The terms “liberal” and “conservative” are widely used in our political discourse. We apply them without much conscious thought. Yet, many of us who might willingly describe ourselves with one of these two labels are ourselves unsure of what we have in common with others who do likewise.
In a very general way, being liberal is thought to suggest approval of government intervention to promote an equality of treatment for all individuals under law. A liberal is also thought to support the social objective of greater equality of opportunity where the distribution of personal wealth and income are concerned. A conservative, on the other hand, is thought to favor a far more narrow interpretation of government’s responsibilities in the protection of civil liberties or pursuit of equality objectives. In point of fact, these seemingly clear distinctions tell us very little.
Except for those individuals whose writing, statements or actions puts them clearly outside the mainstream, there is considerable cross-over by so-called liberals and conservatives on many policy issues. Often, an individual’s ideological rhetoric conflicts markedly with the type of policy initiatives pursued when holding political office or serving in some advisory capacity. One reason for such inconsistencies is that our socio-political arrangements and institutions serve to mitigate and limit the range of policies around which a consensus can be built. There is a remarkably homogeneous value system holding a citizenry together, despite a nation’s tremendous diversity in ethnic, religious, and racial makeup.
Despite a strong bias in favor of the propertied and a concentration of local and national power in the hands of a select number of families, native-born citizens tend to hold to the romantic notion that the playing field is, if not perfectly level, appropriately level. Not until the late nineteenth century did institutions come under direct attack by reformers and agitators. In the twentieth century an enlarged coalition that included enlightened industrialists and public officials, forged what has been called Liberalism in the United States and Social-Democracy or Democratic-Socialism elsewhere.
The public in the United States was unwilling to consider nationalization of land or industry as proposed by European proponents of Social-Democracy or Democratic-Socialism. Reformers clamored for child labor laws, for government support of education, for the construction of hospitals, for clean drinking water and sanitation systems, and for a whole range of programs thought unnecessary or intrusive by earlier generations and by contemporary Conservatives.
Widespread unemployment in the 1930s opened the door to even more direct government intervention in the private affairs of individuals and businesses. The Second World War, the post-war anti-communist crusade, the civil rights movement, the rise of feminism and environmentalism, all contributed to the great enlargement of government enterprise and to the politics of Liberalism that has dominated the last half century.
Liberalism functions on the basis of compromise and a blend of policy choices in six key areas, which I suggest present a left-right paradigm rather different from what is generally embraced. Under liberalism, full equality of opportunity cannot be realized. The securing of liberty is, in fact, prevented under liberalism by the degree to which privilege (i.e., sanctioned inequality) dominates socio-political arrangements.
This venture into political philosophy asks the reader to think very differently about the characteristics of systems conventionally placed at the left or right, as detailed in the chart referred to at the beginning of this analysis. In the next issue of Land & Liberty, I will explain why I believe that only under cooperative individualism is the just society realized.
In the last issue of Land & Liberty, I suggested that Liberalism (as well as Social-Democracy or Democratic-Socialism) is an approach to law and public policy under which true liberty cannot exist.
There are essentially five important theoretical forms of socio-political systems. Liberalism operates to a greater or lesser degree under policies associated with either cooperative individualism or state socialism.
The greater the policy emphasis
1. on security (i.e., order)
2. on redistribution
3. on policy driven economic activity
4. on the use of manmade law to control individual behavior
5. on centralized authority and on representative (i.e., delegated) democracy
the stronger will be the pull toward a system of state socialism. Conversely, policies adopted in the direction of maximizing individual liberty, natural distribution, market (i.e., noncoercive, win-win) economic relationships, ethical constraints on behavior, decentralized authority and maximum citizen participation in government, will pull a society toward cooperative individualism.
Movement too far to the left in these policy areas supplants liberalism with harsher forms of state socialism and, potentially, totalitarianism. Policies implemented beyond the bounds of cooperative individualism pull societies into what are historically uncharted waters; there, human nature collides with the degree of cooperation and selflessness demanded under communitarianism or anarchy.
An important point to take notice of is that socio-political arrangements allowing natural law to freely operate may create equality of condition but cannot generate equality of opportunity. Only cooperative individualism (by prohibiting sanctioned inequalities to occur) establishes the conditions necessary for equality of opportunity to flourish. This is accomplished by protecting individual liberty against the criminal and economic licenses alluded to by John Locke generally, and with greater specificity by Tom Paine.
Another important characteristic of cooperative individualism is that the natural distribution of wealth to its producers be protected by the positive law. Such laws as they relate to property will clearly distinguish between production and values attributable to privilege held in the form of titleholdings to nature and licenses restricting open commerce and trade.
Labor, applied to land (i.e., nature) produces wealth. This describes the distributive process for legitimate individual property. Wealth belongs to its producer. Titleholdings and licenses are privileges, the exchange value of which is created by the nation’s willingness to uphold these claims to privilege. Therefore, this form of value (if permitted to accrue to the titleholder or licensee) is by definition unnatural property. To the extent that government fails to collect these values for the benefit of the entire nation, the nation suffers from a redistribution of wealth — from producers to those who simply claim what is produced on the basis of privilege.
Cooperative individualism works on behalf of liberty by maximizing citizen participation in government and by preventing monopolies in both property and political power. As a result, much of the societal conflict associated with other socio-political systems is mitigated by the high level of cooperation generated when individual initiative is rewarded in direct proportion to the effort expended.
History and our common sense direct us to cooperative individualism as the only means to secure for ourselves and future generations the benefits of a fundamentally just society.