Thursday, August 13, 2009

Politics: Conservatives Afraid of Free Markets?

TORONTO, ONTARIO - At least since the Reagan-Thatcher era, it has been the conventional wisdom that free markets and conservatives are inextricably linked. If one comes from the "right" side of the political spectrum, one was expected to favor letting the market solve all economic problems while at the same time trying to keep government from growing and standing up for "traditional values." However, there's a psychological disconnect inherent in that pairing that occasionally reveals itself in ways amusing to those coming from other perspectives. In reality, those who call themselves conservatives do not necessarily have to favor free markets.

One definition of "conservative" is to be "traditionally disposed to preserve existing conditions, institutions, and to limit change." Conservatives generally want things to stay the same. New ideas, things that might improve things, make them at best uncomfortable, in some cases quite defensive. If "traditional values" remain in place without modification, the conservative is happy.

In contrast, the free market provides incentive for change. The only way to get ahead in a truly free market is to innovate. When someone comes out with a better (or cheaper) product or service, then they can make a greater profit, which is the driving motivation. With every innovation comes change. So, by letting the economy take a free market form, it is almost guaranteed that there will be constant change. To a dictionary-definition conservative, that isn't a good thing.

Of course, at least in North America, there is a common thread between the definition of conservative and the free market. Belief in both is consistent with belief in lesser government. Smaller government has a lower ability to distort a free market. Before the Depression, government was much smaller in the United States. Notably, this isn't necessarily the case in other parts of the world, where government has been traditionally larger and it would almost match the definition of conservative more closely to defend traditional government institutes. Especially in the United States, though, the limited-government argument is the link to bridge the inherent conflict between the anti-change conservative and the pro-change free market.

It might seem like a conservative would want all ideas to be out in the open, as in a free market, and then have the best ideas (which from their perspective would be the conservative ideas) win out in that marketplace of ideas. When people who self-identify themselves as conservative want to repress new ideas (often about topics relating to sex), this can seem strange--why not let the ideas die on their own in the marketplace of ideas? It may seem a strange phenomenon to those who are not conservative, but it really is just the anti-change fundamental nature of the conservative coming out, something that happens especially commonly with fervently religious conservatives.

Just because I see and understand the paradox doesn't stop me from tweaking my conservative friends--when they seem to want to suppress ideas, I love to invoke the libertarian mantra, "The best solution to bad speech is not banning the bad speech, but more speech." But, of course, libertarianism is not the same as conservatism--and that's a whole different discussion for another time.

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