A Liberal party? Positive conservatism? Both?

A while back I proposed a third party (I know, I know third parties are total pipe dreams. The barriers to entry are too high. Tell that to the Whigs and the Tories…!). I basically said that the word ‘libertarian’ carried with it too much baggage – something that has come up now in the renewed discussion about liberal-tarianism (also here, here, here, and here). So why not start a Liberal party?

My hastily sketched out platform:

  • Limited government, but not anti-government. Trust in good governance and transparency rather than demonizing all things ‘statist’.
  • Support for a simplified, but still progressive tax code.
  • Non-interventionist militarily; globalist economically.
  • Free trade with strong safety nets (like health care and unemployment assistance) to help people aversely effected by inherently chaotic (and thus functioning) markets.
  • Support for more legal immigration of both low-skilled and high-skilled workers.
  • A strong focus on civil liberties and social equality: end DADT, support for gay marriage, no more government authorized torture or assassination.
  • A push toward more competitive federalism where possible to make government more responsive to people and less bureaucratic.
  • A focus on ending subsidies in agriculture, fossil fuels, and other industries which distort trade, hurt the environment, and benefit big business.
  • Strong, but fair, environmental protections.
  • Support for workers rights, but not for too-big-to-fail government unions.

I think this probably leaves out more than it includes (like ending the drug war, etc.), but it starts to shape at least some of what I’d like to see from government, and it focuses a great deal on social and foreign policy issues rather than purely economic ones. In large part, that’s because I believe that free markets and capitalism are here to stay. We can argue about taxation and spending and deficits and all that, and there is room for much disagreement on a whole host of issues from health care reform to climate change (and I will fall largely on the side of market reformers on these, but not entirely), but at the end of the day nobody is suggesting we do away with the market economy. The busy-bodies may be trying to do too much good and all that do-goodering may lead to more central planning, more unsustainable deficit spending, etc. but we’re still largely going to be economically a liberal society with many, many kinks to work out.

In any case, I’ve also recently written about what I called ‘positive conservatism’ and I really think the two – the idea of a ‘Liberal’ party and the idea of a more positive conservatism, a conservatism of ideas – go hand in hand. In any case, I think that whether we’re talking about a new sort of libertarianism or a new brand of conservatism, either way we need to be talking about ideas. To decentralize government, to limit the state in ways that are effective and not merely hand-outs to special interests and big business, we need to speak in terms that go beyond broad brush strokes or shots at our political opponents. Oh there’s space for those as well, to be sure, but we need to go further. The very terminology of left and right begins to drag down a discussion of ideas after a while, though I’m hopelessly wed to that taxonomical project myself.

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21 thoughts on “A Liberal party? Positive conservatism? Both?

  1. Sounds like you’ve pretty much described the guiding ideology of Canada (or New Zealand for that matter). Will the Liberal Party finally bring the 11th province back into the fold?


  2. Erik, change the second point to ditching income-based taxation for a consumption-based system (with proper welfare safeguards to keep it from being regressive) and I’m behind you 100%.

    As it is, I’m about 95% behind.


    • @Jonathan, As a matter of interest why do you support a consumption based system? And what safeguards would you add?

      The UK has a VAT, but the safeguard is in the form of a myriad exemptions, which are cumbersome to enforce because of the way VAT is collected. For example, restaurant food is taxed, as are microwave meals, but fresh ingredients are not. Adult clothes are taxed, but childrens clothes are not.

      I’d prefer to apply a consumption tax universally but then compensate for the regressive nature of it by giving everyone a rebate, similar to negative income tax. I’m torn between this and actual negative income tax, though, hence my question above.


    • @Jonathan, the problem is that wealthy people don’t buy enough enough stuff, unless you count investments in a consumption tax.

      Every honest analysis of the so-called “FairTax” shows it would result in a massive government revenue shortfall compared to the current tax system. To its current proponents, that’s a feature, not a bug. But its current proponents are of the “drown government in a bathtub” ilk.


