RALEIGH – In a move I well know constitutes an invitation to various kinds of rejoinders and accusations, I’m going to offer a handy guide for distinguishing modern-day conservatives and modern-day liberals with regard to domestic public-policy issues.
Here it is: one group thinks it is wrong to steal. The other group thinks that the morality of stealing depends on who the perpetrator is, who the victim is, and what the situation is.
OK, just hear me out before firing up the email servers. I need to offer some important definitions and clarifications.
First, notice that I used the terms “modern-day” liberal and conservative. There’s a good reason. The principle I’m articulating would have, until relatively recently, been defined as a core principle of political liberalism. It reflected the view that individuals are endowed by their creator (God or nature, depending on the source) with freedom, with rights to think and act that cannot morally be transgressed by another (and in John Locke’s version, that are not surrendered or “alienated” just because individuals live in communities).
Governments were created to provide institutions that protect these rights, and to address certain kinds of public needs that cannot be performed in a purely voluntary manner. Naturally, how governments should go about carrying out this mission – and how far the latter function, that of providing public goods, ought to extend – were matters of significant and unresolved debate among liberals. They still are, but now among “conservatives” as unfortunately labeled in modern discourse.
Meanwhile, modern-day “liberals” now have little to do with political liberalism as originally envisioned, except perhaps for a few often-clumsy applications in areas such as civil liberties. Instead, they are old-style socialists or social democrats, arguing that individual rights cannot be allowed to trump what they consider to be self-evident social needs. Government can and should act, they say, to promote a more egalitarian distribution of food, clothing, shelter, educational attainment, medical care, and other goods and services.
Let’s return to my initial lingo. Essentially, modern-day conservatives believe that whenever coercive government goes beyond its proper, limited scope and taxes the incomes of some citizens in order to give the proceeds to other citizens, it is stealing. It is taking what does not belong to it. It is confiscating the money of someone who earned it and giving it to someone who didn’t.
The modern-day liberal replies by saying, “well, you have to consider the situation.” It’s not fair that some people’s labor is valued by the market more than other people’s labor. It’s not fair to let people keep their money if it could be put to a better use by them, meaning the liberals. Depending on the identity of the parties involved, stealing could be a compassionate act of social justice, the argument goes (though rarely as plainly stated).
Now, a question to parents. Do you teach your children not to steal their friends’ lunch money? Or do you teach them that it is often wrong to steal, but not if a friend’s family is wealthy or if you are really hungry?
The moral principle is the same. Coercion is not charity. As George Washington famously wrote, “government is not reason; it is not eloquence; it is force. Like fire, it is a dangerous servant and a fearful master.” Yes, the greatest of the Founding Fathers of our country was a liberal.
I mean, a conservative. Oh, well, you know what I mean.
Hood is president of the John Locke Foundation and publisher of Carolina Journal.