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Home > Politics
Freedom? Liberal vs. Conservative
by Bob Powell, 3/01/09
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See A Libertarian Diatribe (including A Gardening Analogy) for an important analogy to counter the false "liberals are out to control you" meme.

Added 3/23/09: Response to a Libertarian Objection

Freedom seems a simple concept, but there are different and opposing views of freedom. For some time I've realized that, if people are to be truly free, it's necessary to have a broader view of freedom as I describe at On Freedom. That's because when the system fails, many individuals also fail through no fault of their own.

Misguided libertarians and conservatives see liberals who want to use government to improve peoples' lives, including preventing and correcting system failures, as "socialist authoritarians" who are actually driven by a desire to control others. Such distorted and obsolete thinking would similarly call gardeners, "socialist authoritarians" comprising a "socialist mob." Nothing could be further from the truth; more on this below at A Libertarian Diatribe.

George Lakoff on Freedom.

Here's George Lakoff on the different views of freedom from The Obama Code:

I've written a whole book, Whose Freedom?, on the word "freedom" as used by conservatives and progressives. In his second inaugural, George W. Bush used "freedom," "free," and "liberty" over and over - first, with its common meaning, then shifting to its conservative meaning: defending "freedom" as including domestic spying, torture and rendition, denial of habeus corpus, invading a country that posed no threat to us, a "free market" based on greed and short-term profits for the wealthy, denying sex education and access to women's health facilities, denying health care to the poor, and leading to the killing and maiming of innocent civilians in Iraq by the hundreds of thousands, all in the name of "freedom."

It was anything but a progressive's view of freedom - and anything but the view intended in the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution.

For forty years, from the late 1960's through 2008, conservatives managed, through their extensive message machine, to reframe much of our political discourse to fit their worldview. President Obama is reclaiming our patriotic language after decades of conservative dominance, to fit what he has correctly seen as the ideals behind the founding of our country.

"Freedom" will no longer mean what George W. Bush meant by it. Guantanamo will be closed, torture outlawed, the market regulated. Obama's inaugural address was filled with framings of patriotic concepts to fit those ideals. Not just the concept of freedom, but also equality, prosperity, unity, security, interests, challenges, courage, purpose, loyalty, patriotism, virtue, character, and grace. Look at these words in his inaugural address and you will see how Obama has situated their meaning within his view of fundamental American values: empathy, social and well as personal responsibility, improving yourself and your country. We can expect further reclaiming of patriotic language throughout his administration.

All this is what "change" means. In his policy proposals the President is trying to align his administration's policies with the fundamental values of the Framers of our Constitution. In seeking "bipartisan" support, he is looking beyond political affiliations to those who share those values on particular issues. In his economic policy, he is realigning our economy with the moral missions of government: protection and empowerment for all.

This point about empowerment is really important; his entire essay is a must read.

Unfortunately, economic conservatives and libertarians passionately believe that any effort by government to empower individuals is really intended as a means to control the actions of individuals.

A rabid libertarian maintains liberals want "control"

As a rabid libertarian (JW) wrote, what liberals want is to "design the system and [have] the players do what we tell them."

Austrian economics [doesn't] "determine" what to do about anything in the economy any more than electrical engineers determine how to apply Ohm's Law differently today than they did yesterday in designing a circuit. You view economics as an abstract "science" where the scientists are not observers and get to manipulate the system according to their fanciful and abstract rules based on incomplete and gross data inputs into econometric models. The dismal view. In other words, "we design the system and the players do what we tell them." That is completely backwards and has never worked.

There are three glaring errors in this short paragraph.

1. Austrian economics falsely sees that version of economics as immutable as Ohm's Law ... both were designed by God and are "natural law." This is obviously a flawed analogy because Ohm's Law applies to a physical system, whereas economics is a social system. The behavior of social systems is a result of policies determined by humans -- note that even a "hands off" policy is a policy decision made by humans.

2. Systems thinking and system dynamics go well beyond the use of econometrics as described in D-4101-1 "A Skeptic's Guide to Computer Models" by John D. Sterman.

