Political ideologies proceed in a circle. Beginning arbitrarily with conservatism and moving clockwise, there are roughly the following broad types of ideology: conservatism, anti-statism (libertarianism), and statism. Statism is roughly divided into left-statism (“liberalism”or “progressivism”, left-populism) and right-statism (faux conservatism, right-populism). Left-statism and right-statism are distinguishable by their stated goals and constituencies.
By statism, I mean the idea that government should do more than merely defend the people from force and fraud. Conservatism and libertarianism are both anti-statist, but there is a subtle and crucial difference between them, which I will explain.
Not everyone has a coherent ideology of a kind that I discuss below. Far from it. There is much vacillation between left-statism and right-statism. And there is what I call the squishy center of the electorate which is easily swayed by promises and strongly influenced by bandwagon effects. In general, there is what one writer calls clientelism:
the distribution of resources by political power through an agreement in which politicians – the patrons – make this allocation dependent on the political support of the beneficiaries – their clients. Clientelism emerges at the intersection of political power with social and economic activity.
Politicians themselves are prone to stating ideological positions to which they don’t adhere, out of moral cowardice and a strong preference for power over principle. Republicans have been especially noteworthy in this respect. Democrats simply try to do what they promise to do — increase the power of government (albeit at vast but unmentioned economic and social cost).
In what follows, I will ignore the squishy center and the politics of expediency. I will focus on the various ideologies, the contrasts between them, and the populist allure of left-statism and right-statism. Because the two statisms are so much alike under the skin, I will start with conservatism and work around the circle to them. Conservatism gets more attention than the other ideologies because it is intellectually richer.
I count three kinds of conservatism, which aren’t necessarily compatible with each other. The first kind is the conservatism of belief (ideological conservatism), which bears a passing resemblance to libertarianism. But that resemblance is only superficial, as is libertarianism.
The second kind of conservatism is the conservatism of temperament or disposition. It can be found among persons whose beliefs are decidedly anti-conservative, that is, among “liberals” of the modern stripe. Whereas conservatism of belief firmly rejects statism in favor of the liberty — voluntarily cooperative, mutually beneficial behavor — “liberals” (i.e., leftists) firmly embrace statism to the detriment of liberty.
There is a third kind of conservatism. It bears a passing resemblance to ideological conservatism, but it is shallow. Its proponents — and they are legion — invoke it only as an excuse to take sides against “liberals”. But they are perfectly willing to accept governmental intervention in certain kinds of social and economic affairs, as long as the intervention advances their particular interests. This faux-conservatism is just statism in disguise.
But it springs from the same source as populism, and is hard to distinguish from it. A populist rightly resents privileges that accrue to those in power, those with access to power, or those who reap the benefits of power. It is only natural to want equal privileges, and to try to obtain them by vesting populist leaders with power.
Opposed to conservatism, in all of its guises, but oddly aligned with libertarianism is the kind of statism known as “liberalism” or “progressivism”. (The “sneer quotes” signify that the terms are badly misapplied; modern “liberalism” isn’t liberal and “progressivism” is just a euphemism for coercive social and economic policies.)
The Conservatism of Belief
Most persons — including most of those who call themselves conservatives — associate conservatism with a bundle of political positions; for example:
small and unintrusive government, where States fully exercise their constitutional powers, Congress exercises only its strictly limited and enumerated powers doesn’t delegate them to bureaucrats, and judges apply constitutional laws and do not make new laws by interpreting the Constitution’s “emanations and penumbras”
strict application of the U.S. Constitution against State and local usurpation of freedom of contract and property rights (including but not limited to the banning of labor unions as contrary to freedom of contract and property rights)
low taxes, just enough to fund the constitutional functions of governments (central, State, and local)
law and order (tough and strictly enforced criminal codes)
strong national defense, applied only when the immediate interests of Americans are at stake, but applied without limitation once a decision to go to war has been taken
membership in international organizations limited to the purpose of defending such interests
limited legal immigration, with strong defenses against illegal immigration and strict naturalization laws (including the end of birth-right citizenship)
freedom of religion, including the freedom to invoke the Deity on government property
freedom of association, including the right to refuse to do business of any kind with anyone notwithstanding race, sex, sexual orientation, national origin, etc.
school choice, with tax-funded vouchers for private schools (including religious ones)
unrestricted gun ownership (but with restrictions on age, criminal history, and mental ability — but not an easily misused evaluation of mental stability)
a rollback of the voting age to 21, and preferably higher and with a property-ownership requirement (“skin in the game”)
All of this is consistent with the understanding that the things government does for people, beyond its legitimate protective functions, are costly. The costs are direct, in the form of taxes and regulations that divert resources from private uses, stultify economic growth, and shape private affairs according to the dictates of lawmakers and regulators. The costs are also indirect and long-lasting, in that governmental largesse undermines self-reliance, initiative, and the voluntary social institutions (including markets) that embed not only the specific knowledge of individual citizens but also the accumulated wisdom of long experience.
