The conservative trap

An interesting observation to me is that some confuse libertarian conservatism with (classical) liberalism. There are some profound differences that may be easily overlooked.

SLECO chart

SLECO chart

A classical liberal seeks individual liberty, economic freedom, a small government and rule of law. These components are shared with social liberalism and in some degree conservative liberalism. However, it does not mean implicitly demanding other individuals to be similar to oneself. A liberal loves differences. It is a privilege to be different from somebody else, not similar. Of course, similarities are welcome, but they are not a condition to live in the same society.

Whereas the libertarian conservative cares about individual liberty, it is a concept of individual liberty that conforms to her/his sense of reality. It is a sense of liberty that confines itself to the primary individual and is not concerned about other individuals. It does not mean social justice has to be included in every school of liberalism, but this does mean that it rejects value pluralism. A component that is significant to liberalism, but hardly accepted in schools of conservatism. This makes a libertarian conservative in core a conservative, and not a liberal.

Why is this so important to realize? Well, if libertarian conservatism is considered to be a subset of liberalism, it opens a window of opportunity to seek those who conform to the values of some branch of libertarian conservatism and does not promote the diversity of values. A Christian may be a Christian, a Jew may be a Jew, a Muslim may be a Muslim, and and Atheist may be an Atheist. A painter is a painter, a scientist a scientist and an economist an economist. There should only be an individual distinction with them, without projection of certain values or prejudices.

Liberalism is not solely about “live and let live”, it’s about “live without infringing on the lives of others”. Most schools of liberalism would not violate this, libertarian conservatism would. Even if the harm principle is respected to a certain degree, the implicit enforcement of monist values on other individuals reduces the pluralism of values and therefore is a restriction of liberty in society. This is why we should be wary about identifying anything or anybody who claims to be freedom-loving and advocating individual liberty with liberalism. This is not true until a truly free society is advocated too.

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The space between positive and negative liberty

Negative liberty sounds like the ideal way to realize liberty for each individual. Taking away any interference would mean a person could do whatever he or she wants.

The reality is that too much negative liberty means either isolating yourself or taking away the liberty of others.
For instance, what if that ‘interference’ becomes the other individual’s liberty? Whose negative liberty would be more important, yours or the other’s? Negative liberty alone does not offer solutions for inter-individual conflicts, other than severing communication between those individuals. But that would mean taking away the (social) liberty for those individuals to be able to interact. So in the end, if everyone gets all the negative liberty they want, everyone loses, or ends up alone.

Too much positive liberty is not good either. That would mean liberty would be a prescription, rather than a preexisting condition, which means liberty would be artificial and liberty would not be authentic and therefore not free.

However, offering negative liberty exclusively as the gospel of all liberalism (or should I say a specific branch of liberalism) would mean the deconstruction of society itself, isolating everyone from each other or either letting one steal the liberty of the other, instead of realizing the presumption that differences would find their place if everyone would have as much negative liberty as possible. There will always be the need for some positive liberty to ease conflicts between the liberty of two or more individuals and offer a solution for the paradox that an individual with all the negative liberty in the world would not have individual liberty, but individual dictatorship, and take away all his or her own social liberty, as individuals could not have the opportunity to socially develop themselves. Then, not the state would be a threat to liberty, but the individual itself.

Too much negative liberty for one individual would mean less liberty for other individuals. Without realizing this, liberalism would be the enemy of itself. It works like magnets; having both a negative pole means the magnets push each other away, and both having a positive pole means the magnets push each other away again. Having one with some of the negative and one with some of the positive causes them to attract each other and the magnetism is complete. Without having the power and the resources, the liberty of an individual would be limited to his or her predisposition. Without having a defense against interference, the liberty of an individual would be endangered by external influences. However, with the power and resources to be free and ways to deal with interference, the net result would be even more liberty.

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Libertas sit omnibus, omnes sint libertati.