3. Libertarians are trapped in thinking the choice is either mechanical "command & control" or a total lack of intervention (except of course for their idea of "proper" monetary policy ... even though monetary policy can be extremely controlling and destructive as I describe at There's no 'free market' for Labor).

As explained below, the use of system dynamics is more like gardening ... understanding the structure of the system (stocks & flows and feedbacks) and designing policies to produce desired behaviors.

Those who don't believe this is possible are stuck in the 16th century thinking of Machiavelli. This "government will only make things worse" thinking has pervaded "conservative" and libertarian thinking from then to Edmund Burke to David Brooks today (see The Big Test by David Brooks and excerpts on Burke at The Conservative Mind).

They actually view the "free market" as the Hand of God in action. Here's an excerpt from A World of Ideas -- A Dictionary of Important Theories, Concepts, Beliefs, and Thinkers by Chris Rohmann, 1999

Burke, Edmund (1729 - 1797) Anglo-Irish statesman and political theorist, considered the founder of CONSERVATISM. ... Burke also embraced the LAISSEZ-FAIRE economics of Adam Smith, maintaining that "the laws of commerce ... are the laws of nature, and consequently the laws of God." (Capitalized words indicate other entries in this dictionary.)

This means that when "free market" policies, due to the "path dependence" dynamic, drives many into poverty, this belief leads them to a piously solemn, "So be it; it is God's will."

Libertarian economics would impose a gold standard or a "basket of commodities" standard. Here's that libertarian (JW) again:

A hard money system can be represented by any asset basis or basket that has fixed qualities, universally recognized value and an objective standard of measure that is applied with minimum law, little regulation but maximum penalties for breaking those laws and regulation. Such a system will always recognize the actual productive wealth generation and potential as determined by market pricing mechanism in-place for thousands of years.

Libertarian, anti-government views should provoke some cognitive dissonance, because they rely on the very government they despise to regulate and enforce the flawed system they propose. Minimum law? Little regulation? ... I don't think so ... it would be major in its destructive effects.

It ignores, of course, that there is nothing sacred about any basket of commodities. Neither gold, nor some Austrian-determined basket of commodities, can track the growth (or decline) of an economy and increase (or decrease) the money supply appropriately. Who's going to re-balance the basket over time? Government. Determine winners and losers by that rebalancing? Government.

Libertarianism denies the reality of systems effects

The main problem with this libertarian worldview is that it denies reality. What happens in the real world is a result of both individual actions and systems effects. Such a denial of systems effects is, quite literally, insane. And it's fatal to any society that adopts such a worldview, which is why our economy is in so much trouble (see Invisible Hand Drops Ball & Economics 101).

Here's George Lakoff on this from The Obama Code:

6. Systemic Causation and Systemic Risk

Conservatives tend to think in terms of direct causation. The overwhelming moral value of individual, not social, responsibility requires that causation be local and direct. For each individual to be entirely responsible for the consequences of his or her actions, those actions must be the direct causes of those consequences. If systemic causation is real, then the most fundamental of conservative moral - and economic - values is fallacious.

Global ecology and global economics are prime examples of systemic causation. Global warming is fundamentally a system phenomenon. That is why the very idea threatens conservative thinking. And the global economic collapse is also systemic in nature. That is at the heart of the death of the conservative principle of the laissez-faire free market, where individual short-term self-interest was supposed to be natural, moral, and the best for everybody. The reality of systemic causation has left conservatism without any real ideas to address global warming and the global economic crisis.

With systemic causation goes systemic risk. The old rational actor model taught in economics and political science ignored systemic risk. Risk was seen as local and governed by direct causation, that is, by short-term individual decisions. The investment banks acted on their own short-term risk, based on short-term assumptions, for example, that housing prices would continue to rise or that bundles of mortgages once secure for the short term would continue to be "secure" and could be traded as "securities."

