Am I a liberal? Have I become one?
That may seem like a ridiculous question to the three people who read this blog and are, on balance, to the left of me. But it’s been on my mind a bit lately. I am constantly accused of being a RINO or an out-and-out liberal on conservative sites. Friends and family often describe me as “so liberal”. And every time Obama screws up (about once a week), I get a message or an e-mail or a comment asking if I’m happy that I voted for him (which I didn’t; I voted for Barr). The current GOP primary race — in which none of the candidates really appeal to me — has only exacerbated this since I spend most of my time pointing out why each of the candidates is a terrible choice.
Thinking about it for a while, however, there may be something to the criticism. There are a handful of issues on which I’ve moved “left” in the last decade or so. But I do not see these as some sudden wellspring of liberalism. They are my fundamental conservatism and libertarianism refined. As I become more aware of the complexity and debate over certain issues, I find my libertarian/conservative philosophy leading me to views that I consider to be fundamentally conservative, but are no longer considered dogma by the GOP, least of all their collection of media dog washers.
The biggest problem is that the word “conservative” has been bastardized lately. Conservatism, properly understood, is a philosophy, not a laundry list of positions. A small, but not exhaustive list of the things conservative believe in would include (keeping in mind this no longer reflects the mentality of those calling themselves “conservative”):
A cautious approach to issues. Conservatives are leery of sudden radical change because they understand that the human engine is complex. Sudden shifts can produce bad Unintended Consequences. This is seen as a resistance to “change”. But resisting change is sometimes a good thing. Not all change is good. And all of it needs to proceed carefully. We have a wonderful society. Improving it is our second duty; protecting it our first. Conservative thought on this is akin to the Hippocratic Oath: First, do no harm. Big Grand Plans for Remaking the Universe — like socialized medicine — draw opposition from conservatives because they know these plans will not work as advertised … if they work at all.
Hand in hand in this is a respect for existing institutions, although that is a bit shaky at times. It is this respect which causes conservatives to resist gay marriage, since it changes one of the most important institutions in our culture. But as gays have gotten married and the world hasn’t ended, conservative opposition has waned.
The Rule of Law is one of the most important aspects of our society. Not just law and order, but a respect for the law and the Constitution. Once we begin to tamper with the Rule of Law, we become a society of men, not of laws, in which success or failure in life is dependent on who you know rather than what you do. This also means a fundamental respect for government. Not trust or blind faith, mind you. But an understanding that government is a necessary evil, not just an evil. You can look to Greece to see what happens when a society has no respect for the law or their government.
The fundamental liberty of the individual is a critical aspect of conservatism. I don’t mean fundamental liberty the way the Left does, which is the right to hold protests and get birth control. It’s economic liberty, property rights, the freedom to succeed or fail in life, the freedom to be a saint or a demon. Government can not make people better and it’s dangerous to try. What it can do is make sure people obey the rules.
Personal and institutional responsibility. This is why conservatives have traditionally been deficit hawks, because it’s simply irresponsible to pass on debt to future generations.
You can read more from Bainbridge here, including a link to Russel Kirk’s famous list of conservative principles.
The problem, of course, is that conservative philosophy and the conservative party have diverged. The ideas I list above really don’t reflect the Republican Party or many of the commentariat who call themselves conservative. Faith-based initiatives, abstinence education and compulsory volunteerism are based on the notion that government can make people better. You will not find a more hair-brained Grand Plan for Remaking the Universe that throws caution to the wind than the attempts to create democracy in the Middle East. Institutional responsibility has been tossed out the window with regulatory capture and deficit spending. Arrogance has replaced humility, zingers have replaced thought. A healthy suspicion of ruling elites has morphed into a raging anti-intellectualism. Conspiracy theories — about global warming, Obama’s birth, Obamacare — have become acceptable discourse. It’s no longer enough for the Democrats to be wrong; they have to be evil socialists who hate America.
If you look at those above traits, you would argue that Bill Clinton was far more conservative than today’s GOP. In what conservative party are Michelle Bachmann and Donald Trump taken seriously?
It has become an article of faith that tax cuts are needed to stimulate the economy, despite the failure of the economy in the midst of the lowest tax burden since World War II. It is assumed that the financial crisis was caused by ACORN and the CRA, as though they created credit default swaps and packaged up crappy mortgages into securities. It’s not that these ideas are wrong; it’s that they’re not the entire story.
I’ve always called myself a conservative/libertarian. That doesn’t just mean I’m socially liberal and fiscally conservative or that I believe drugs should be legal. It means I approach issues with a libertarian bent, seeing government as inherently flawed and freedom as inherently desirable. But I leaven this with caution, realizing that institutions exist for a reason, that not all government is bad, that not all freedom is good and that violent upheavals are dangerous. To illustrate with an example: I oppose the War on Drugs. But I don’t want to end it overnight. Legalize marijuana, pull back on Constitutional violations and see what happens. If it works out, then we can talk about decriminalizing harder stuff.
My move to the “left”, such as it is, has been a process of refining my conservative/libertarian beliefs, a process I hope will continue throughout my life. Just to highlight a few issues where I’ve “gone liberal”:
I’ve moved from pro-death penalty to neutral, favoring only in the most extreme cases. But I see this as fundamentally conservative. I’ve slowly come to realize that I do not trust the government with the power of life and death. I’ve realized that we can always apologize to an innocent man we’ve jailed for 20 years but we can’t take back an unjust execution. I’ve also become very skeptical of the claims that the death penalty reduces crime. I will say that I don’t want the death penalty banned. But I do think the system needs a massive overhaul and it should be reserved for the worst and most certain cases. The recent outrageous scandals in state forensic labs have only strengthened my opposition.
