Political Hay

What Defines Our Differences?

What is the encompassing issue that divides liberals and conservatives?

By 1.21.11

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What is the encompassing issue that divides liberals and conservatives?

Consider, for example, the following debates: socialism vs. a free-market economy, higher taxes vs. lower taxes, more regulations vs. deregulation, bigger government vs. smaller government, federal control vs. state and local control, government ownership vs. private property, government-run health insurance vs. private health insurance, or coercion vs. voluntary exchange. All of these debates are different applications of the same principle. What's at the bottom of the difference between each of the two positions?

The common element in all these debates is this -- do we want power and control to be centralized or decentralized? Should control be in the hands of politicians and bureaucracies or individuals and private entities?

For example, think about what actually happens when your taxes are raised. Your control over your own life is diminished, the power of politicians is increased, and control is centralized.

The most commonly used words to describe the two sides of the divide are liberal and conservative. However, the words themselves do not accurately reflect what liberals believe or what conservatives believe. They are not good descriptors. Liberals aren't really liberal and conservatives aren't really conservative. Those terms do not help either side understand and define what they believe. The labels "left" and "right" offer even less guidance than liberal and conservative.

Furthermore, the terms have evolved over time. Those who would have described themselves as liberal a hundred years ago would today be called conservative. On the other hand, centralized and decentralized are words that maintain their meanings relatively well.

The centralized-decentralized spectrum closely parallels the tyranny vs. freedom spectrum. Having control over our choices is essentially the definition of freedom. One of Milton Friedman's most popular books was titled Free to Choose. Friedman saw clearly that freedom is fundamentally about choosing. Another of his influential books was titled Capitalism and Freedom. In that book he explained why true and lasting freedom is a practical impossibility under socialism.

A central difference between liberals and conservatives revolves around the issue of individual responsibility. The more we take the power to choose away from individuals, the more we diminish the meaning of, and opportunity for, individual responsibility. If you do what you do because you're forced to, are you exercising morality? Are you responsible for your actions? The most insidious result of liberalism is that when control is centralized, so is morality.

There is what could be called the logistics of information -- having information at the right place at the right time. Leaving control in the hands of individuals leaves it closest to the information and incentives required for efficient decision making.

No one can know as much as you do about your goals and priorities. Even if you assume that Harry Reid and his fellow lawmakers are smarter than you are, does it follow that they should make your choices for you? It's not very efficient if information has to make a round trip from you to Washington, D.C. and back.

Not only is the best information held by individuals, so are the most powerful incentives. It's only natural that you will work harder for your own goals than for someone else's. This is one of the main reasons why free market economies are by far the most powerful generators of prosperity and economic growth.

The Heritage Foundation's recently released 2011 Index of Economic Freedom once again confirms the almost perfect correlation between freedom and economic vitality. Terry Miller, one of the survey's authors, confirms that the freer economies are "more efficient at protecting the environment, better at improving health, and better… in enhancing life satisfaction and overall happiness." Rather than "spreading the wealth" as Mr. Obama wants to do, we would be better off if we spread the control.

When making choices with their own money, individuals are most motivated to make careful decisions that produce the desired results. Individuals don't typically spend their own money on mini-versions of "pork-barrel projects."

If choices are made for you, you will not automatically agree with them. Consequently, centralization always involves force.

Most people have probably not thought about controversial political issues along the lines of centralized and decentralized. Nevertheless, it is probably the best way to frame the debate for a number of reasons.

The centralization-decentralization framework is the most inclusive way to categorize the issues. Framing the debate in this way makes it possible to resolve a whole category of issues rather than countless specific ones and win the debate wholesale rather than retail.

The framework could essentially be thought of as a compass when assessing, for example, proposed legislation. Besides asking, "Is it constitutional?" we could also ask, "Does it centralize or decentralize control?"

Should we begin calling liberals "centralists" and conservatives "decentralists"? Although those aren't words with much pizzazz, using them, or at least keeping them in mind, would definitely go a long way in making it clear what we're arguing about.

One big advantage of using the centralism/decentralism terminology is that the words have little or no emotional baggage. The words liberal and conservative carry with them a number of assumptions and stereotypes. These are serious impediments to rational debate.

If you ask, "Are you a centralist or a decentralist?" you are more likely to start a discussion rather than trigger a defensive reaction. Maybe it would even add some "civility" to the debate, if you should care about that kind of thing. It's also not a bad question to ask yourself to help determine what you believe and why.

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