The systemic nature of ecological and economic causation and risk have resulted in the twin disasters of global warming and global economic breakdown. Both must be dealt with on a systematic, global, long-term basis. Regulating risk is global and long-term, and so what are required are world-wide institutions that carry out that regulation in systematic way and that monitor causation and risk systemically, not just locally.

Ignoring systems effects is why libertarians must deny Anthropogenic Global Warming

So conservatives deny the reality of global warming because to recognize the threat is to recognize systems effects ... and that's a threat to their entire worldview.

Unfortunately, it's easy to obfuscate the global warming issue for reasons explained at Global Warming: An Inconvenient-to-Understand Truth: the effects of global warming are extremely delayed, which is why market supply & demand feedbacks fail. For example, even if human CO2 emissions had fallen instantly to zero in the year 2000, it would have taken 30 years for temperatures to begin to decline.

Of course, libertarians and economic conservatives go bonkers at the thought that: "... what are required are world-wide institutions that carry out that regulation in systematic way and that monitor causation and risk systemically, not just locally." They scream, "You just want ONE WORLD GOVERNMENT to control everyone." They would rather have the world economic system collapse and planetary warming cause environmental collapse rather than take action. They do Machiavelli and Edmund Burke proud.

As I explain at On Freedom, and as George Lakoff points out above, no one can be truly free without recognizing and dealing with systemic effects and systemic risks.

Libertarians and economic conservatives deny the reality of systemic effects and therefore are incapable of effectively addressing them. An analogy: libertarians and conservatives would rather have someone who wants to exit a room be free to blindly run into walls than be truly free and able to find the door.

A Libertarian Diatribe:

The rabid diatribe below is from that same libertarian (JW). He maintains that any concern for the collective and recognizing the very real dynamic complexity of social systems is a result of a socialist, "authoritarian desire for control":

Your desire to increase or introduce complexity where there is none is the hallmark of the authoritarian desire for control.

Scientific socialism in all its incarnations will go the way of the buggy whip and be buried. There will likely be some socialist authoritarians of the left who pick up on it as another useful tool to attempt control, but that too will fail. Fortunately, the same will likely be true of the fascist authoritarians of the right. Both your paradigms are doomed to failure by design as they are ultimately anti-human and inhumane. It's only a matter of time and unfortunately mankind will be dragged through a long period of violence and destruction again because of it.

I used to disagree that the different forms of liberalism and conservatism are a mental disease.  However, the more I interact with each type, the more apparent it is.

The difference between your view and my view is that I have no desire to control and direct others. You and your ilk do just as the fascist authoritarians do. The views only represent differences of how they intend to obtain control. In the end, I just hope the socialist mob you represent and the fascist mob wipe each other out so the rest of the population can live in peace and prosperity at some distant point in the future.

Nice, eh? The irony of all this is that they've got much of what they've asked for: a privatized Federal Reserve (owned by the banks ... is there any wonder they get bailouts?) and less and less government regulation (by Republicans and Clinton DLC Democrats, too ... according to Greenspan, himself, Clinton agreed with libertarian Greenspan 80% of the time on economics).

A Gardening Analogy

Here's my response to the libertarian diatribe (just above), pointing out that his thinking would similarly call gardeners "socialist authoritarians":

The heart of the problem is that economic conservatives and libertarians are trapped in either-or thinking. They see it's either total concern for the individual or total concern for the collective. But evil lies at both extremes; both are harmful and injurious. That's because reality is not "either-or"; it's "both-and". It's quite literally insane to think otherwise.

It's a false charge that concern for the whole is a desire "design the system and [have] the players do what we tell them."

The obvious counterpart is to say that a "gardener designs the garden and the plants do what he tells them to do." The same thinking that portrays "government establishing the conditions for individuals to be successful" leads to calling gardeners, "socialist authoritarians". But gardeners do not comprise a "socialist mob."

The actual case is that the "gardener designs the garden in a way that sets up conditions that allow the desired plants to flourish." Because of "free market" failures (failures that economic conservatives and libertarians are unwilling or unable to acknowledge), what is necessary is for "government to design the system that sets up conditions that allow individuals to prosper."