That’s part of a “leftward” move on crime in general. I’ve come to oppose the overwhelming number of SWAT raids and the abuses occasionally committed by our law enforcement establishment, thanks mainly to the eye-opening work of Radley Balko. But again, this strikes me as a fundamentally conservative point of view. Supporting the Bill of Rights and due process of law is what conservatism is all about. In the early 90’s, it made sense to get tough on crime because we are at the peak of a hideous crime wave. But with crime now falling to levels not seen since the 60’s, the pendulum may be swinging too far. And as a conservative and a libertarian, that makes me nervous.
On a related note, I’ve also come to favor drug decriminalization (at least for pot) and the legalization of prostitution. But I was never really a culture conservative. And this goes to my view on personal responsibility. It’s not the government’s job to keep you clean and sober; it’s your job. And the unintended consequences of the War on Drugs and the War on Whores have been terrible.
I’ve become less pro-war. But pro-war is not a conservative virtue in my book. We use force when we have to. But it is only one of the tools in the box. Reagan defeated the Soviet Union without firing a shot directly at them.
I’m against torture and indefinite detention of detainees. But as I’ve said many times, this is a core conservative value. I can not accept any “conservatism” that countenances giving government the one power that government should never be allowed to have — the power to declare someone an enemy of the state, jail them indefinitely and torture them. You can not possibly be a friend of liberty if you support this most fundamental violation of liberty. And the notion that it’s OK if it’s not Americans — keeping in mind that several American have been victimized by torture — doesn’t wash with me. Our fundamental liberties are intrinsic in our status as humans (given to us by God, if you are religious). They are not given to us by government; they are part of who we are. The Constitution does not grant rights, it requires government to protect rights that already exist. Conservatives used to believe those rights were given to us by God. Now they have bought the line that they are given to us by government.
While I despise taxes, I believe it may be necessary to raise them in order to balance the budget. This is probably my biggest break from the bulk of conservative and libertarian thought. If it’s possible to balance the budget without tax hikes, I’m all for it. But I doubt that the necessary cuts in defense, Social Security and Medicare will happen. Tax cuts are, to me, not an intrinsically conservative position. They are an outgrowth of our skepticism of government. But they are trumped by the need for fiscal responsibility. Taxes are bad, but debt is worse. This is why Ronald Reagan raised taxes. I like the approach the Tories are taking: balance the budget first; then we can talk tax cuts.
I’m slightly less opposed to social safety nets. I think welfare reform was one of Clinton’s greater achievements. And the expansion of the Food Stamp program under Bush and Obama is disturbing. But there’s a balance to be struck between helping people in need without making them dependent. Reflexive opposition to this is not conservative, although I will agree that the welfare state has grown too much over the last decade.
The “conservative” punditsphere has moved way too far away from me on the subject of Israel. It’s one thing to support Israel, as I do. But they’ve gone to the point of refusing to question or criticize anything Israel does, including stupid and provocative expansions of the settlements.
I’ve come to accept that global warming is probably real. While I oppose the bone-headed collectivist “solutions” being proposed for it, I think it’s a real danger we need to address. It infuriates me that the GOP has embraced anti-science loons like Chris Monckton because they don’t like the idea of global warming or the people talking about it.
When I look over this list, the uniting feature is that I have not changed, the landscape has. Policies that were good ideas have been chased too far, dogma has become the order of the day. The GOP has taken good ideas and chased them into a cul de sac. And on culture issues, they’ve gotten more extreme. I don’t agree with everything in this diatribe, but it cuts deep. Here’s Bainbridge again on the problem: the lack of prudence and caution in today’s GOP; the canonization of views on taxes, regulation and government; is alarming. During the debt debate, the GOP openly contemplated default. That’s not a “conservatism” I can embrace. It’s a dim-bulb populism masquerading as conservatism.
I’m in favor of being tough on crime, but there’s a limit to how far I want to go. I believe that there are evil people out there who want to destroy this country, but that does not excuse any excess in the War on Terror. I oppose poverty entitlement, but that opposition falls shy of letting people starve. I want low taxes, but I want balanced books more.
So it’s really not that I’ve moved left; it’s that the GOP and conservative punditsphere has move right. I haven’t left them; they’ve left me. I’m changed my positions not despite my temperamental conservatism but because of it.
And I’m fine with that. I recently read Declaration of Independents and I’m coming more and more to believe that the salvation of this nation lies in uniting around issues, rather than parties. The party system and even the system of “conservative and liberals” serve mainly to empower the current leadership, to keep us fighting each other while the government runs wild with abuses of liberties and out-of-control spending.
The SOPA fight was a model of where we need to go: sensible people of all political persuasions grabbing both parties and shaking them by the ankles until they cut it the fuck out. It was inspiring to see my friends, colleagues, fellow bloggers and pundits — from red meat conservative to vegan tofurkey liberal — unite. And while it may seem that there is too much separation in our politics on critical issues — notably how to handle the exploding deficit — I don’t think those problems are insoluble. I don’t think a solution can’t be found that will make everyone … well not happy … but maybe equally unhappy.
The solution just doesn’t lie with either of our two parties.