It's Important to Know What You Stand For Without Forgetting Why You Stand For It

It's Important to Know What You Stand For Without Forgetting Why You Stand For It

The policy needle of the state and the conscience of the public don’t budge in any direction if people don’t collaborate to educate others and affect political change. Creating new intellectual and political alliances, and enforcing the connections between old ones, are crucial steps toward spreading ideas, establishing political goals, and implementing tactics to achieve those goals. However, the less careful people—or groups—are with this process, the greater the risk of establishing alliances or partnerships that damage, compromise, or confuse the core tenets and principles one side or another has, and wants to present to others. 

One of the traps of intellectual and political alliance building that causes this damage, compromise, and confusion is when disproportionate effort is put toward playing nice on the common ground of what policies or political changes each side can support together, while playing down or sidestepping why each side stands for similar changes. This is well illustrated by post-World War II political fusionism in the United States.

Classical liberals and fusionism

The alliance between American classical liberals and what could then be broadly called conservatives created a “liberalism-conservatism” that raised a big tent of intellectual and political agendas on the poles of curbing government involvement in the economy, and reducing spending, taxation, and increasing state bureaucracy. The Cold War context provided the USSR as the prime example both camps could point to of a managerial, bureaucratic state taken to horrific extreme—the rock bottom of the slippery slope of expanding government. 

Yet, a retrospective re-assessment of this alliance makes clear that fusionism’s small-government-pro-capitalism front—their what—obscured major differences in why both sides came to answer many social and political questions in similar manners. Now, with decades of evidence to look back on, one can point to many examples that illustrate how the classical liberals’ alliance with conservatives wasn’t really as strong—or perhaps never even as initially valid—for longer-term political goals and visions as many may have thought in the heyday of overlapping relationships, fundraisers, social events, speaking engagements, and publishing arrangements.

Classical liberals serious about the label and the liberal tradition would unfortunately later come to learn the hard way that why questions aren’t just irritations that distract from more important matters and practical victories. Indeed, focusing on high-level agreements and legislative goals and choosing not to rock the boat too much as sticklers for more in-depth and consistent liberal conceptions of free markets, democracy, rule of law, class analysis, and social justice (just to name a few) pushed crucial points of tension between the camps below the surface—not the least of which were differences in morality, value judgements, and political logic.

It is true that both camps were troubled in their own way by growing government expenditures and state bureaucracy. This made issues like the national debt (spending now meaning taxation and financial disaster later, and so on) low-hanging fruit for a united front. However, these easy convention applause getters blurred important differences in reasoning that led to these types of shared conclusions. And, more often than not, it’s these differences that clearly and crucially demonstrate the root of either camp’s outlook on—for just two examples—the ultimate role of government (if any) in promoting certain morality, values, and choices, and how one understands the problems others from different social standings or circumstances face.

One can consider some of the exchanges between Milton Friedman and William F. Buckley to illustrate this point symbolically. In 1968 both men discussed the desirability of Friedman’s proposal for a negative income tax as an alternative to existing welfare measures. There is no question that, at the time, both could, and would (mostly), agree on the what they wanted: the government to operate with more fiscal discipline and restraint. Yet there were fundamental differences on why. And, it’s in considering points such as why people were receiving these payments to begin with, why the state should adjust its welfare measures, why certain alternatives might be desirable, and why certain outcomes would be desirable after adjusting particular policies one finds many critical, often subtle, differences behind classical liberal and conservative agreement.

Buckley would rest a lot of his concern for welfare spending on where government dollars were going, especially when received by the “indolent” on welfare. Though he did acknowledge that there are poor people “victimized by circumstances” and deserving of some help, he did not fail to paint the picture conservatives often share of large, undeserving amounts taking advantage of handouts by emphasizing the “disorganized” poor, and those experiencing a “neurotic block” or being “completely unmotivated” to work. And, he didn’t seem to be necessarily opposed to welfare being administered with elements of “patronage” to serve certain social ends, like case workers directing the finances of those on welfare to ensure “that X amount of shredded wheat instead of X amount of pot” is enjoyed in a home.

On the other hand, Friedman concerned himself more with the ways the system itself “can produce poor people” [emphasis mine], how the effect of certain proposals “is to treat people who ought to be treated the same differently,”[emphasis mine] and how “the virtue of an income tax arrangement [like a negative income tax] is precisely that it treats everyone the same way.” Friedman understood the problem of poverty as ultimately one of money, didn’t buy into the idea of government patronage to guide and direct those on welfare, and seemed to ground his sentiment in a rule-of-law approach to welfare that would ultimately empower people with some financial help to make their own decisions. And, when it came to the idea of providing people with certain co commodities or directing their lives, he thought the point moot and politely reminded Buckley of their supposed common ground—one of their whats: “You and I understand the free market,” he would say while noting it’s important not to underestimate the “ingenuity” of people—yes even poor people—to direct their own lives, and easily convert what they may be given by a welfare worker into what they want anyway.

