Ronald Reagan once said, essentially, that politically there is no left or right—there is only more freedom and less freedom. That is, rather than the typical liberal equals left and conservative equals right, the better way to think about political alignment and ideology focuses on commitment to freedom. Less freedom versus more freedom. Lenin, Stalin, Mao, Hitler, Mussolini and Castro, compared with what we now consider the West.
Of course, as with any continuum, there are gradations. Even Swedes, at the height of its experiment with social democracy in the 1970’s, enjoyed significantly more freedoms than the average inhabitant of the USSR in the 1930s. And Reagan’s proclamation should be put in context: western ideals pitted against the Iron Curtain.
Perhaps left and right are better thought of as points along this range. It’s important to define what I mean by “freedom,” lest it cause confusion: freedom meaning liberty, in the Lockean, classical sense. Freedom from government action, not the Rousseau-based, 20th century progressive version that led FDR to coin his “Four Freedoms”: Only by first using government to eliminate inequities can people truly be free.
That fundamentally different conception of freedom permeates to the present and helps to explain other key differences between conservatives and liberals. To accomplish their version of freedom, liberals first turn to advocating for greater government intervention. It’s often said that the only real difference between conservatives and liberals is the means to accomplish an end that everybody agrees is good. But it’s also about timing: An intended consequence for liberals is that by using government action, they hope to achieve the desired end now.
If the different understanding of freedom is the defining characteristic between right and left, surely their respective views on human nature place a close second. For the left, using government to accomplish a particular goal immediately is preferable because not only will government’s intervention fix the effects of a particular problem, but it will likewise cure the underlying human frailty that caused the problem initially. In short, the left seeks to use government to alter human nature.
Conservatives (broadly speaking to include libertarians) take quite a different view of human nature. Government cannot fundamentally change our inherent nature, and attempts to do so border on social engineering. Which is why institutions hold such an important place in the conservative tradition. These institutions, as well as other individuals, help temper and channel our nature, serving as a sort of Madisonian check and balance.
The current debate over how to effectively respond to the recent rise in mass shootings illustrates these differences. Several of my liberal colleagues and I repeatedly have this conversation. They accuse the right of refusing to consider any new gun-control measures, instead apparently willing to endorse the status quo. But they miss an essential ingredient: Would the measures the left proposes actually solve anything? Say that the new laws the left would put in place had in fact been in place: Would the outcome be any different? Would they have prevented any of the crazed persons from acquiring and using guns against fellow humans?
The honest answer is no. None of the left’s proposals would have changed anything. And one of the reasons is the left’s own rationale for opposing the death penalty: The perpetrators have nothing to lose.
Does that mean we do nothing? Of course not. But before we start passing new laws, especially new laws that won’t have any meaningful impact, we ought to make sure that all current legal remedies have been fully exhausted.•
Parr is a student at the Indiana University Robert H. McKinney School of Law in Indianapolis and is executive director of the Indiana Young Republicans and president of the IU McKinney Federalist Society. Send comments to [email protected]
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