Gay marriage is a liberal issue. The drug war: a conservative issue. Mandatory prayer in public schools is a conservative issue, and prohibiting prayer in public schools is a liberal issue. Free trade meanwhile belongs with the conservatives. So most people will not disagree on specific issues and how they divide into conservative versus liberal. But the terms themselves seem to be contradictory.
Let me suggest two new terms: freedom, more freedom versus less freedom. If we take these issues and divide them into more freedom versus less freedom we find that free trade is a more freedom issue; the drug war is a less freedom issue. Gay marriage is more freedom. Minimum wage is less freedom. Reduced taxes is more freedom; requiring everyone to have insurance is less freedom. Meanwhile, both mandating and prohibiting prayer in public schools is less freedom.
The term freedom seems to capture the dichotomy between these issues better than conservative versus liberal. But the world gets more complicated because we all exist in two spheres, a social sphere, where we choose how to behave, and an economic sphere, in which we enter into contracts with others. These two spheres aren’t necessarily independent. For example your choice to marry a goat is a social choice. Your choice to buy foreign goods is an economic choice. Your choice to do drugs is a social choice, but your choice to buy drugs is an economic choice.
So we can take these issues and we can show them not just on an axis of less versus more freedom, but on an axis of less social freedom versus more social freedom and less economic freedom versus more economic freedom. And this starts to capture the actual world in which we live.
We can do the same thing with politicians. People are in general agreement as to where major figures fall on the conservative to liberal scale. But if we start to think in terms of both social conservatism versus social liberalism and economic conservatism versus economic liberalism, what we see is a whole new pattern of how these politicians fall. In fact if we step away from the terms conservative and liberal entirely we start to see how these political figures stand on issues of personal and economic freedom.
The liberal-conservative dichotomy leads us to contradictions because it encourages us not to think in terms of first principles but to think in terms of issues. A first principle is something that is either assumed to be true or is so self evident as to be beyond dispute. When we start discussions at first principles rather than issues, we avoid espousing contradictory or inconsistent views. As we talk about particular issues like the minimum wage or like universal health care, the wrong place to start is with the effect of these things on people. The right place to start is at the first principle. Do we or do we not have rights to property and life? If we do then certain things follow and those things that follow will inform our positions on these issues.