Confused American liberals and conservatives need to get out more

Two recent discussions, one by the “conservative” Gary Becker (brought to my attention by Economist’s View) and the other by the “liberal” Alan Wolfe (which I saw at Cafe Hayek) BOTH seem confused about their own political creeds. This is apparently because of the peculiar way the US political system deals with people who like individual liberty. Becker claims them for the “conservatives” and Wolfe’s “liberals” are happy to get rid of them. One good thing about being a development person is that you travel the world and get to talk politics with a bunch of different nationals. You realize the global definition of liberal and conservative is different than the American one and a lot more commonsensical. So commonsensical that even gets it mostly right: A Liberal is “favorable to progress or reform, as in political or religious affairs.” A Conservative is “disposed to preserve existing conditions, institutions, etc., or to restore traditional ones, and to limit change.” So, for example, Conservatives in Latin America are associated with the old-guard Catholic Church and in Islamic countries with traditional sexual mores and roles for women. Liberals in both places are more enthusiastic about more recent religious practices and sexual and gender norms.

Neither definition says anything about individual liberty. Liberals could violate liberty in their eagerness to change things that individuals DON’T want to change, and conservatives could violate the liberty of individuals who DO want to change.

So Becker (of whom I am otherwise a big fan) faults conservatives for – being conservative. They and Miss California are not flexible enough on “gays in the military, gay marriage, abortions, cell stem research.” Yes, that’s what happens when you prefer – as Conservatives always do -- state-enforced tradition to values that the current generation of individuals might freely choose.

Wolfe says that liberty-loving Hayek would “seek to straighten out the crooked timber of humanity by forcing everyone into a mold established by the market.” To Hayek, who wrote an article called “Why I am not a conservative,” the “market” was just one of many arenas where individuals were free to choose, sometimes overturning tradition, other times choosing to stick with tradition, and in yet other cases making gradual progressive changes. So Wolfe’s statement is logically nonsensical, something like “Hayek would force everyone into a mold where they could be whatever they want.”