Wednesday, December 3, 2008

ideology of freedom?

While musing about Harvey Milk's identity as a conservative prior to his (pardon the lame term) gay awakening, Reihan says, "Faced with ferociously hostile police and the constant threat of public disgrace, it makes perfect sense that lesbians and gay men in the 1950s and 1960s would have been instinctive libertarians, leery of further empowering an already overweening, overly intrusive state."

The funny thing here of course is that it was precisely the Goldwaterite right that then and now sought to use the repressive apparatus of the state to oppress gays. Now there's no need to scold Reihan at all about this; the idea that conservatism acts to get the government off of our backs is a ubiquitous meme in our dialogue. But as with the example of gay rights, I wonder if that's really true at all.

Gay rights is probably the most visible example of a traditionally liberal policy preference which "gets government off of our backs." Comprehensive drug reform and decriminalization is much more popular among left-wing circles than right. Legalization of prostitution (allowing consenting adults to exchange sex for money if they choose) too. Opposition to the draft, perhaps the most coercive function of government, was a liberal cause. Though we're getting pretty deep into the philosophical weeds here, support for the death penalty is inherently an extension of the state's power, as it gives the government the ability to adjudicate even life and death. In general it seems to me that the permissive side is the liberal side, in terms of behavior. (Gun control is an obvious exception, although that is an issue that for the time has been almost totally abandoned by the Democrats.)

I suppose this all seems like boilerplate "economic freedom/social constraint" stuff and I don't mean to be so banal. But it's worth pointing out the amount of water carried for conservatism by the "free from government influence meme". Now where that comes from, of course, is economic freedom. Maybe this is simply a matter of culture, but I've never quite seen how that jibes. When I think of the government restricting my freedoms, I think of it in terms of what the government might try to prevent me from doing: sleeping with who I want to sleep with, ingesting what I want to ingest, dressing and acting and living the way that I want to. Yet there's few aspects of behavior that are actually denied by liberal policies, only tax rates that are levied on people and businesses, and regulations on businesses concerning health and safety and fair hiring practices. Are there excesses, idiocies and useless mechanisms in many of these regulations? No question. Does that amount to a damning critique of regulation in general? Not really.

Now, people can certainly have principled opposition to high tax rates, and perhaps even to workplace regulation. The idea is always that taxes keep people from doing what they want to do, so they're coercive, although I've never really been convinced that people say "Oh, if I make above X number of dollars, you'll tax me more? OK, I'll stop trying to be rich." To tax protestors I have only the basic liberal line, which happens to be true: you couldn't make money without a free and stable society, and so taxes are not some punishment meted out to you for succeeding but instead are necessary to ensure that you exist in the kind of community capable of providing you with the tools necessary to succeed. As the bumper sticker says, pay your taxes, America is worth it.

All I'm asking for here, really, is a reconsideration of what ideology exactly is an ideology of liberation. Surely the notion of a gay man turning to conservatism to be free makes more sense in terms of rhetoric than practice. I may not be saying much, here, I don't know.


E.D. Kain said...

Well, there is no doubt that the current conservative mainstream is not going to get government off of our backs. There is an element in the social-conservative movement that also permeates the more secular and moderate branches, that believes religiosity must be legislated. I won't say morality, since I think morality is inherent in our legal system, regardless of one's political leanings.

Now, Goldwater on the other hand, was very much the opposite sort of Republican. He denounced the bully tactics of the religious right; he pushed for acceptance of gays in the military...he actually stood up for those aspects of limited government, not just the sort that benefit business or keep taxes low.

Now, I've said for some time this constant call for low taxes and deregulation is not the right approach for conservatives to take. First they have to make the case that their limited taxation will also lead to limited spending. No more supply side pipe-dreams. Then they have to actually show that they can govern properly. It's one thing to want limited government, but you have to still have smart government--and it's fine to want to trim back regulations or replace them with better ones, but there has to be a sense of oversight and transparency.

I also think that there is a huge difference between wanting limited government and wanting to privatize everything. But that strays a bit too far...

Good post.

Mark said...

The biggest problem I have with this post is that it uses libertarianism and conservatism interchangeably. As a libertarian, I have no problem acknowledging that social freedoms are as or more important than certain (even most) economic freedoms. The inability of "movement conservatives" to see the paradox of advocating small government while simultaneously advocating more legislation of morality/religiosity is indeed one of the many reasons I and many/most other libertarians have ceased identifying with the Republican Party.
I do think liberals underestimate the role economic liberty plays in social liberty (even as libertarians oftentimes overestimate its importance). But the more salient point is that libertarians are NOT conservatives. To the extent we have been aligned with the conservative movement over the last 30 years, the bases for that alignment have largely been torn asunder.

Freddie said...

Both good points, Mark, and I take your meaning well ED.