If this exchange can be taken to symbolize some of the underlying tension in an alliance that was in the earlier days presented publicly as cordial political project, another exchange between the two men in 1990 demonstrates a different treatment of the same tensions. This time around, the two men explored Buckley’s proposal that the government should play a role in ensuring a form of voluntary national service and sacrifice is performed by its citizens. Buckley, explained his motivation with on-point conservative lament (empahsis mine): 

We live in a society in which young people and older people don’t give any evidence of gratitude for what it is that we inherit. And, I’m looking for the redevelopment of an ethos that causes people to want to show they are willing to reciprocate. 

He would add that he didn’t think it too radical of an idea “that the state should have an interest in virtue.” 

Then, and especially today, this positioning and application of conservative values should surprise no one. Yet, in this exchange we find Friedman representing a classical liberalism surprised at, and frustrated with, both the why and what the conservatism of Buckley was producing. Friedman expressed his astonishment at what he had been hearing from his counterpart, and interestingly emphasized that he felt the cause of this rift was that his friend had changed so much from his previous self: 

I’m absolutely astounded that you of all people would use the English language the way you are using it. There is absolutely nothing voluntary about your program in any meaningful sense… For you to talk about ‘substantially voluntary,’ my God what’s happened to you!

He would later add:

Now everybody takes it for granted that if there’s a problem the government is going to take care of it, and for you to come along on that line…You of all people want to [expand spending]? Somebody who has spent his life trying to fight the overgrown government, who has spent his life defending the virtues of individual freedom, of free markets, and here you come up all of the sudden, out of the blue, with a program that is exactly the opposite of everything you’ve stood for all your life!

Going further to claim Buckley’s proposal and point of view as yet another example of an “elitist perspective,” Friedman concluded by suggesting that Buckley’s whats must have changed somewhere along the line: “I’m an individualist. I believe in human freedom. I believe in truly voluntary behavior. And I thought you did too!”

In his public intellectual role Friedman seemed to always keep the value of teaching his audience in mind. His display of continual shock at what he was hearing from Buckley was likely a didactic exaggeration for the viewer. He certainly understood the broader context of the discussion he was having with his conservative counterpart; how his ideas of spending and government programs came from a consistent, classical liberal approach; and how Buckley’s supposed alignment with those ideas seemed to go out the window when the conversation moved passed easy high-level agreement on the whats of taxation and government bureaucracy and into more pointed questions of the whys behind nationalism, grander visions for society based on certain shared values, and whether certain spending could be justified if it ended up being for the right sort of things.

To be sure, the examples above don’t illustrate that Friedman hit an intellectual milestone in his late 70s by discovering tensions between classical liberalism and conservatism in 1990. This was certainly not foreign to him in 1968—if anything, it was more appropriate to just avoid the rickety foundations under common ground at the time. He and other classical liberals would come to learn this probably shouldn’t have been so—at least not as much. Especially concerning assumptions, they and their conservative counterparts were more or less on the same page about the whys that bring about crucial fundamental conclusions on markets, human dignity, government institutions, cosmopolitanism, and the dangers that “the state should have an interest in virtue” pose to each of these whats, just to name another few.

Lesson learned?

Classical liberals could, and should, have put much more pertinent, critical questions to conservatives over the course of their decades as a tighter bunch. Some interesting examples that get to the heart of whys that appear to create alignment might have included: do you actually agree with why we value markets; are we on the same page when we talk about the benefits small government; do you want to fix welfare because the problems of those on it are the results of institutional creations and social injustices, or is it because you want to stop welfare queen lifestyles; are you pursuing lower taxes and less bureaucracy so individuals can be free to choose, or is it just that higher government spending and bureaucracy are currently aimed at trends you disagree with?

Today, if you can find threads between the two camps, they are continuing to unravel for many reasons—not the least of which is the continually changing reality of what an American “conservative” is. Long gone are the days of the “discipline” that held fusionism together through “a prudential politeness—a gentleman’s politeness—befitting middle-class Americans who dreamed of rising above their middle-class station.”[italics original] In are the days of conservatives who have no problem noting that, as far as they’re now concerned, what appeared to be the “great strength of fusionism—its discipline and politeness—turned out to be its great weakness.” Ultimately, many are not shy concluding “the conservative movement has been … ill-served by its classical liberal fellow-travelers.” 