The Conservatism of Temperament
The second kind of conservatism is a temperamental (or dispositional) reliance on the accumulated wisdom of long experience, which is embedded in cultural traditions (including religious ones). Change isn’t ruled out, but it must have a practical purpose, be proven in actual use (as opposed to a politician’s or bureaucrat’s master plan), and help rather than harm effective social and economic relationships. (Given the nature of conservatism as a preference for the tried-and-true that emerges from private action, it is conservative to reject government imposed economic and social arrangements that are contrary to those listed above, and to strive to undo them. I make this point because anti-conservatives sometimes, laughably, try to portray acceptance of long-standing governmental programs and edicts as conservative.)
Here then, is a contradiction. Persons who are conservative by disposition often oppose the political positions listed above. I know many such persons, and I suspect that they constitute a healthy majority of persons who subscribe to anti-conservative (i.e., “liberal” and libertarian) policy positions. And it works in the opposite direction, too; that is, among persons who profess conservative policy positions but who lead heedless, reckless, feckless lives.
What accounts for this contradiction? For one thing, it’s easy to separate one’s way of living from one’s abstract beliefs about such things as God and governance. For another thing, one’s stated (and even deeply held) beliefs may be a matter of influence and association, rather than disposition or temperament.
In any event, if a conservative by temperament adopts ideological conservatism, he probably won’t budge from it. He will instinctively embrace it firmly because governmental interference in private affairs, with its arbitrariness and unintended consequences, offends his understanding that change should be tested in the acid of use by those directly affected by it.
The discussion thus far may smack of libertarianism, which encompasses anarchism (or anarcho-capitalism) and minarchism (the night-watchman state). Fear not. There is an essential difference between conservatism and libertarianism. Conservatives value voluntary social institutions not just because they embed accumulated wisdom. Conservatives value voluntary social institutions because they bind people in mutual trust and respect, which foster mutual forbearance and breed social comity in the face of provocations. Adherence to long-standing social norms helps to preserve the wisdom embedded in them while also signalling allegiance to the community that gave rise to the norms.
Libertarians, on the other hand, following the lead of their intellectual progenitor, John Stuart Mill, are anxious to throw off what they perceive as social “oppression”. The root of libertarianism is Mill’s “harm principle”, which I have exposed for the fraud that it is (e.g., here and here).
Rather than repeat myself, I turn to Scott Yenor, writing in “The Problem with the ‘Simple Principle’ of Liberty” (Law & Liberty, March 19, 2018). Yenor begins by quoting the harm principle:
The sole end for which mankind are warranted, individually or collectively, in interfering with the liberty of action of any of their number, is self-protection. . . . The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. . . .The only part of the conduct of anyone, for which he is amenable to society, is that which concerns others. In the part that merely concerns himself, his independence is, of right, absolute. Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign.
This is the foundational principle of libertarianism, and it is deeply flawed, as Yenor argues. He ends with this:
[T]he simple principle of [individual] liberty undermines community and compromises character by compromising the family. As common identity and the family are necessary for the survival of liberal society—or any society—I cannot believe that modes of thinking based on the “simple principle” alone suffice for a governing philosophy. The principle works when a country has a moral people, but it doesn’t make a moral people.
There’s more. Libertarianism, as it is usually explained and presented, lacks an essential ingredient: morality. Yes, libertarians espouse a superficially plausible version of morality — the harm principle, quoted above by Scott Yeonor. But the harm principle is empty rhetoric. Harm must be defined, and its definition must arise from social norms. The alternative, which libertarians — and “liberals” — obviously embrace, is that they are uniquely endowed with the knowledge of what is “right”, and therefore should be enforced by the state. Not the least of their sins against social comity is the legalization of abortion and same-sex “marriage” (detailed arguments at the links).
Liberty is not an abstraction. It is the scope of action that is allowed by long-standing, voluntarily evolved social norms. It is that restrained scope of action which enables people to coexist willingly, peacefully, and cooperatively for their mutual benefit. That is liberty, and it is served by conservatism, not by amoral, socially destructive libertarianism.
