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Altered Consciousness: As liberals and conservatives clash, the victor is unclear

Published: February 3, 2012
Section: Opinions

As has been made abundantly clear during the past several years, one of the key issues dividing conservatives and liberals, particularly in relation to economic affairs, is the role and nature of government. Underlying differences on subjects as detail-oriented and specific as tax reform, spending levels, debt, deficits and entitlements are competing philosophical visions on the proper purpose of the federal government.
In particular, two important questions arise out of this debate, the first of which is: Where should the preponderance of power and decision-making authority be concentrated within our society?

Modern liberals, in contrast to the more libertarian individuals who once assumed that title, are inclined to believe that a substantial amount of power should be placed within the hands of officials serving in the federal government. Capitalism and market forces are too chaotic and must be tamed and restrained for the sake of the greater good as well as for those people who have been marginalized by this system. Furthermore, economic and social progress is as likely to derive from the insight of an enlightened civil servant as it is from the ingenuity of a CEO or businessman in the private sector. This fundamentally positive vision of government leads to the belief that it should have a large capacity to implement policies that will ideally improve the lives of its citizens.

Conservatives, especially of the fiscal variety, instead think that power should be spread throughout every other sector in life aside from government. Markets, families, communities, religious establishments—all of these institutions, which have, at their core, autonomous individuals acting upon their own initiative or in concert with one another—should be allowed to provide services and perform tasks that are typically associated with centralized authority. Government ought still to maintain order, security, the rule of law and a restrained safety net, as well as enforce private property rights and some regulations, among other things. But when it exceeds this role and too much power is transferred to it, especially vis-a-vis its ability to tax and regulate, government becomes intrusive and counterproductive in regards to the goals it seeks to achieve.

The other essential question that arises is whether government is an enabler or disabler of rights. In particular, in their rhetoric on the nature of government, liberals may emphasize positive rights—the freedom to perform or acquire certain things. They are of the belief that people are entitled to a set of benefits—health, education, employment, welfare, security—that government can and should provide as a matter of moral and economic necessity. In this sense, government promotes liberty by laying the foundation for people’s future successes; it does not inhibit society’s ambitions but rather facilitates and directs them in certain directions to promote the common interest.

In contrast, conservatives often tend to discuss negative rights—freedom from specific restrictions and regulations—in relation to government. Liberty, from their perspective, seems to be defined as an absence of centralized control primarily on commerce and economic activities. This view is not necessarily anarchic since, as was mentioned, government ought to have a presence in this arena, albeit a limited one. But when government exceeds a set of relatively basic roles, it becomes an inherently harmful force that interferes with other spheres of life. Conservatives are intent on ensuring that this threshold is not crossed.

The answers to these questions over power and rights are not clear and perhaps they can be found somewhere in between where the liberal and conservative extremes lie. Regardless, it is useful to delineate the parameters of the debate over government.