Indeed, conservatives seem to have run out of patience for those pesky “free market fundamentalists” and those they might otherwise now broadly call “libertarians” who “actively side with our enemies [to] promote open borders and empty prisons, and strengthen China’s hand through their consumer-focused economic policies.” Classical liberals on the other hand seem to be returning to the rich well of their own fundamentals, re-injecting some energy and attention into areas of the tradition that were pushed aside or neglected in favor of playing nice with conservative agendas and enjoying the sweetness of political victories by proxy.

Many classical liberals feel that this self-rejuvenation and rediscovery brings new opportunities to re-introduce liberal figures and ideas to listeners and readers in a way that presents a multi-dimensional liberalism truer to its roots than the diet version that fit with the kind of “politeness” that aimed to keep conservative audiences comfortable and donors happy. While the direction those who identify as classical liberals will take their school of thought into the future is not clear and should be the result of much deliberation and thought, they would be mistaken to forget not to gloss over why a perceived ally of stands for what appears to be the same whats again.

What we can all Learn about “whys”

While why questions are not as important as ones on what when it comes to political expedience, they should be given more critical consideration by those serious about spreading complete versions of their ideas while creating alliances. For classical liberals, tethering ideas and values with conservatives in one movement and on joint projects without as deep of a concern for the why cheapened the rich ideas that underlie many whats from the school of thought. And, after all that politeness in compromise, when the alliance outlived its usefulness classical liberals were told not to let the door hit them on the way out by conservatives now proudly distancing themselves and reminding others they were fundamentally opposed to many classical liberal core values anyway.

Just as an unhealthy relationship between two partners prioritizes sticking together for practicality while in the meantime sweeping fundamental issues under the rug, intellectual and political alliances prioritizing extensive politeness on some whats with those who would otherwise make a point of distancing themselves on many other whys will eventually realize the damage to their identity and values this causes. As the relationship grows more incoherent, the value it returns diminishes, until it’s eventually superseded by the costs. Or, as Mikhail Bakunin puts it with practical and timeless advice:

…all the experience of history demonstrates to us that an alliance concluded between two different parties always turns to the advantage of the more reactionary of the two parties; this alliance necessarily enfeebles the more progressive party, by diminishing and distorting its programme, by destroying its moral strength, its confidence in itself…

This same point is not only crucial for who different camps play nice with, but also longer-term investments and projects. Classical liberals and conservatives weren’t and aren’t merely participating in coalitions of ideas and platform sharing, but were and continue to be fused at the hip through donors, foundations, think tanks, and so on that by intention or natural effect gloss over the underlying differences of many whys in favor of pursuit of select whats. And it is exactly these deeply fused investment communities and shared offices that has made the classical liberal’s part of the political realignment we are still in today more painful than it needed to be.

To be clear, the classical liberal’s experience with fusionism doesn’t demonstrate the impossibility of political alliances or the futility of periodically joining hands with those from other political parties, factions, or ideologies that share similar goals on certain issues. Utopian purity tests for every single ideological interaction or political action will accomplish next to nothing. However, there is a crucial difference between — in the first place — tethering oneself to a group of politicians, donors, and intellectuals as a package deal without getting into the why questions, and a more complex approach in the second place: managing fluctuating alliances and partnerships; joining paths temporarily with certain politicians for one or another legislative goal; spreading ideas in cooperation with certain organizations that agree in some instances and happily noting disagreement on others, and so on — all while being serious about the integrity and identity the perspectives and values that brings one to certain conclusions.

The approach in the second place means a camp can focus more on spreading a strong, uncompromised representation their what while maintaining the dignity of their why. It also still enables associating with others through long-term commitments, but ones that are easier to break without great pain and don’t tempt an abandonment of whys. As Executive Director for The Institute for Liberal Studies Matt Bufton notes as far as classical liberals should be concerned they can do their “part to keep alive the interest in great thinkers like Adam Smith and Frédéric Bastiat,” while “[welcoming] anyone and everyone to join that conversation,” and not tethering or dedicating ourselves to one camp or another like “Conservatives* bearing promises…they don’t plan to keep.” [italics mine]

Perhaps this provides a good sort of fill-in-the-blank guide for liberals of all kinds that wish to build alliances and cooperate with others to spread ideas, but don’t wish to sacrifice the integrity and identity that lies behind them.

*In his original article, Bufton’s capital “C” reference to conservatives is to the party of the same name in Canadian politics, though I take his sentiment further and apply it a little more liberally, if you will, here.

Featured Image is William F. Buckley Jr., Friedrich von Hayek, and George Roche, Firing Line, November 11, 1977