Some libertarians call themselves classical liberals because libertarianism is akin to the old kind of liberalism espoused by J.S. Mill. The distinguishing feature of libertarianism — apart from its amorality — is its emphasis on negative rights, which are rights that all can enjoy equally because they don’t require action on the part of others. In fact, they require inaction because a negative right is the right to be left alone unless one is causing harm. Thus, not being murdered is a negative right because all it requires is people refrain from murder.
Therein lies the paradox that puts libertarianism athwart conservatism: Harm can’t really be defined without reference to the very social norms (which include moral norms) that libertarians reject as oppressive.
LEFT-STATISM: “LIBERALISM” OR “PROGRESSIVISM”
Liberalism underwent a transition in the late 1800s and early 1900s, and became something entirely different, which I denote as “liberalism”. The name was preserved for a long time, until “liberals” began to call themselves “progressives”, but they’re the same thing.
At any rate, “liberalism” grew out of classical liberalism when the notion of rights was expanded to include positive rights. Those are rights which do require action on the part of others; for example, the payment of taxes to subsidize the poor (as the state defines them) and the right to education, which requires that taxpayers subsidize public schools, which teach that taxpayers ought to subsidize many things, that criminals are victims, that the Constitution is an out-dated and cumbersome document, and on into the night.
There were no essential differences between the new “liberals” and the American “progressives” of the late 19th century and early 20th century. The term “progressive” eventually dropped out of use, and “liberal” took its place until the late 20th century. The rebirth of a coherent strand of American conservatism, marked by ascendancy of Ronald Reagan, put “liberals” on the defensive. Their coping tactic wasn’t to rethink their ideology but to rename it as “progressivism”, which has become something that “liberals” and “progressives” cannot or will not acknowledge: left-statism.
Nothing is off the table for a left-statist. The state must bring everyone in line with whatever passes for “progressive” thinking at the moment: anti-religionism, same-sex marriage, gender fluidity, “women must be believed”, untrammeled immigration, environmental extremism, the end of fossil fuels, socialized medicine, universal basic income, universal day-care, etc., etc., etc. Such things aren’t merely to be enacted, but transgressions against them must be punished by public shaming if not by criminal penalties. And nothing can stand in the way of the furtherance of the left-statist agenda — certainly not the Constitution. If Congress balks, use the courts, regulatory agencies, and left-dominated State and local governments. Above all, use public schools, universities, and the media to overwhelm the opposition by swaying public opinion and indoctrinating the next generation of voters.
If there is a distinction between “liberalism”, “progressivism”, and left-statism, it is one of attitude rather than aims. Many a “liberal” and “progressive” wants things that require oppressive state control, but is loath to admit the truth that oppressive state control is required to have such things. These naifs want to believe the impossible: that the accomplishment of the “progressive” agenda is compatible with the preservation of liberty. The left-statist simply doesn’t care about liberty; the accomplishment of the left-statistagenda is the end that justifies any and all means. Those “liberals” and “progressives” who aren’t left-statists by attitude are merely useful idiots to hard-core, Lenin-like left-statists.
THE LEFT-RIGHT DIVIDE
The Importance of Taking Sides
At bottom, that which separates people along political lines isn’t necessarily disposition, temperament, or considered ideological positions. It may be, rather, the taking of sides. And the taking of sides depends greatly on influence and association. Those things, in turn, lead to self-selection: the choice to live in place X, work at place Y, or join group Z because the prevailing views at X, Y, or Z are congruent with one’s own views. It is only later that the joiner will discover that there are uncongenial persons at X, Y, or Z — persons whose conduct (arising out of disposition or temperament) is hard to countenance. Thus the never-ending story of intramural warfare that abounds even in places that often are either mostly conservative or mostly “liberal”: universities, workplaces (especially “high tech” and “low tech” ones), clubs, and churches.
There are many on the left who are there because it is convenient or comfortable to take that side. The same is true on the right.
When I learn that a so-called conservative (e.g., Max Boot) has renounced conservatism and adopted the language of leftism, I wonder how he could have changed so quickly. But the answer is simple: he didn’t change. All that changed were his beliefs of convenience.
Populism, according to Wikipedia,
refers to a range of approaches which emphasise the role of “the people” and often juxtapose this group against “the elite”….
… Populists typically present “the elite” as comprising the political, economic, cultural, and media establishment, all of which are depicted as a homogenous entity and accused of placing the interests of other groups—such as foreign countries or immigrants—above the interests of “the people”. According to this approach, populism is a thin-ideology which is combined with other, more substantial thick ideologies such as nationalism, liberalism, or socialism. Thus, populists can be found at different locations along the left–right political spectrum and there is both left-wing populism and right-wing populism.
