Thursday, April 28, 2011

What Are Liberal Values?

What Are Liberal Values?

I am currently taking a class called "History of the Modern Conservative Movement". My professor is an ardent conservative. He usually does not engage directly in political arguments during class, but he occasionally challenges liberal ideas in an indirect and subtle way. He'll offer a conservative attack on a liberal idea, and then say "this is what conservatives tend to think, not necessarily what I think - and you're taking this class to hear the conservative view, so here you go".

My professor addressed the following challenge to liberals during the first month of class, and I have been considering how to answer his questions since then:

"A conservative recognizes the same rights that have been traditionally recognized by thinkers such as John Locke: life, liberty, and property. Also, a conservative believes that these rights are not given by the government - but by an external source. I always want to ask liberals this: what is your vision of the country? Where would you stop if you could have your ultimate wishes? Conservatives know what kind of country they want - with the protection of the same traditional rights which have been the heritage of America since the Founding. But liberals keep trying to create new 'rights'. Where will you stop? You can see that there may be a kind of validity to Hayek's argument that once citizens depend on the government for more and more 'rights', the government can become oppressive."

Why do liberals keep trying to invent new rights? This is the wrong question.

What's the right question?

Why aren't conservatives doing more to preserve and secure the rights they cherish?

That's the correct question.

Securing Our Rights

Life. Liberty. Property. That's a celebrated trifecta - a trilogy - a trinity - and it seems simple and convenient enough to understand. If you're an American, you heard about it from Thomas Jefferson, who scribbled something about "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" once upon a time.

Isn't it enough that the government assist individuals in their pursuit of these three things? Why should the government do otherwise? Government is inherently oppressive - the less it does, the better the country.

Point taken - let's start there. Suppose you want to establish a government solely devoted to ensuring the rights of life, liberty, and property. Let's assume that the government should only intervene in cases where the public cannot accomplish a task effectively on its own, and the task relates directly to one of our big three times: life, liberty, or property. For each right, let's assess the capacity of individuals to secure the right on their own, without the intervention of government, and see if it's plausible for a government to take any additional measures to secure those rights.


The right to life is the right to personal security. If society is enmeshed in a condition of anarchy and lawlessness, the right to life may be extremely difficult to secure. Can private citizens secure law and order successfully without the aid of a government? Perhaps - to a limited extent and for a small scale. A voluntary association of citizens could access a certain supply of small arms and protect a smaller area. However, most people lack the resources to defend themselves against more threatening fears, such as a conventional military or terrorist attack.

Another option is to establish a corporation which individuals pay to protect them. However, it would be difficult to distinguish in an emergency who paid dues and who did not. Further, by failing to address a public threat only because someone did not pay for protection, there could be harm to those who did pay. It would be far more practical to establish a police force or a military. I feel that this assertion is non-controversial, and that the majority of conservatives would agree with me on this.


Liberty is a difficult concept to understand. It's not a tangible object, like life or property. Alexis de Tocqueville noted this in "Democracy in America", when contrasting public support for liberty and equality: because equality is more tangible and easier to understand, there is a danger that the public will always favor measures which bolster equality at the cost of weakening liberty.

Unfortunately, the problem is even worse than de Tocqueville imagined. The public also is liable to favor measures which bolster security at the cost of weakening liberty. However, this assertion cuts across many political ideologies. I know conservatives and liberals who are wildly opposed across political issues who would make this same argument regarding the dangers of abandoning liberty in the name of security. The funny thing about this phenomenon is that it is completely foreseeable. The culprit here is that there is a wide variety of definitions of liberty.

I told you liberty was a renegade. How many possible human activities can you imagine? That's how many definitions of the word 'liberty' exist today.

Rights as Restraints

This quibble over the meaning of the word 'liberty' leads me to an important point about the understanding of rights: many of the Enlightenment thinkers believed that rights can only be secured when the actions of other people are restrained. My professor for History of the Modern Conservative Movement put it this way: "our Founders believed that with every right comes a certain responsibility".

