Friday, March 30, 2012

Governing Philosophies, in Brief

Politicians frequently vilify the other side of a debate as "anti-American" or "anti-liberty" or as an intolerant "Mullah". Occasionally, this is justified. Usually, the other side has a different philosophical view - either due to different premises or different emphases. In teaching about public & common goods, I thought of this useful taxonomy of the major political movements in America today, as they relate to the role of government. Each view is more nuanced than I'm allowing here, for the sake of clarity.

I am particularly interested in explaining the Conservative position here, which is less ideologically or philosophically clear than the others. As has been suggested, Conservatism isn't primarily or originally a philosophical idea. Hayek calls it a defense of the "extended order", which evolved via some social form of natural selection, and is more complex than its critics appreciate.

In America, I think conservatism is more than that: it's the Yankee ideal of taking responsibility for the commons, involvement in the many community organizations that de Tocqueville wrote so much about, and the idea that one has a moral duty to account for externalities. More on this in a future post.


Carol Douglas said...

Excellent, although I think you missed the obvious rhetorical flourish that Conservatives have no interest in anyone but themselves...


taoist said...

I would have to slightly disagree with your characterization of the individualist/libertarian view of things, in that it seems to characterize libertarians as not believing in charity. I would characterize myself as a libertarian more than a conservative in many things, and I know of die hard libertarians, all of whom do believe in private citizens responsibly providing public goods. An excellent example is the Whole Foods CEO, who is strongly principled, but strongly believes that government can do nothing as effectively as private industry and charity.

Chops said...

Good point, Taoist. And it certainly is true that liberals and socialists are often charitable as well.

Garrett said...

I think your taxonomy, especially for conservatives, doesn't work. I doubt you'll find too many conservatives who think the government shouldn't provide roads, police, street lighting, fire departments etc (in fact, I bet that most self-described libertarians support many government provided public goods, anarcho-libertarians are few and far between). Furthermore, conservatives are much more likely than any of the other groups to support the biggest public good of all, the military.

I'd say the biggest difference between conservatives and liberals in your taxonomy, at least in today's America, is the level of support for non-public government provided goods (public education, welfare, farm subsidies, etc), or simply differing views on various quasi-economic policies (much less likely to support collective bargaining, environmental regs, etc).

I'd provide an alternate taxonomy.

Libertarians: Less likely to support gov't provided public goods, much less likely to support gov't redistribution/charity

Conservative: Supports gov't provided public goods, believes in private support of redistribution/charity, less likely to support gov't redistribution/charity.

Liberal: Supports gov't provided public goods and gov't provided redistribution/charity.

Socialist: Supports gov't provided public goods, redistribution/charity, and gov't provided private goods.


Chops said...

Garret -

A few things. First, I was aiming for areas of distinction. Of course, libertarians and conservatives agree with Socialists that the gov't should provide a narrow set of public goods. But that doesn't obliterate the distinction I drew.

Second, I'm not so much worried about where each group's politics are at the moment. Rather, I want to explore the underlying philosophy. Many voters support a party for reasons far removed from deeply-held beliefs. Big-military Republicans are a great example of that.

Conservatives are unlike any of the other groups because they place a high degree of philosophical emphasis on the responsibility of the individual to his community. On the other extremes, individuals are viewed as totally free agents, or as downtrodden plebians in need of governmental assistance.