This is necessary because, when the system fails, many individuals fail no matter how effective their individual actions were.

The libertarian gardener would let all plants have the opportunity to do it on their own and be "free" to compete in a "free garden." What this produces is a garden of weeds.

Having government establish the conditions for individuals to be successful is NOT Command and Control. Thinking that it is, is willful ignorance.

This story illustrates the point:

A man was walking by a church parish one day and saw a priest tending the garden beside it. He remarked to the priest what a beautiful garden he and God had created. The priest stood back and looked around, saying, "You know, you're right; it is beautiful. But you should have seen it when God had it all to Himself."

Find versions of this story on the internet.
Google "you should have seen it when God"

Incredibly, libertarians and conservatives see the "free market" as the hand of God despite its failures (see excerpts at The Conservative Mind). They see the "free market" as designed by God, just as Ohm's Law is ... as noted by the foolish libertarian above. When there are problems, they see that as caused by "interference in the free market", believing it just wasn't "free enough" to achieve their desired "free market" utopia.

News flash: The "free market" wasn't designed by God. It was created by man. It is imperfect. But it's the 21st century now; we can understand "free market" flaws and correct for them. We must allow "market forces" to effectively regulate supply and demand; "free market" flaws do not allow that to happen.

They use 16th century, Machiavellian thinking in the 21st century. They've destroyed the U.S. economy and will destroy the planet (see From Growth to Overshoot & Collapse), if they are not successfully opposed and marginalized.


Libertarian asserts government is responsible for "free market" failures.

A Libertarian Objection 3/23/09: "... name for me a single free market failure ... that was completely free government fingerprints."

This e-mail reveals the depth of libertarian ignorance:

Reading your article, "Freedom? Liberal vs. Conservative," reminded me very much of the Flat Earth Society's writings regarding lighthouses and "...absolute proof."  Of course, the Earth is round, I mean, check out the shadow on a full Moon.

Back on point, name for me a single free market failure.  Should be easy, right?  Now, now.  What I mean, just so there's no confusion, is name a single failure that was completely free government fingerprints.  I know: impossible.  So why blame one and not the other, hmmm?  Hint: he who RUNS it OWNS it.  Duh.

M. Scott Michaels

P.S. George Lakoff is a certified twit.

This e-mail reveals two things about libertarians:

1. The statement "name for me a single free market failure" indicates a belief that there is no such thing as a "free market" failure. There are and I describe them at Invisible Hand Drops Ball & Economics 101.

2. They believe that when there's a failure, government had a hand in it and therefore should be blamed. I address this below.

Further, this objection brings up a vitally important point:
Even if the market were absolutely "free" and unregulated ("lawless"), there are specific mechanisms that cause it to fail ... without fail.

Here's my response:

The counterpart of the "Flat Earth Society" are the pathetic fundamentalists who believe in the infallible magic of "free markets" and "free trade."

Rather than understand the failures, ideologues argue, as you do, that it "just wasn't free enough."

Markets are more or less free depending on which one. it's true, government sometimes intrudes in ways it should not. Most often though, it doesn't get involved where it should or doesn't get involved in the ways it should.

In any case, even if there were completely free markets, they would FAIL for the reasons described at:
Invisible Hand Drops Ball & Economics 101, 3/24/08, "Conservative" economic policies deliver dysfunctional results. They should have the courage to admit that's what they want.

The comment that "George Lakoff is a certified twit" is a very intelligent and incisive comment ... not. A twit is someone who's annoying ... he certainly does annoy the ignorant, which it seems you are ... assertions with no logical argument.

Of course government gets involved when there are market failures. And it's true that there are policy failures; see Government Dysfunction. Many times policies indeed do not address the roots of the problems; government applies band-aids because it's unwilling to address that there are times when the "free market" fails. That unwillingness practically guarantees failure.

The root of the unwillingness? The U.S. has moved so far to the economic "right" that it blinds policy makers to what should be done.

URL: http://www.exponentialimprovement.com/cms/freedomlibvcons.shtml

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