Which is to say that populism is a facet of taking sides. Which side you’re on depends on which side you’re against. Persons who believe themselves to be oppressed in some way will take sides with those who promise to deliver them from their oppressors.
On the left the “oppressed” include persons of color (including illegal immigrants from the south), women, gender-confused persons, die-hard unionist, ethnic (but not Orthodox) Jews (who in America merely imagine themselves to be oppressed), and the poor (regardless of how they came to be poor). Members of those groups are considered traitors if they choose to be on the right. The “thick ideology” with which left-populists identify is “progressivism”, which is to say the use of state power to deliver the privileges that they believe are theirs by right.
Populism, in other words, is just statism for the benefit of non-elites.
RIGHT-STATISM: FROM RIGHT-POPULISM TO FAUX CONSERVATISM
The statism of left-populists is mirrored by that of right-populists.
The “thick” ideology with which right-populists identify is ideological conservatism. Many of the positions listed under that heading, can be seen through the lens of populism as anti-elitist. Which is to say that they are anti-“progressive”, inasmuch as “progressivism” is the reigning ideology among elites.
A right-populist will not embrace conservative ideology because it implies smaller government, or because it fits his disposition. He will embrace conservative ideology as a protest against “progressivism”, while wanting government to do the things for him that government is perceived as doing for the left’s clients, and for the big corporations that are perceived as allied with the left and benefiting from government-granted privileges.
This isn’t to say, by any means, that right-populists are just as wrong-headed as the elitists they scorn. Right-populist instincts, if enacted, would result in much less costly and oppressive governance than elitist programs. There are vast and largely uncounted economic and social costs attached to the schemes hatched and enacted by elitists, which include these:
- racial and ethnic preferences in college admissions, employment, and housing
- mandatory accommodations by businesses to “identity” groups (but not working-class, heterosexual ones)
- the opening of borders, to the detriment of middle-class taxpayers and American workers at the low end of the pay scale
- the lowering of trade barriers, which benefits authoritarian foreign regimes (e.g., China) and subsidized foreign companies at the expense of American workers
- futile attempts to eradicate poverty by subsidizing idleness and broken homes
- futile attempts to educate persons above their innate ability
- various kinds of environmental extremism that thwart economic progress and impose huge costs, the fight against “climate change” merely being the latest and worst — and which includes programs that favor the relatively affluent (e.g., subsidies for solar panels and electric vehicles, both of which actually require vast amounts of energy to produce, and the latter of which requires vast amount of energy to operated)
- “credentialism”, which as Arnold Kling says, “artificially inflates the incomes of professors and administrators by raising the demand for higher education”, “artificially inflates the incomes of health care professionals”, and “in government … artificially raises incomes for people who obtain degrees that have no bearing on their ability to perform”.
It is nevertheless the case that right-populists are faux conservatives.
Here’s a case in point, a not-unusual one I think: My late father-in-law had many admirable qualities. He was a career Air Force officer who flew combat missions in World War II and the Korean War. He was a faithful and considerate husband, a good father to his children (though not around as much as a civilian father would have been), a steadfast friend, a good neighbor, and a fount of jokes and song lyrics. He was thrifty (and thus left his widow with ample funds to see her through her old age), and he kept his yard and garden in good trim.
But after my father-in-law’s second retirement (from the job that he took when he retired from the Air Force), he became increasingly outspoken about politics. He adopted the conservative mantle and called himself as a Republican, like many an ex-Democrat Southerner. He grumbled about big government (reasonably enough), but would defend “his” Social Security benefits; denigrated toll roads (as if roads should be “free”); distrusted market outcomes, often stating that the price of something was “too high,” as if he knew what it should be; claimed repeatedly that he should receive free VA hospital care (though his income and wealth disqualified him); railed against illegal immigration while paying illegal immigrants to clean his house; and listened faithfully to Rush Limbaugh and Bill O’Reilly (a mirror image of the equally rude and blustering Chris Matthews), parroting whatever lines they were peddling at the moment, without critically evaluating their offerings.
That story is easily transposed to tens of millions of persons who are similarly faux-conservatives because their conservatism marks them as (a) congenial to their peers and (b) against things that “undesirables” are for. In the case of my late father-in-law, the “undesirables” were Demon-crats and various identity groups that he viewed (rightly) as seeking handouts and privileges.
That story is also easily transposed, in reverse, to tens of millions of persons who are reflexive “progressive” because of the company they keep, and whose “deplorables” include persons like my late father-in-law — a man who fought for his country, worked hard and paid his taxes, married for life, and was a good neighbor (even though his neighbors didn’t share his political views).
