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origins of liberalism and conservativism - Accretions

Fata Morgana
2003-11-12 15:40
origins of liberalism and conservativism
the gentle rattle of the air-conditioner in the CSUA lounge
In European history, I learned about the 18th-century French philosophical roots of liberalism and conservativism. Back then, the distinction between liberal and conservative was one of trust of humankind. If you are liberal, you think humans are innately good and trust them to "do the right thing"; government exists to support and bolster them. If you are conservative, you think humans are innately bad and don't trust them to do the right thing; government exists to control them and limit their bad actions. In the early days of the U.S., "liberals" supported less governmental regulation, especially from the federal level, while "conservatives" supported the opposite.

In this light, laissez-faire capitalist economy as "liberal" makes sense: sure people are selfish and want to consume, but they can be trusted not to collude or undermine the system. Because people are trustable, laissez-faire can regulate itself, without governmental intervention. Neo-liberalism is the revitalization of this free-market mentality.

(Of course, current definitions of "liberal" and "conservative" have shifted substantially from these roots. Conservatives in the U.S. support neo-liberalist policies such as deregulation, privatization, cutting social services, no unions, and reign of the free market, while liberals advocate increased governmental involvement and support.)

In the original sense, I'm conservative in terms of economics, because it seems that people do collude to undermine the system, and the government does need to intervene to prevent it. Of course, the problem is that we can't trust the government not to collude as well. And I will concede that if everyone followed the neo-liberalist ideal, rather than first-world countries forcing others to do it but not doing it themselves, a free market might work ...
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2003-11-12 18:20 (UTC)
Changing times?
Change 'government' to 'voters' and 'human' to 'government' in the first paragraph, and it starts to sound more like a description of modern US politics.

I've always gotten the impression that modern liberals tend to trust the government to implement programs correctly, while conservatives assume the government is already so broken that it should not be trusted (or allowed) to do the bare minimum.

I wonder if this reflects a change in focus from the (mis)behavior of individuals to a focus on the actions of the government.

I find that hard to believe given the success of the homeland security initiatives. Could this be the beginning of a swing back to the original roles of the conservative and liberal parties? (Today we have strong republican support for initiatives like TIA, and hopefully a movement to defend civil liberties from the democrats.)
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2003-11-13 04:01 (UTC)
There's a big terminological mess going on here. (Is "terminological" a real word?)

If you just look at the word "liberal" as being derived from "liberty" then it ought to mean something like letting people do what they want. And "conservative" sounds like it has to do with sticking to traditions and resisting change, or you might say keeping people from doing too many new and wild things. This is consistent with the current common usage of those two terms if you're talking about social values. But for some reason i still haven't quite figured out, they have also become associated with the opposite meanings for economic values. So today "liberal" means less government control of social behaviour and more government control of economic behaviour, while "conservative" means more government control of social behaviour and less government control of economic behaviour.

It is funny that people are calling the Adam Smith model "neo-liberalism", because it should really be called the old liberalism. "Classic liberals" believe in a free market economy, generally don't trust the government, and lament the hijacking of their beloved word "liberal" to mean something very different.

I actually empathize with the classic liberals. I don't trust government very much and believe in putting power in the hands of the people. And i like the consistency of wanting less government control in general (instead of more control in some ways and less control in other ways). I used to consider myself a libertarian because the free market makes a lot of sense.

Nowadays i'm a little different. I still think the free market is a very valuable concept and that a lot of the world's problems are caused by markets that are unfree in very unfair ways. I generally think that we could do a lot better by eliminating needless laws that create these inequalities and reforming the government to make it smaller and simpler. But i also recognize that libertarians are naïve — they and the Adam Smith economists treat externalities as an occasional exception, when in fact they are everywhere. I've never heard of good libertarian solutions for education, health care, or nature conservation. In fact, i've wondered whether libertarians ignore the existence of children altogether. (Please comment if you can refute this! I'd really like to know how they address such issues.)

I'm pretty left-leaning by today's standards, but not your typical liberal. For example, i'm still uncertain about issues like affirmative action and minimum wage. And i don't think that you can solve problems by making the government regulate everything so it works just right. The laws should be there simply to set the initial conditions (the inputs to the free market system, if you like) so that the people can innovate and optimize.

