Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Liberals vs Conservatives on The Purpose of Govt

John Hawkins of Right Wing News has written a fine article about Why the Liberal View of Government is Wrong.

In part, he writes:
Liberals view the government as a force for good that should be used at every possible opportunity to reorder people's lives. This is an outgrowth of the liberal belief that most people are stupid and unable to ascertain what's in their own best interests without the intercession of their superiors (liberals) to show them what's best.

That makes government extraordinarily handy to liberals because they can use the power of government to force people to give up their money, force people to do things they don't want to do, and to try to reshape society into the utopian vision they have of how the world should work.

On the other hand, conservatives view the government as a necessary evil that should generally be used as sparingly, judiciously, and reluctantly as possible. This is not because conservatives believe people are angels, but because we believe Adam Smith was correct when he said, "It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest."

Furthermore, the conservative view says that the government is slow, inefficient, inordinately expensive, error-prone, and as likely as not to create problems worse than the ones it tries to solve with its bungling efforts. Hence Ronald Reagan's classic line, "The nine most terrifying words in the English language are, 'I'm from the government and I'm here to help.'"
This is mostly good. Sadly, as with so much that comes from the conservative movement, he makes a number standard errors.

There are such minor issues as the false alternative of calling government "a necessary evil" vs "Liberals view the government as a force for good that should be used at every possible opportunity to reorder people's lives." A necessary evil is a contradiction in terms. If it's necessary, it can't be evil; if it's evil, it certainly isn't needed but should be eliminated. Moreover, reordering people's lives can be exactly what is needed.

It's certainly true, further, for example, that government is a force for good when it kills jihadis or jails rapists or awards a just verdict in a civil case. In short, it's a force for good when it acts to protect individual rights, which often involves reordering some lives.

That points to the deeper problem here: the view that things are intrinsically good or evil. Something is good or evil only in so far as it furthers or thwarts an aim that serves some person's flourishing. An institution like government is morally neutral in this respect – it can be an instrument of good or evil, depending on how it acts, which is the result of the basic ideas that motivate those actions and the character of the men carrying them out.

It's also not inherently "slow, inefficient, inordinately expensive, error-prone..." It sometimes acts in haste – as TARP, the bailout frenzy, and thousands of other examples show. It can be frighteningly efficient, as the collection of taxes proves. It need not be expensive, relative to the overall size of the private economy which supports it. I have to confess, though, that it is error prone and often those errors are gigantic and heinous, as most of history shows, though if pressed I wouldn't label those errors.

The author makes another common conservative error — belittling or gainsaying "utopian visions." I can understand the cynicism, given where many such idealistic plans have led. But to aim for utopia is good provided ones ideals are right. That many utopians were content to seek the fulfillment of their plans by force, or that their goals were bad to begin with, does not disprove this. The Founding Fathers were certainly aiming, in the eyes of many, for a certain kind of utopia and they came very close.

When he gets down to more down-to-earth issues, he gets better.
A liberal loves the idea of forcing businesses to pay workers more than what they're worth through the minimum wage. Conservatives see the minimum wage as more meddling in the free market that will have negative consequences. If you force the business owner to overpay, he will surely change his behavior as a response.

Maybe he'll hire less people. Maybe he'll have less money to spend on equipment. Maybe he won't be able to give out Christmas bonuses to his best performing employees. Whatever the case may be, assuming a politician in DC can micromanage the salaries of a business owner better than he can seems to be incredibly arrogant.

A liberal looks at a failing business, usually one that has given quite a bit of money to liberal politicians, and wants to play the hero by "bailing out" that company with taxpayer money. That politician is making a determination that he is wiser than the market and can better decide whether a particular business should remain open.

A conservative looks at the same company and declines to bail it out on the grounds that if it were a viable business over the long-haul, some private company would have already loaned it the money it needs. Furthermore, when a company goes out of business, its more successful competitors can then swoop in, buy up its assets, and put those resources to better use.
What he's actually describing is a Progressive or socialist (of which modern liberals are the moderate version) versus someone who advocates a laissez-faire capitalism stance (on this one issue). But that's more a semantic issue than anything else. He's right on the money when he states that the modern liberal "loves the idea of forcing businesses." He could have stopped there. For it matters little to them what the outcome is and often not much who are the beneficiaries and losers.

That he or she gets to recommend or at least view but — best of all — wield force is a common theme in contemporary liberalism. They loath nothing so much as leaving individuals free to make their own decisions, and lust for nothing so much as making those choices for them.

That is what makes politicians and bureaucrats like George Bush and Henry Paulson the blood brothers of Barack Obama and Timothy Geithner or John McCain only somewhat less a liberal than Harry Reid.

This, in the end, is the fundamental difference between modern conservatives — for all their errors on particulars — and their contemporary opponents, the so-called liberals. With few exceptions, conservatives, while they compromise and contradict it often, value and trust freedom and the liberals do not.

It's as simple as that.

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