Rebirth of Reason


Conservatives Are Not Friends of Freedom
by Joseph Rowlands

The reasons why people support an idea or institution determine how far and what context they are willing to support it. This is particularly true of the conservative friendliness towards free market.


Conservatives don't really view free markets as good in and of themselves. A libertarian might support free markets as just another instance of freedom, and believe that people should fundamentally be able to decide how they live their lives. Freedom is the goal, and free markets is just an aspect of that goal.


In contrast, conservatives view free markets as mere means to a larger end. They accept the morality of altruism, and believe in the moral goodness of achieving altruistic goals. However, they also view altruism as something that can't be expected to be practiced consistently. It is sacrificial in nature, and so comes at a significant cost. To achieve altruism's moral ends, conservatives are willing to harness selfish means.


The free market is a perfect example of harnessing selfish pursuit for noble, altruistic ends. While each person aims to gain personally through his actions, he ends up helping other as well. When a baker makes food to sell for his own profit, he produces food for others to consume and enjoy. While he's not really doing it for the sake of the others, he helps them anyway. Adam Smith called this the invisible hand, since it seems to guide people's selfish actions towards moral results.


For anyone who thinks that conservatives support free markets, this must be understood and accepted. A free market is just a means of achieving the larger, beneficial results. It is not valued for the sake of freedom itself.


One place this becomes clear is when businesses use practices that are viewed as detrimental to customers. If a businessman tries to undercut competitors so he can dominate a market and be able to raise prices, conservatives may be willing to step in. They will criminalize business practices not see as in the best interests of the larger population. Antitrust laws are the perfect example of this, but there are others. Discrimination laws may force employers to hire people they don't want to. Maximum weekly hour limits might be imposed. Maternity leave may be mandated. The merging of companies may be rejected. 'Excessive' profit seeking may be deemed illegal.


For conservatives, freedom is a just a means to further their own altruistic goals. If you can make a case that a particular use of freedom is necessary to efficiently achieve the altruistic goals, they may be willing to except it. So antitrust laws may be modified over time as economists show how making some particular behavior illegal ends up creating inefficiencies.


This creates a kind of guilty until proven innocent approach to business practice. If you can prove that your actions are beneficial, or perhaps just that making your actions illegal would have larger effects elsewhere, the conservatives will side with you. It is your responsibility to prove your freedom should be allowed by proving that it benefits others.


There is no acceptance of freedom on its own terms. If someone say that they own the business and they should be able to run it anyway they want, since it is their own property, conservatives would dismiss it. They might be open to the idea that undermining property rights in some cases undermines it in all cases, but more likely they'll see it as simply changing the scope of property rights.


For the conservative, private property is simply private control of public property. Altruistic goals are more ably satisfied under that arrangement, but it comes with limits. Owners are really trustees, and they have a responsibility to use it beneficially. If they don't, they can lose those rights. For conservatives, rights are always conditional on responsible use, meaning use that they agree with.


This also explains why they seem to be perfectly okay with some intrusions on freedom, like progressive taxation and some redistribution of wealth. For them, freedom is only a means. There will be times that they can achieve more with other methods. Of course, when they do that, it undermines freedom and the benefits of a free market, so there is a tradeoff that is made. But the principle is that a balance may be found. Freedom is not sacrosanct. It can be traded off with other methods.


The conservative view of freedom does not extend to areas that don't promote altruistic goals indirectly. They are happy to force people to go to church, pray in school, learn creationism, prevent them from having sex or using birth control, burning American flags, etc. Free markets are viewed from the narrow perspective of converting selfish behavior into altruistic ends. But selfish pursuits are still viewed as bad in general, and freedom does not extend to undesirable behaviors.


So areas like freedom of speech are not as well supported by conservatives. If the speech is offensive, vulgar, obscene, or blasphemy. These kinds of speech are viewed as undermining morals or institutions that support morality. There is no perceived benefit in terms of altruistic ends, so they readily support censorship in these cases. On the other hand, they may support freedom of speech when it comes to political discourse, because free political speech is a check on government.


When everything is judged through the prism of indirectly achieving moral goals, no freedom is secure.

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