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Conservatives, moderates, libertarians & populists

February 20, 2010

While the Liberal Party doesn’t have formal factions, that doesn’t mean that everybody in the party thinks the same. Indeed, internal philosophical debates are a big part of party politics, providing some of the colour and excitement of democracy.

For the casual observer, the most obvious two groups are the “conservatives” and the “moderates”. However, I would suggest that a more complete taxonomy of Liberal Party philosophy included four groups. Of course, any taxonomy of views is going to be imperfect due to some degree of over-simplification, but I think the four philosophies outlined below give a fair overview of the competing views of Party members and supporters.

Conservative

The Liberals are often described as a “conservative” party and there is no shortage of leftist commentators out there who will lament the strength of the “right-wing” elements inside the party. But the word “conservative” can mean different things. In metaphysics, “conservative” means simply to not like change. (This is what Hayek meant when he wrote “why I’m not a conservative”.) In moral philosophy “conservative” means to be relatively risk averse and follow traditional moral teachings.

But in politics I think the word is more often used to describe somebody who is an economic liberal and a social interventionist. On the economic front they would support free-market capitalism, meaning tax cuts, free trade, competition & choice, flexible labour markets, non-Keynesian macro-economics, and want to shrink the welfare state. On social issues they want the government to intervene to ensure a safe, stable and “proper” social order — perhaps including laws regarding drugs, alcohol, gambling, smoking, IVF, gay marriage & adoption, women in the military, voluntary euthanasia, abortion, R and X-rated material, personal risk-taking, internet censorship, marriage & children, religion, immigration, and multiculturalism.

Of course, most people will have one or two exceptions… but I think the above overview provides a broad overview of the standard “right wing” position. Popular names that come to mind are Reagan, Thatcher and perhaps John Howard (though his economic record was mixed).

Moderate

Within the Liberals, the opposite of the conservatives has traditionally been the “moderates” who are more economically interventionist and socially liberal. On economic issues they would be less convinced about the virtues of tax cuts, free trade and labour market flexibility. They would have some sympathy with Keynesian policies (like the stimulus package) and maintaining a strong welfare state, including government supply of health and education.

On social issues the moderates would tend to take a less interventionist approach to the above-mentioned issues, perhaps supporting marijuana decriminalisation, legalisation of R-rated computer games, legalisation of voluntary euthanasia, immigration and multiculturalism, separation of church and state, and opposition to internet censorship. For some reason, the social liberalism of moderates doesn’t always extend to smoking and private risk-taking.

Internal battles in the Liberal party are often seen as a conflict between the “conservatives” and the “moderates”, but I think that dichotomy misses two other important groups that exist in the party.

Libertarian

The libertarian (or classical liberal) position is effectively a cross between the conservatives and the moderates. The libertarians agree with the economic liberalism of the conservatives and agree with the social liberalism of the moderates.

The more radical libertarians would go further than the conservatives on economic issues (eg the privatisation of universities and hospitals, abolishing the minimum wage) and go further than the moderates on social issues (eg the legalisation of drugs, defending smokers & risk-takers). However, even the radical libertarians tend to argue for moderate libertarian positions due to political pragmatism.

Populist

I apologise for the seemingly pejorative name, but I couldn’t think of what else to call this position. Like the libertarians, the populists are effectively a cross between the conservatives and the moderates — but in the other direction. A populist would agree with the economic interventionism of the moderates and with the social interventionism of the conservatives. This puts them at the opposite end to the libertarians in most debates.

Populists aren’t always interested in the details of the philosophical debates and see themselves as more “practical” people, opposing ideology and using common sense. While they will often agree with the libertarians, conservatives and moderates about failures of the government, their instinctive solution is generally more government intervention.

The broad church

The Liberal Party has always been a broad church, including a range of diverse opinions. The broadness of the church does not extend to communism, socialism or fascism… but it is big enough to cover moderates, populists, conservatives and libertarians. These groups don’t always sit comfortably together and the consequent compromises are unlikely to please anybody 100%… but that is the nature of politics.

If you want to look at where you are placed on some political quizes, you can try the World’s Smallest Political Quiz, the Australian Political Quiz or the Political Compass (which I personally think is flawed and clearly written by somebody who doesn’t understand liberalism). Feel free to post your results in the comments below.

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