It really sucks that something as important as political science is mired by a confusion of terms. Choosing names is an incredibly important thing. It causes severe problems and misunderstandings in computer science too, and probably everywhere else.
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2003-11-13 12:29 (UTC)
Re: Terminology.
It's always irked me that both major parties are for limiting freedom, but that neither seems to be for funding social programs in an efficient way.

Look at the democrats' position on education: More money for the unions, less accountability for everyone. Look at Bush's position on welfare: More money for religious organizations, again with less accountability.

So, what do you do? Either way you vote, you end up losing some sort of personal freedom, and damaging important social programs.

Of course, with the current looting and scuttling* of the political system, it's obvious that something has to change soon.

I guess that's what you get with special interests.

*Actually, I'm a bit torn on the misconduct of these two companies, but it's damned suspicious. I encourage you to read Halliburton's rebuttals while they're still up. It's not that hard to believe that the Democrats are blowing this thing out of proportion. My guess is that none of the involved parties are behaving honestly, but it's just a guess.

I think it's interesting that the Halliburton articles only address the influence of political appointees. I assume they're excluding the possiblity that Cheney could be involved, and not making a reference to the Flordia elections. ;)
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2003-11-13 13:20 (UTC)
I am not a Libertarian (IANAL?), but if I were, I would address your questions as follows:

  • Education Many of the problems with our current educational system stem from its inability to adapt to changing circumstances. If we could circumvent the influence of national teachers unions and other groups that resist evaluation and reform above all else, then we could start to make a real difference in our schools.

    The best way to do this is to cut the federal government out of the loop, and allow local communities to decide how to educate their own children. This also has the positive effect of limiting the federal government's control of the curriculum, which prevents the educational system from being misused for political purposes.

    Furthermore, it would be less expensive to run the school system in this fashion, precisely because we would be removing many administrative layers that currently have a negative impact on the system.

  • Health care (pass ;)

  • Nature conservation: Federal programs such as NAFTA and broken EPA regulations require local jurisdictions to accept pollution that they would normally reject. While most state and local groups do not have the political clout to stand up to heavily funded federal lobbyists, they would have jurisdiction over their own territories. Therefore, the people closest to the source of pollution would have the most control over its regulation.

    There are some problems here involving pollution traveling between jurisdictions, but this (again) could be better handled on a local basis.

  • </ol>
    OK, back to not speculating on what the Libertarians think.

    One of the most compelling arguments behind the Libertarian point of view (at least for me) is that federal government represents a single point of failure/attack for the US political system.

    Deemphasizing the federal government should result in a more robust system. In such a system, even five broken state elections could not cause as much damage as the 2000 elections did.

    By the way: There was a report on 2000's election irregularities put out by congress that I can't seem to track down any more. It broke everything up by state, and gave brief histories of the types of problems encountered, and had a more thorough statistical treatment than the one I linked to. If anyone happens to know where I can get a copy of it, I'd appreciate it...

    The one I linked to lists 7 close elections. I think that further analysis shows that 5 were actually suspect.
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Fata Morgana
2003-11-14 17:41 (UTC)
markets, middles, and wages, oh my!
I have misgivings about the viability of a truly free market, though as I said above I can't really make any sort of judgment since it's never actually worked that way. :~) If government doesn't step in to intervene, what prevents industries from paying pittance wages or severely damaging the environment? It seems that it's because of the lack of government regulation in third-world countries (often forced by IMF loan conditions and such) that they are in such a sorry state. If your consumers are elsewhere, there are no checks in a truly free market to prevent such degradation.

I guess the ideal is that consumers are *everywhere* - the "bulging middle" theory of capitalism, where the poor are paid more so they can consume and the rich invest in production until everyone's middle-class. Some say that Europe exemplifies this, but I think Europe's quasi-socialist health and education structures are more responsible for the bulging middle than unadulterated capitalism. (And the bulging middle in the US only exists at our waistlines. :~))

In this vein, while I too have mixed feelings about affirmative action (maybe I'll rant about it another time :~)), I think minimum wage is absolutely a good idea. In fact, you can't live on minimum wage in many areas, which gives rise to the concept of "living wage" which is something around $11/hour in Berkeley. I'm interested to hear your arguments against minimum wage, though - I haven't heard many against it, except that it drives businesses out (?), or keeps everyone earning it with less hope for advancement (which isn't really the case, as far as I can tell).
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