Preliminary notes toward a perhaps-never-to-be-written monograph defining American liberalism and American conservatism, both their individual goals and how these should work together


One of the great thing about reading Jeff Flake's recent book was hearing conservatism defined by a thoughtful person for whom conservatism is a philosophically grounded means to thought rather than, you know, code for hating Obama or something. One of my complaints about American politics is that conservative and liberal are no longer words with clearly defined meanings but labels we proudly apply to what we like and viciously sling at things we don't like. I identify as a conservative (or a liberal) and therefore what I hate I will label liberal (conservative). It's childish thinking and grotesquely unhelpful.

Which is one of Flake's misfires. He does a good job defining conservatism and makes a strong argument for working with liberals, suggesting America is healthiest when ideas from both sides arrive, in compromise, to conclusions. However! The best definition he can come up with for liberalism is that it's about freedom-limiting big government and handouts. Not sure why that's a valuable viewpoint that deserves balance with your own carefully reasoned positions, Jeff.

Also, I've always felt that American conservatism is simply a form of liberalism. If you go back to classical liberalism---the Enlightenment, the birth of liberal thought--then we find that democracy is a liberal concept; the Constitution is a liberal document; freedom is liberalism. Until the alt-right, no American conservatives called for a return to feudalism or monarchy. Conservatism and liberalism, it seems to me, are not opposites. At least, certainly not in America. Other nations can define these words however they like.

And so, as I read Flake's book, I desired to find an Occam-like definition of these American political movements. Something simple, but something more fundamentally true than conservatives want a small government and liberals want a big government (it's nonsense to consider these goals rather than means to whatever the goal actually is) or liberals want to help people while conservatives want people to help themselves.

And I've found the solution. And the solution is simple because this is America. American liberals and American conservatives share the same goal: Freedom.

Americans desire freedom.

And here's the difference between American liberalism and American conservatism:

American liberalism works to increase access to freedom
American conservatism works to prevent barriers to freedom

From these basic stands, we can extrapolate everything else in American politics. We can see why liberals and conservatives gravitate toward types of solutions to classes of problems. (E.g., the stereotype that liberals want more laws and conservatives fewer.) We can also discover why liberals are prone to certain intellectual errors and why conservatives are prone to their own set of intellectual errors.

But, fundamentally, we can see why it's not just lip service to say we need both parties working together to arrive at the best solutions for our people. Because increasing access to freedom and preventing barriers to freedom are not identical, but they are both massively important.

Before I get to examples of how this plays out, I want to make two corollaries which are rather obvious is we accept my axioms but which need to be stated clearly.

First, no one's political feelings will be purely liberal or conservative. I'll have plenty of examples of this should I write the monograph, but considering health care should be enough to show how a simple antithesis can still lead to complicated arguments.

If you have health issues, your freedoms are necessarily restricted. If you have asthma, you can't run a marathon. Therefore increasing access to health care increases people's access to their Creator-bestowed rights. It's a liberal cause. But making people pay for insurance decreases people's on-hand money which decreases their freedom to spend that money as they damn well please. Conservatism. Thus we see the way health care is currently portrayed.

However, so-called Obamacare's entire structure was created by conservative thinkers (largely). How can this be? Because having health removes barriers to people's freedoms. That's why.

Anything that increases freedom can be pitched as a liberal or conservative cause. One might argue this makes my axioms useless, but no. What it means is that when we call ourselves a liberal or a conservative, we are pitching our tent with our cultural crew. Plenty of policies from both parties betray their key beliefs. But this is why the axioms are so important. When we talk not about liberal or conservative persons but liberal or conservative policies or principles or, most importantly, actions, then we can really stick to the point instead of getting distracted yelling about God or Russians.

It will also help us judge whether our parties are on the right track or not. Are the Republicans on the right track as of October 12, 2017? I dunno. Seems to me they're more about winning and supporting a president with authoritarian leanings than preventing barriers to freedom. I give them a D.

The Democrats? They're doing better, but I think reacting against a party that swore to make Obama one-term and denied him his rightful Supreme Court pick has made them crazy. Calls for single-payer health care seem a lot less about increasing freedom through health and therefore at least equally about distinguishing themselves from self-destructive Republicans. C.

A couple more notes on this before I go back to principles again.

First, their good intentions (freedom, whether increasing access or preventing barriers) lead both parties to predictable sins. Democrats might work to increase access to freedom even if it takes freedom away somewhere else. Republicans might desire to prevent barriers to freedom even if it places barriers to another freedom.

That these outcomes are possible is a fundamental thing to understand about the American experiment. And navigating conflicting freedoms is a fundamental job of the Supreme Court. I could pick a less controversial example, but let's rip something from the headlines, shall we?

The evil slaughter we experienced in Las Vegas must change the way we think about the Second Amendment. I'm not going to pick gun-control sides in this embryonic essay, but we at the very least need to admit that gun rights do not exist independently of our other rights. Today, it is reasonable to consider that any peacable assembly may be the target of someone who used their Second Amendment rights to prepare for an evil action. This is, in principle, the same as my freedom of speech conflicting with your right not be trampled, or any other weighing of rights. It's a free country because freedoms are curtailed in freedom-biased ways. Your freedom to not get stabbed is a more important freedom than my freedom to stab.

Gun control is an appropriate example of how liberal and conservative thought can work together to arrive at the best solution. But this is a longer argument and I'm already over 1200 words---way too long for a blog post.

So too more things I want to talk about come monograph time, and I'm out.

First, the ACLU. By my math, the ACLU sounds extremely conservative, working overtime to prevent barriers to rights. But the actions they take are proactive barrier-destroying which, to me, still sounds more liberal.

Second, one place Flake deliberately broke with Goldwater is with what Goldwater is best remembered for today, outside conservative intellectuals: his failure to support the Civil Rights Act.

This, I think is a healthful viewpoint. But it also opens a difficult problem. Because racist laws cast a much bigger shadow than most of us realize. For instance, my the city my in-laws grew up in was underwritten by the federal government to provide housing. If you were a veteran, you didn't even have to put down a down payment. And everyone got interest help. Business boomed and people had homes. This is why the American dream blossomed mid-century---the feds footed the bill.

But! All across America---yes, even here in the Bay Area---suburban areas like this were monetarily supported by the government of the United States of America if and only if those areas were explicitly white only. Which boggles my mind, but is a fact.

In other words, the reason white families have been building wealth at record rates since World War Two while black families have been stuck in aging prospects (#grossoversimplificationwarning) is because of, well, the government. It doesn't take much imagination to see that almost every crisis in America is no more than two degrees of separation away from this decades-long policy. It might be, in fact, too late not to involve government in almost anything, by Flake's estimation. In which case, perhaps conservatism's goals should be evening the playing field---refairifying America---in order to return to minimal interference? I dunno.

This as well needs more development, but I'm done for now.* This is enough to chew over. Please chew and help me improve my thinking.

American liberalism works to increase access to freedom
American conservatism works to prevent barriers to freedom

We all agree on freedom. Where do we go from here?

Historical reasons most American Mormons are conservative
Sex and law
The Constitution is both liberal (defining a government) and conservative (the First Amendment / preventing ex post facto laws)


  1. .

    Thanks to a dream I had last night of having dinner with Lady Steed, Recession Cone, my uncle Lr and his son Mk, I woke up in the middle of the night with this formulation to be thought about later:

    The Left wishes to do right by people.

    The Right thinks the only way to do right by people is to leave them alone.

    In near-morning's light, the latter seems more like libertarianism, but my conservative family *is* libertarian, so.