Freedom and tradition
The Economist has an interesting story about a rising star on the Spanish political scene, Madrid mayor Isabel Diaz Ayuso:
Ms Ayuso’s victory came with a slogan simple to the point of crudity: “Liberty or communism”. But freedom is a note she sounds again and again. “Madrid is liberty, or else it isn’t Madrid,” she tells The Economist, returning to the theme no matter what she is asked about. Madrid prospers when people are left alone to run businesses, do with their property as they will and live as they choose. Asked what government can do besides get out of the way, her answer is to give people more freedom of choice, for example in work schedules. . . Asked whether she supported Mr Sánchez’s proposal to ban prostitution, her criticism of the government included the line “They only want to destroy jobs.”
Although she is in Spain’s conservative party, she is actually a liberal:
Just 43, childless, churchless, single (so “you can tell the market is bare,” she has joked) and even bearing a tattoo on her forearm, she is hardly an obvious leader of Spain’s traditional conservative party. But she proudly declares herself a liberal, not a conservative, saying the PP has room for both.
This got me thinking about the relationship between conservatism and freedom. What do conservatives actually believe about freedom?
Let’s start with a simple comparison, vaccine mandates and pot prohibition. At a superficial level there are some similarities. Both regulations are partly justified in terms of paternalism, protecting people from hurting themselves. If someone claims that it’s their own body and they should be able to do what they wish, the argument often switches over to externalities. Drug addiction can also hurt your family members. Being unvaccinated makes it more likely you transmit the virus to others.
While at a superficial level these two issues have some similarities, the politics are radically different. Conservative politicians are far more likely to oppose vaccine mandates than pot prohibition. How can we understand this difference?
Here’s the wrong way; ask people to justify their beliefs. I often see conservative people citing this or that piece of empirical evidence on vaccines, or masks, or pot, of LSD, always in support of their political view. But if liberals and conservatives are looking at the same empirical evidence, why should they reach different conclusions?
Proust said, “It is desire that engenders belief”. Don’t focus on what people believe; focus on what they desire. Their empirical beliefs will conform.
Conservatives often speak of faith, family, country. (Today I’d add “natural born gender identity”.) Conservatives put a lot of weight on tradition. They seem less likely to choose a religion in the way that one orders food off a menu than is the case with liberals. They are less likely than liberal Americans to say, “I’ve looked around and it seems that Canada, not America, is actually the best country in the world. Proust (actually the character in his novel) said his friends were his family, presumably referring to the fact that his friends were chosen, but no one gets to choose their family. In contrast, family ties are extremely important to a conservative, despite this lack of choice. Ditto for one’s natural born gender identity.
When I examine political discourse, I see conservatives being far more likely than liberals to use the term “freedom” or “liberty” as justification for a particular political position. But I don’t see that rhetorical difference being reflected in actual policy views; at least it’s not obvious to me. How can we explain this paradox?
Let’s assume that American “liberals” (who I’ll call progressives, as they aren’t actually liberals) are utilitarians that don’t place any special weight on freedom. On some issues, such as pot legalization, progressives will take a pro-freedom stance, while on others they do not.
Conservatives need to respond to progressives. But what is their most effective rebuttal? It’s obviously not sensible to be blindly anti-utility. Even non-utilitarians acknowledge that utility is often a good thing. So they need to be for something.
In my view, the thing they are for is tradition. But it doesn’t sound cool to be for tradition, and indeed certain conservative views that were once motivated by tradition (say a ban on interracial marriages) have now been discredited. Instead, when conservatives defend tradition they often do so using the language of freedom. Even better for American conservatives, the term “freedom” comes out of classical liberalism, which is one of America’s traditions.
So let’s say that conservatives don’t actually favor freedom, but use the term as justification for defending tradition. In that case, you’d expect conservatives to favor pro-freedom public policies that preserve traditions, but not pro-freedom public policies that allow for unconventional lifestyles.
Conservatives would favor freedom to drink alcohol (a tradition), but not to smoke pot, which is not an American tradition. Guns are a tradition, as is freedom from mask mandates. Driving big cars with gasoline engines is a tradition. Stand-up comics making fun of minorities, gays and women is a tradition, while kneeling during the national anthem at a football game is not. It took conservatives longer to embrace gay marriage, and when many of them did, it was due more to their belief in the value of marriage as an institution than from sympathy for the gay lifestyle.
Conservatives have long favored restricting freedom when it comes to social issues such as drugs, prostitution, gambling, pornography, physician-assisted suicide, abortion, etc. In recent years, conservative American politicians have also grown increasingly supportive of zoning restrictions, trade restrictions and immigration restrictions. In each case, their “anti-freedom” views are motivated by a belief that change is threatening American traditions. They fear the traditional suburban lifestyle becoming more “urban” (sometimes a code word for racial change as well.) They also fear traditional American culture being affected by immigration. And just to be clear, traditional American culture does not mean (Hispanic) El Paso, or (Asian) Irvine, or (black) Detroit, or (Native American) northeast Arizona. They fear that globalization and trade will destroy tightly knit communities with factory jobs and create huge anonymous cities full of information workers linked to the global economy.
Of course there is a third group that really does believe in freedom, the libertarians. Because we have a two party system, this group may ally itself with Republicans on some issues and with the Democrats on others. This is the only group that truly believes in freedom for its own sake, freedom for others, not just freedom as a rhetorical tool to preserve one’s own lifestyle. And it’s a rather small minority of voters.
PS. There’s an even smaller group—utilitarians who happen to have mostly libertarian policy views because they believe that a minimal government maximizes aggregate utility. That tiny group includes me and a handful of other people.