Thursday, May 31, 2007

Conservatism vs. liberalism

George Will writes today about the differences between what conservatives and liberals believe, going back to the difference between equality of opportunity and equality of outcomes. Both revere liberty and equality, but liberals tend to see different outcomes as a result of inequalities that must be corrected by government. Conservatives prize the liberty to pursue one's own outcomes even though that involves inevitable inequalities of results. To address those inequalities of outcomes that liberals despise, they embrace an ever-expanding government and thus inevitably limit liberty to pursue individual happiness.
Liberalism increasingly seeks to deliver equality in the form of equal dependence of more and more people for more and more things on government.

Hence liberals' hostility to school choice programs that challenge public education's semi-monopoly. Hence hostility to private accounts funded by a portion of each individual's Social Security taxes. Hence their fear of Health Savings Accounts (individuals who purchase high-deductible health insurance become eligible for tax-preferred savings accounts from which they pay their routine medical expenses -- just as car owners do not buy automobile insurance to cover oil changes). Hence liberals' advocacy of government responsibility for -- and, inevitably, rationing of -- health care, which is 16 percent of the economy, and rising.

Steadily enlarging dependence on government accords with liberalism's ethic of common provision, and with the liberal party's interest in pleasing its most powerful faction -- public employees and their unions.
When put like this, I believe that the conservative case can be a winner among a great many Americans.
Conservatism argues, as did the Founders, that self-interestedness is universal among individuals, but the dignity of individuals is bound up with the exercise of self-reliance and personal responsibility pursuing one's interests. Liberalism argues that equal dependence on government minimizes social conflicts. Conservatism's rejoinder is that the entitlement culture subverts social peace by the proliferation of rival dependencies.

The entitlement mentality encouraged by the welfare state exacerbates social conflicts -- between generations (the welfare state transfers wealth to the elderly), between racial and ethnic groups (through group preferences) and between all organized interests (from farmers to labor unions to recipients of corporate welfare) as government, not impersonal market forces, distributes scarce resources. This, conservatism insists, explains why as government has grown so has cynicism about it.

Racial preferences are the distilled essence of liberalism, for two reasons. First, preferences involve identifying groups supposedly disabled by society -- victims who, because of their diminished competence, must be treated as wards of government. Second, preferences vividly demonstrate liberalism's core conviction that government's duty is not to allow social change but to drive change in the direction the government chooses. Conservatism argues that the essence of constitutional government involves constraining the state in order to allow society ample scope to spontaneously take unplanned paths.

Conservatism embraces President Kennedy's exhortation to "Ask not what your country can do for you -- ask what you can do for your country," and adds: You serve your country by embracing a spacious and expanding sphere of life for which your country is not responsible.
A political candidate who could make that sort of argument in favor of the core beliefs of conservatism and explain how those beliefs translate into policy would be an exciting and inspiring figure for so many who are natural conservatives. Such a candidate could answer the core beliefs central to programs such as Obama's and Hillary Clinton's proposed policies. I'm not sure that we've seen a Republican candidate who could frame his own beliefs in such terms and communicate to an audience why a desire for a smaller government is not cold-hearted but instead reflects an innate respect for human liberty.