      • @Travis, Surely wealthy people ultimately spend their investment returns? Otherwise why do they bother? If its really true that they just accumulate vast stacks of wealth to pass on to their heirs, how would you feel about consumption tax plus inheritance tax applied at an equivalent rate?


  3. By my count, this hardly pleases any special interests and would only be seen by it’s negatives during the transition phase. Not to be a dick, but I think it’s pretty easy to come up with a sensible technocratic government platform, particularly when using qualifiers like “strong” and “fair” that everyone can project their own ideas onto – it’s even arguable that Obama capitalized on many of these promises. The difficult question is why there isn’t a single primary candidate or even prominent state rep that has seriously worked for these issues.


    • @trizzlor, People are working on a lot of these issues – its not like tax and immmigration reform are non-topics in the American political conversation. Candidates for office don’t normally talk about issues in this kind of way, but they do in fact often have expertise and work on these things.

      The idea that politics is completely dominated by special interests is untrue, and also corrosively self-fulfilling – the more people believe it and expect no better, the more brazen lobbyists can be and the more they’ll get their way. The last thing we should be doing is refraining from campaigning on important issues because we’re resigned to losing because we can’t think of any special interests they appeal to.


        • @ThatPirateGuy, Certainly. Although I suspect the amount of out-and-out corruption is actually quite small, at least at the national level. Far more influence is excerpted by lobbyists and other interest group representatives influencing the way politicians and their staffs think. Very few politicians really have a good feel for policy detail, and hiring staff who do is expensive when its far more obviously beneficial to hire people who are good at campaigning and presentation. And who has an interest in creating well-thought-out and documented policy? The people with an interest in the outcome, obviously.

          I suspect its rather like the process that happens in technical sales for enterprise software and equipment. Its pretty well accepted that the outcome of most sales is decided before any technical work really starts. Part of that is personalities and politics of course, but a huge and under-appreciated part of it is that vendors usually establish the frame through which the customer sees the problem. To the customer after all this is one thing among many that he has to think about. The vendor has seen essentially the same thing many many times. This more or less establishes the parameters of the solution, and it the vendor is doing their job right, of course, they just happen to have a solution that fits those parameters …

          There’s no dark conspiracy in this. When I’m doing technical sales (which I try to avoid without complete success) I really do believe what I’m telling customers and actually know that we have will help them. After all if we didn’t think the product was going to be useful we wouldn’t have built it like that!

          I’m pretty sure the same is true when, say, healthcare industry lobbyists offer politicians pre-packaged “reform” plans – they may be short sighted but there’s not really any attempt to deceive or manipulate, let alone bribe, politicians into going against the public interest. Just a rather narrow interpretation of what that interest is.


  4. I think this is all fascinating, but are we really talking about how to form something new? I frankly would like to see something like this take off. Heck if the Tea Party can become a movement, so could this.


    • @Dennis Sanders, I think the difficulty is sane, moderate policies are hard to get people excited about. I mean, I’d really like to see something like this happen, “Lets all be sensible!” doesn’t have much of the punch normally associated with political slogans.


  5. ah, “limited government”. If you’re talking about repealing the Controlled Substances Act, internet gambling prohibition acts and various laws attempting to restrict porn, I’m in. But when many people talk about “limited government”, they mean eviscerating the IRS, the EPA, the Dept of Interior (MMS, USFWS, NOAA) and DOJ.

    For those, I’m out. If the Deepwater blowout hasn’t taught the lesson that there are no more commons left that should be left unregulated, I don’t know what will. Our oceans, our water, our air, our rivers and streams, our climate, our banking system, our financial system are all far too fragile and far too important to be left to the tender mercies of a rapacious marketplace.

    Regulators are supposed to piss you off. If they don’t, they’re not doing their job (of forcing you to internalize your historic externalities and to plan for tail risk). Those things are boring, and hard, and a downer, and expensive. But too many people have the power to do way too much damage to all the rest of us, just through a cascading series of mistakes. 7 billion people makes for a very powerful law of unintended consequences.


  6. Can I please have this? When I say I’m a liberal this is pretty much what I mean.

    (I realize that no we cannot have this. But it sure would be nice.)


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