It's no wonder liberty is preposterously hard to grasp - it's an internally contradictory concept. Every person who uses the word 'liberty' has a hidden assumption of which kinds of behavior citizens should have liberty to choose. Generally, it has been suggested that the proper limit on action should be taken when an action would infringe on another person's life, liberty, or property. Said another way: you can basically have the liberty to do what you want until you take away someone else's liberty.

Let's assume we can decide that the type of liberty we should protect is the kind that does not take away someone else's liberty - that's a simple enough definition. Now let's return to the original premise of our discussion: what should be done to secure liberty (as we have defined it), and who should be in charge of those efforts?

Reconsidering Liberty

To secure liberty as we have defined it (that individuals should have the liberty to do all things which do not remove someone else's rights) - let's try to identify some actions which may or may not violate liberty, and decide on that basis whether they are permissible. To secure liberty, we should want to stop actions which erode it.

Does abortion violate rights? If the fetus is a person, then it has a certain set of rights which should be considered. However, the mother is also a person who has a certain set of rights, too. When does the personhood of the fetus eclipse the right to liberty a woman has over her own body?

Does the death penalty violate rights? If a person has been convicted of murder, that individual has already violated another person's liberty. Should the government violate a person's rights just because he or she did it first-isn't that fighting a wrong with a wrong? Or, should the government remove the liberty of a criminal to protect the liberty of the public?

Does a ban on online gambling violate rights?

Does a ban on marijuana violate rights?

Does a ban on same-sex marriage violate rights?

I hope you are beginning to understand the difficulty of weighing liberty against other rights. It is an extremely serious and delicate matter to consider just how far a government should act to limit the actions of individuals in order to protect the liberty of other citizens. Where is the balance between the greatest freedom of action and the strongest possible security of the rights of others?

I have heard conservatives argue this one way and I have heard liberals argue this another way, but both sides should agree that the question is a matter of balance and difficult to discern.

A Return to Our Premise

I mentioned earlier that there are two questions hanging over this exploration of rights:

1. Why do liberals keep trying to invent new rights?
2. Why aren't conservatives doing more to preserve and secure the rights they cherish?

It may appear that liberals accept a broader number of rights besides the major three enumerated traditionally: life, liberty, and property. However, I reject this view. I believe that liberals have a different perception of what is necessary to preserve and secure life, liberty, and property.

A liberal assumes that each right is dependent on a host of others. A liberal has a more extensive idea of what each of the three traditional natural rights entails.

If a bank forecloses on my home because they offered fraudulent mortgage terms, my right to property is violated.

If a corporation imported goods from China which contained poisonous lead, and I fall ill from ingesting it, my right to life is violated.

If the institution of public education is dismantled, and my ability to participate in civic processes in an engaged manner is therefore lacking, my right to liberty is violated.

A 'right to health care' is a right to life. A 'right to education' is a right to liberty. A 'right to consumer protection' is a right to life and a right to property, depending on the case. This is obvious, intuitive, and self-evident to liberals.

Does it make sense that these things are natural extensions of the rights to life, liberty, and property? Can a coherent notion of the rights to life, liberty, and property exist without guaranteeing those conditions which allow them to flourish?

A liberal doesn't want new rights: a liberal wants to secure the rights we have, and is dismayed when conservatives refuse to act to protect those rights for all Americans.

1 comment:

James said...

Very thoughtful post. Let me try to answer some of the questions just for fun.

On abortion: I think that the question ultimately does come down to whether it's a person. However, I don't buy the left-wing argument that it's "part of a woman's body." It's clearly not anymore than any other animal in a dependent relationship is part of another creature. The real question to me is whether it's a person or a form of property.

The death penalty, while morally wrong in my opinion, does not violate rights in the same way that incarceration doesn't because the person has violated the social compact.

Gambling, marijuana, same-sex marriage. The first and the third at least should not be restricted, as they are violations of liberty. Marijuana is a bit more difficult because one person's use of it can have adverse effects upon others, so the question is whether you wait for the injury to arrest someone or proactively ban it.

Anyway, those are my thoughts. An interesting read. Thanks for sharing.