“Liberty for the wolves is death to the lambs” – Isaiah Berlin

As a lifelong liberal, this made me think. I always believed liberty to be self-evident. This was, however, before I realized it is possible to, in some extent, quantify liberty. Liberty can be taken away and liberty can be given back. Liberty can manifest itself in different forms. But not only that: as Isaiah Berlin pointed out, liberty can be positive and liberty can be negative.

What did this change in my perception of liberalism? I’m still a liberal. Until some point in my life, I used to be more like a libertarian. I was very cynical about society, distrusted politics as a whole (I still do sometimes) and thus distrusted any form of government, and believed that everything would be alright as long as people would live and let live. This gradually changed as I was more frequently confronted with the fact that human beings are actually social beings. Therefore, a human society cannot function without having social constructs and without having an individual concede in some cases in his or her life as their own will will not always be in harmony with the will of other individuals. Up until this point, libertarianism still holds; an individual should be free to do what he or she wants, unless it keeps another individual from doing the same.

This attitude does not, however, take into account that individuals can also form groups. In Social Psychology, groups are viewed as entities on their own, apart from individuals. Individuals behave differently in groups (especially in those being larger than three individual members) from as they do when they are alone, and groups can have their own behaviour. This is human nature. In order to survive as a species, humans cooperate with other humans, imitate each other or even instruct each other’s behaviour in order to survive. As centuries have passed, this still occurs on a very large and complex scale.

How do we maintain liberty as liberals, if individual liberty cannot be maximized, because humans need to cooperate in order to survive? Individuals will always be dependent on other individuals, because they can not grow food on their own, while generating electricity, producing television programmes, publishing on the Internet and create their own luxury products.

A free market is a wonderful invention to solve this issue. Individuals trade goods or services in exchange for a price they can determine in coordination with the market, their needs and the demand. A free market respects the individual’s potential to deliver goods or services on his or her own terms.

However, human beings are social beings. They can make pacts, form groups, create alliances, so they can also manifest themselves as groups to serve their own interest over the interest of another individual or group. Groups can exclude specific individuals and groups can discriminate individuals from other groups. This is what I call an infringement on social liberty.

Social liberty, the big sister of individual liberty, can be observed not by looking at individuals from their own point of view, but by looking at individuals from an eagle eye’s view. By looking at individuals as part of social constructs and determining the liberty one individual has compared to another individual in the same construct.

As soon as I discovered social liberty (I could not yet find the right term for it, but I knew it was there), my perspective on liberalism started to change. Liberalism had to play a role on a social level as well as on an individual level. As for a society to be truly free, each individual has to be free. This is not the case in a laissez-faire society, wherein everyone lives and lets live. Because there will always be someone who is born in a poor family with slim opportunities. Because there will always be someone who is discriminated against because of his or her origin, sexual orientation, skin colour or even his or her genuine behaviour.

Libertarianism has always viewed liberty as the constant struggle for government to stay out of individuals’ lives and for individuals to do as they please. But what libertarianism leaves out is that there is also something called society. A society consisting of a grand richness of individuals, each living his or her own life, trying to make the best out of it. It is inevitable that one individual’s liberty is in conflict with another individual’s liberty and that social liberty does not get the chance to exist in social constructs that leave out certain individuals or rival with other social constructs. This is where positive liberty should step in to ensure that each individual has equal opportunities on both an individual and a social level.

I do welcome any removal of obstacle that prevents an individual to live to his or her fullest potential. I am suspicious of government policies and especially the socialist and conservative ones. However, if government can improve the chances of an individual, can promote and protect individual and social liberties, then there should be a liberal government to do just that. A liberal government should prevent social constructs from being hostile towards any individual. A liberal government should promote an individual’s opportunities so that each and every individual can truly live his or her life to the full potential.

“Liberty for the wolves is death to the lambs” said Isaiah Berlin. By disregarding the social nature of human beings, granting the wrong individual liberties to those who disrespect social liberties, eventually liberty will put itself out of the equation. This is why I learned that liberty is not self-evident. Liberty is something we should promote and protect at all times, and does not originate out of itself when removing obstacles from an individual’s point of view, but has to be nourished both individually and socially.

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