Voices For Freedom
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© 2007 Daniel J. McLaughlin
Confused Political Spectrum
A young man asked me the other day whether I was conservative or liberal. It was refreshing to have a teenager be involved enough to really care what liberal and conservative mean. He was genuinely interested.
I had a problem answering the question, however, because the two terms can mean many different things. Answering it with a straight forward and easy response is very inadequate and does not really reflect what I believe. The terms liberal and conservative, left or right, red or blue or any of the other terms of the political spectrum assume that they all reflect the same spectrum, that there are settled definitions of the terms and that people fit easily into the slots. The reality of any type of ideology is that each bears a heavy weight of excess baggage that you must carry if you take the title.
The political spectrum, as normally understood, is left versus right. On the left extreme is socialism and on the right extreme is fascism. The prototypes of the extremes are Josef Stalin on the left and Adolph Hitler on the right. With that being the accepted notion, where does any individual fit on the spectrum?
Mother Theresa, the missionary of Calcutta, was very socially active. She spent her life helping the poor. She would have to be placed fairly far to the left on the scale. It is obvious, however, that she has nothing in common with Stalin. Someone like Thomas Jefferson would have to be placed toward the right end, but it is also obvious that Jefferson and Hitler are poles apart. With that understanding of the spectrum, very few people would fit the description of left or right. The problem is not with people and their views, but with the scale as generally understood.
There are significant difficulties with equating Liberal with the left and Conservative with the right, Democrat with the left, Republican with the right. The ideology is not clear cut. The terms mean different things to different people.
Adding more confusion is the fact that the terms have migrated over time. It used to be that “liberal” meant those who believed in freedom of the individual, or liberty. It still means that in many European countries. Since the beginning of the progressive era in America, liberal has come to mean advocating the welfare state. The meaning of the term “conservative” in recent times has migrated from maintaining tradition to using active government to bring about what leaders profess to be good or right.
A more appropriate discussion of the range of political thought would be collectivism, or more to the point, statism versus individualism. On the extreme of collectivism and statism, you have totalitarian regimes with complete control over the lives of their citizens. Both Stalin and Hitler fall under the description of statists. Extreme socialists and nazis both use the power of the state to arrest and murder people who don’t submit.
Mother Theresa took personal action and respected all of the individuals she dealt with, and treated them as humans, rather than a class to be manipulated. She would fall far toward the individualist end of the revised spectrum. As a champion of individual rights and liberty, Thomas Jefferson would join her toward the individualist end.
Statism had been the norm for the vast expanse of human history. Destitution has been it’s product. Individualism is a relative newcomer to the scene, progressing slowly as heroes of liberty sacrificed their lives and welfare to bring about the recognition of the rights of the individual. Those societies that embraced liberty and protected the individual from the whims of the politicians are the ones that progressed rapidly in the last few centuries.
Modern American government has moved significantly away from the individualist end of the spectrum that was the guiding light for our founders. Most of the presidents and sessions of congress in the last century have leaned significantly to the statist side, away from the ideals of liberty. The result is a tendency toward a welfare state with rampant corruption and significant conflicts over who gets to divvy up the take. Class conflict is unavoidable when vying for political power can yield such vast sums of other people’s money.
Statism has proven itself a bankrupt philosophy that repels progress. The further along the line, the worse it is for the citizens. The destiny of Americans, as the leaders of the free world, is calling us back to the side of individual liberty.