THE CIRCLE CAN BE BROKEN
That completes my journey around the political circle, and into its squishy center. The circle isn’t smooth because politics isn’t a mathematical proposition. One’s political leanings depend on disposition, temperament, ideology, life experiences, the company one keeps — and a lot more.
Political polarization is real, but often it is only as deep as the company one keeps. It is nevertheless heartening that there is political polarization. It means that decades of indoctrination by “educators” and the media haven’t yet succeeded in turning Americans into pod people.
Intellectuals and Capitalism
Rights, Liberty, the Golden Rule, and the Legitimate State
What Is Conservatism?
Pseudo-Libertarian Sophistry vs. True Libertarianism
Positivism, “Natural Rights,” and Libertarianism
“Intellectuals and Society”: A Review
What Are “Natural Rights”?
The Golden Rule and the State
Intelligence, Personality, Politics, and Happiness
Libertarian Conservative or Conservative Libertarian?
The Left’s Agenda
More about Conservative Governance
The Meaning of Liberty
Positive Liberty vs. Liberty
We, the Children of the Enlightenment
The Left and Its Delusions
The Golden Rule as Beneficial Learning
Rights: Source, Applicability, How Held
What Is Libertarianism?
True Libertarianism, One More Time
Human Nature, Liberty, and Rationalism
The Myth That Same-Sex Marriage Causes No Harm
Politics, Sophistry, and the Academy
Subsidizing the Enemies of Liberty
Conservatives vs. “Liberals”
Why Conservatism Works
A Man for No Seasons
Bleeding-Heart Libertarians = Left-Statists
Race and Reason: The Victims of Affirmative Action
Liberty and Society
The Eclipse of “Old America”
Genetic Kinship and Society
Liberty as a Social Construct: Moral Relativism?
Defending Liberty against (Pseudo) Libertarians
Conservatism as Right-Minarchism
The Culture War
The Pseudo-Libertarian Temperament
Parsing Political Philosophy (II)
Modern Liberalism as Wishful Thinking
Getting Liberty Wrong
Romanticizing the State
Libertarianism and the State
“Liberalism” and Personal Responsibility
Ruminations on the Left in America
My View of Libertarianism
More About Social Norms and Liberty
The Euphemism Conquers All
Old America, New America, and Anarchy
The Authoritarianism of Modern Liberalism, and the Conservative Antidote
Society, Polarization, and Dissent
Another Look at Political Labels
Non-Judgmentalism as Leftist Condescension
An Addendum to (Asymmetrical) Ideological Warfare
Economically Liberal, Socially Conservative
The Transgender Fad and Its Consequences
The Harm Principle Revisited: Mill Conflates Society and State
Liberty and Social Norms Re-examined
Natural Law, Natural Rights, and the Real World
The Internet-Media-Academic Complex vs. Real Life
Natural Law and Natural Rights Revisited
Roundup: Civil War, Civil War, Solitude, Transgenderism, Academic Enemies, and Immigration
If Men Were Angels
The Vast Left-Wing Conspiracy
Leftism As Crypto-Fascism: The Google Paradigm
What Is Going On? A Stealth Revolution
Libertarianism, Conservatism, and Political Correctness
Disposition and Ideology
“Capitalism” Is a Dirty Word
“Tribalists”, “Haters”, and Psychological Projection
Utopianism, Leftism, and Dictatorship
My View of Mill, Endorsed
Abortion, the “Me” Generation, and the Left
Social Norms, the Left, and Social Disintegration
Suicide or Destiny?
Conservatism vs. Ideology
O.J.’s Glove and the Enlightenment
The American Electorate’s “Squishy Center”
James Burnham’s Misplaced Optimism
The Fourth Great Awakening
Not with a Bang
The Fall of America
Power Is Power
The Left-Libertarian Axis
What Ike Also Said
The Enlightenment’s Fatal Flaw
Conservatism, Society, and the End of America
Conservatism vs. Leftism and “Liberalism” on the Moral Dimension
“Libertarianism”, the Autism Spectrum, and Ayn Rand
A Paradox for Liberals
Intellectuals and Authoritarianism
Socialism, Communism, and Three Paradoxes
Understanding the “Resistance”: The Enemies Within
Leninthink and Left-think
Rawls vs. Reality
The Subtle Authoritarianism of the “Liberal Order”
The Shallowness of Secular Ethical Systems
The Allure of Leftism
Can Libertarianism and Conservatism Be Reconciled?